When did the American accent develop?

I wonder if this is going to translate into some kind of standardized English & a local dialect type of situation.

The reason I ask, is that in everyday speech, I’m somewhere between newscaster-style American English & fairly heavily accented Texan (albeit with correct grammar and a great vocabulary). However, if I go out of state, I can dial it back some, and when I’m in say… Belton or Waco, I can dial it up some, and use different phrasings, etc… so that I don’t stand out too much. I wonder if there’ll eventually be a real separation between the two, or if it’s just a matter of accents.

Just as French Canadian accent can be traced to some regions of France, can American, Texan, New Zealander and Australian accents be traced to some regions of the British Isles, granting some degree of mixture ?

If you’re suggesting that some parts of Appalachia still maintain some ancient variety of English that has been lost elsewhere, shame on you. This claim has been brought up and debunked quite a number of times here on the SDMB.

I dunno. If you listen to the way people spoke in American movies from the 30s, they sound like no one I know of today. Same thing with FRD. It almost sounds like an American with a faux-British accent, Daaahling.

I’ll see your “tosh” and raise you a “fiddle-faddle”.

Why do you think so? What is yor evidence?

The colony in Virginia grew very rapidly, expanding to 15,000 persons by 1643, and 70,000 persons by 1700 (fully 1/4 of the entire population of the colonies at that point). There had been a large wave of cavalier immigrants in the 1640s, when Cromwell ruled England.

The upshot is that there were plenty of multiple-generation families in Virginia – families that had been here for well over 100 years – by the time of the Revolution.

We know from phonetic spellings in soldiers’ letters home that the Southern accent was in place by the time of the Civil War.

So the question again becomes: do you think the Southern accent magically arose between the Revolution and the Civil War 80 years later, or was it evolving all along, including the 169 years between colonization and the Revolution? (Or, if you prefer, the 135 years between the Cromwell-induced influx and the Revolution.) Makes more sense to me that the Southern accent or some recognizeable precursor was in place by the time of the Revolution.

Would you agree that Robert E. Lee had a Southern accent? Because his father was a Revolutionary War general, a cohort and neighbor of Washington. So do you think the accent appeared in a single generation?

This makes me think you didn’t read the thread. Aside from the logical arguments above, I gave specific examples of phonetic spellings which suggest an early Southern accent. I showed where Daniel Boone (a contemporary of Washington) spelled “bear” as “bar”. I showed where Washington himself spelled “ginseng” as “ginsang” (which is the Southern pronunciation of the word to this day).

So where is your counter-evidence, Exapno Mapcase?

Fair enough. Let’s call a generation 30 years. That makes 5 generations between colonization and the Revolution, and less than 3 generations between the Revolution and the Civil War.

Oh, and I forgot the cite for the population figures in my last post.

One more point:

After 1700, migration from England slowed. The majority of immigrants in the 1700s were from northern Ireland (the Ulster Scots or “Scotch Irish”), Germany, and Africa. Cite. So it would be hard to argue (as some posters are doing) that the English accent was being constantly reinforced. Instead, new influences to colonial English were being added, likely contributing to divergence from the mother tongue.

All American accents came into being gradually, over a long period of time, forming and coalescing at different rates among different groups and populations and areas. Who says? Professional historical linguists. (There’s a better name for them, but it’s not coming to mind this second.) What were the accents like at any one place and time? They don’t know, because they understand that accurate information on accents cannot be had, and can only be inferred from sources not designed for the purpose and so subject to endless debate and argument.

BTW, there is not even agreement among historians that what we know today to be a southern accent existed at the time of the Civil War, and certainly no agreement that the regional and even state by state variations that are known today existed as contemporary patterns. Nobody knows or agrees when the group of pronunciations lumped together as “southern” started or evolved. So the Civil War can’t be used as a fixed time point any more than the Revolution can.

Let’s look at these examples the way professionals would.

First, given the number of variant spellings that were typically used by even the most educated writers of the time, how do we know that these spellings were used consistently by the writers? If they were, how do we know whether these were spellings common to the time and location or true variants? What spellings and variations were used by those presumed to have different American accents? By those in Britain? How do we know how the writers may have pronounced these words? Why do we think that these spellings correspond to pronunciations other than the standard? What other variant spellings appear in their writings? Do these form a pattern or are they random? How do these compare with later deliberate representations of accented speech? Are there any contemporary representations of American dialects to compare them with? Are there any records of speeches made by these writers that might indicate by their spelling how the words were heard?

You cannot cherrypick a couple of spellings, declare them to represent an accent, and call that an argument. Professionals look at all the questions I listed and many more, go through the entirety of a person’s writing, not a few examples, and mine enormous amounts of data to glean a few nuggets of information. They would not take the word of someone so unfamiliar with a speaker, such as Washington, as to not even know where he went to school.

Can you answer any of the questions I asked? No, because you’re not a historian or a linguist or somebody who has demonstrably studied the subject in any depth or detail. I’d rather rely on what the professionals have to say. And they don’t agree with you.

Exapno Mapcase, you keep resorting to argument from authority without ever actually citing any of the authorities you claim as your support. Who are these “Professional Historical Linguists” toward whom you would have us genuflect? Reveal these giants!

In the other thread, dtilque suggested a look at the journals of Lewis and Clark. A good suggestion! Clark was born in 1770, and lived on his family’s plantation there until age 14, when he moved to Kentucky. At age 26, he returned to Virginia to manage the family plantation.

I happen to have a copy of the journals on my shelf, so I took a look. Clark’s spelling is shakier than that of Lewis, and tends toward the phonetic. Sure enough, Clark has many spellings which are strongly suggestive of a Southern accent (or at least a precursor). here are some examples:

scarcely = scercely (several times)
welfare = wellfar
terrible = turrible (several times)
breakfast = brackfast (several times)
usual = usial
berries = buries
aprons = aperns
naked = neked
ocean = octean (here, he slips into Ernest T. Bass territory)
get = git
stole = stold
decorations = deckerations
merchandise = merchendize
pair = par
breeches = breechies

I could go on, but that’s a good sampling.

There is also much subject-verb disagreement of the type you get in Appalachian dialects, such as “the canoes was exposed to the mercy of the waves” “the waves is verry high” “those roots is a tolerable substitute for bread.”

Oh yes, and here I call bullshit. Do you have a cite?

Have you read Huckleberry Finn? Written in 1885 partly in the dialects of the 1840s South (Missouri and points south along the Mississippi River), by a man intimately familiar with those dialects. That book alone is ample evidence that the Southern accent was in full bloom by the 1840s at least.

This topic was covered in Bill Bryson’s book Made In America. I haven’t got my copy in front of me, but apparently there was something approaching an American accent by the time of the Revolution- certainly, even in the early 18th century it was possible to spot the “Colonials” by their accents…

They did a fairly well publicized [html=http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/4694993.stm]production

 of one of Shakespeare's plays in England a little while back that was done in what was considered to be as authentic of a period accent as could be mustered.

A review of the play I read said the result sounded more like American English than British, but was pretty incomprehensible to one and all.

I don’t have cites in front of me, but I’m pretty sure that I’ve read Bryson pieces in which he propagates linguistic urban legends. Since then, I’ve given anything he writes little credibility.

But that’s not what David Crystal, the expert the Globe used to reconstruct the pronunciation, thought. This is what he had to say about one of his earlier reconstructions.

Not much support there for it having sounded ‘more like American English than British’.

As for its supposed incomprensibility, Crystal thinks it ‘no more different from modern English Received Pronunciation than, say, present-day Scots is.’

I don’t have much time today or tomorrow, but let me give a quick couple of notes.

Huck Finn is the greatest American novel, but Clemens was born in 1835 and didn’t move out of Hannibal until the 1850s. There is no way his opinions on shades of American dialect could be accurate to the 1840s.

I don’t have any technical books on accents in my library, because they’re simply too boring to read. You might want to start with Accents of English, by John C. Wells, two volumes on English accents all over the world.

I do have Mencken’s The American Language, of course (4th edition). He writes:

The section on the southern accent in The Story of English, by Robert McCrum, William Cran, and Robert MacNeil, cites the work of scholar J. L. Dillard to show the effect of Black English on what we now call the southern accent, especially in childhood where the black and white children played together until the age of about six. After that time the boys were sent away to schools, often Northern schools, and developed a northern sound, while women, who stayed home, had a more noticeable - but socially unacceptable - accent.

Fanny Kemble’s Journal from 1838-39:

So what about Robert E. Lee? He was born in 1807, and spent most of his childhood in Alexandria, Virgina, across from Washington DC. He was schooled there, chiefly by Mr. William B. Leary, an Irishman and went to West Point, in New York, at the age of 18, in 1825. It would seem very unlikely, therefore, that Lee would have acquired a robust southern accent, or even a strong Virginian accent, which is much less pronounced, in both senses of the word. What are your sources that would say otherwise?

Sorry for the delay in replying, but this is the first chance I’ve had to devote some time to the thread, and make the klong reply that is needed. (And I am sorry for the length of this post.)

The more I think about it, the more ridiculous this statement becomes. It is no great mystery what accents were around in the Civil War. There are people alive today who, in their youth, would have spoken to Confederate veterans. Moreover, the last Confederate veteran didn’t die until the 1950s. There are sound recordings of Confederate veterans. Ken Burns used a brief snippet of one in his epic documentary on the Civil War. Guess what? He had a Southern accent.

And if I may be allowed to offer some anecdotal evidence from my own family:

Although I am only 43, my grandmother was born in 1881. She lived to be 107, and I knew her well. My grandmother was born in Lyerly, Georgia, the daughter of a Confederate veteran. Let me assure you that my grandmother had a Georgia accent as thick as molasses. Are you seriously suggesting that it might have sprung up in a single generation? Or that her father’s accent would not be “what we know today to be a southern accent” (to use your phrasing)? I heard many stories about my great-grandfather, but I don’t recall my grandmother or my aunts ever mentioning him having an alien dialect.

I note that you do not provide a cite for your assertion, as no historian would be so foolish as to make it. Hell, not even a linguist would be that foolish. :wink:

I don’t follow your logic. Twain grew up in the 1840s in a port city on the Mississippi River. Why in the world wouldn’t he be familiar with the dialects of those plying the river? He himself was very clear on the subject of the dialects in Huckleberry Finn:

I can only guess that the good Reverend Boucher and James Fenimore Cooper, cited by you and Mr. Mencken, had not traveled extensively in the US, at least not beyond the northern states. I note that Mr. Cooper’s qoute comes from a time when he was living in Europe and extolling the egalitarianism of the US. It’s possible he shaded the truth to make a political point.

Or, maybe the accents of the north in that era were more or less homogenous. But unless you would call Mark Twain a liar, the dialects of the South (or in Twain’s case the Southwest), were quite distinctive and well-developed.

At any rate, Mr. Mencken’s arguemnt is anecdotal, and I have provided counter-anecdotes, both from Mr. Twain (1840s) and from William Clark’s journal (1805).

Now it sounds like you are making my points for me. If you read my posts in this thread and the other, you’ll see that I have mentioned this precise phenomenon: the influence of slave dialect on the Southern accent. It is reasonable to assume that both Washington and Robert E. Lee had slaves as playmates when they were children, and that the back-and-forth would have produced a linguistic melding.

And I am familiar with The Story of English. I have seen the documentary based on the book. And in that work (or at least the documentary version) the Southern accent is attributed in part to the fact that the Southern colonies were largely peopled (initially) by English from the West Midlands. More on that from Wikipedia (via Answers.com):

Sure enough, the Story of English documentary presented examples of speakers from that part of England whose speech is powerfully reminiscent of certain Southern accents.

Let’s back up and look at this logically. I think we can all agree that, very broadly speaking, there is a difference between Southern dialects and Northern dialects. Why that difference? Two explanations spring to mind:

  1. It is a relic of the isolation of the Jamestown colony and the Massachusetts colonies of the 17th century. (I.e., the relative isolation of those two colonies from England and from each other produced separate dialectal traditions. And yes, they were isolated. Consider the time it took to traverse the Atlantic, or even the coast from New England to Virginia, in those days.)

  2. The Southern accent(s) were influenced by African pronunciations, which were commonly heard in the South, but less so in the North.

I think the combination of those two factors is responsible for the essential difference between “Southern” and “Northern” speech patterns (and yes, I know there are variants within those regions). We in the South are all heirs to the legacy of the Virginia colony, and those in the North are heirs to the legacy of the Massachusetts colony (and the later New York colony). Linguistically, at least.

(By the way, Exapno, I am still waiting for you to explain why you think Southerners are less likely to be descended from early colonists than Northerners. Is it just because we Southerners are not as prone to brag about it?)

The factors that created the Southern accent were in place almost from the very beginning of colonization, which makes it logical to assume that the accents had developed (at least in prototype) by the time of the Revolution 170 years later. It makes much less logical sense to think that they sprung up in the 80 years between the Revolution and the Civil War.

But don’t take my word for it. Here’s a linguist on the subject:

And the first colonies were in essence islands, and as such their accents would have begun to diverge in the first generation. How does that work?

And that is confirmed by my own experience in rapidly-growing Georgia. I know many couples from the North who have moved here and who still have their various Northern accents, but whose children speak pure Southern.

So I don’t think migration from England and elsewhere in the early US would have been substantial enough to influence or change the accent developed within the first couple of generations. Rather, the accents of the children of the new arrivals would match and reinforce those of the colonists.

Oh, and I missed these tidbits:

Where the hell do you get that? You are familiar, of course, with The College of William and Mary? Do you have a cite for your assertion that Southern boys were “often” being educated in the North? Or is that just another of your many bare assertions?

Your error is in thinking that Alexandria, Virginia today is the same place (dialectally) as it was in 1807. Now it is largely populated by Northern transplants, and by Southerners whose accents have been washed away by mass media and suburbanization. Then, not so. You should read Milton De La Ware’s post about the accent of that area in the other thread:

Also plnnr’s post from that thread:

Lee would have spent his boyhood absorbing the then-accent of his fellow Southerners, and the slave children who were likely among his playmates.

As for Lee’s education at West Point, it is not a factor in my opinion. I myself spent my college years among hordes of New Yorkers, but didn’t adopt their speech patterns. I think by age 18 your speech patterns are pretty much set. Besides which West Point, though located in New York, drew its students from the nation as a whole. There were plenty of Southerners there (many of whom later served in the Confederacy).

Your posts are very long, but a close reading of them shows that there is virtually no content and no cites that pertain to the question of whether a distinct accent existed at the time of the Revolution or shortly after and whether that accent resembled the variety of accents lumped together as “southern” today. Those are two different historic questions. I’ve been careful in separating them, and you have persisted in confusing them and berating me for not doing so. When I wrote, “there is not even agreement among historians that what we know today to be a southern accent existed at the time of the Civil War,” I am making a distinction you don’t even seem to be aware of.

First, let’s look at your cites.

Your Wikipedia cite gives some very general background but the only dates given are in association with British immigrants from the 17th and 18th centuries. It doesn’t get any more specific than that.

Your “linguist on the subject” makes no mention whatsoever of the “southern” accent and says only that accents develop gradually. But this is my point, the one that I’ve been putting into all my posts. Thank you for the backup but it is not needed nor germane at this point.

That’s it for post #36.

In post #37, you have no cites at all. Not one.

You do have another series of mere assertions, although many of them are on peripheral subjects. I’ll go one more round on this, demonstrating why even your peripheral statements are wrong and your logic is faulty, but that’s my limit unless you go read some books and bring back some specific information that is pertinent to the core subject.

In post #37 you cite two posters on the current state of the accent in Virginia, but somehow use this to backdate the development of the accent 200 years. You wrote, “Your error is in thinking that Alexandria, Virginia today is the same place (dialectally) as it was in 1807.” but in fact, that is exactly what you do in your quotes from those posters. They have nothing to contribute about the way the accents used to be, just what they are now.

This is the same fallacy in your assertions about Huck Finn. I don’t care how much of a prodigy Clemens was: he cannot have had 40 years after the fact the perfect recollection of the shades of accents he heard as a 10-year-old. Either he fudged the subject by using the information he learned as an adult or else we have assume that these minute variations did not change over 40 years. I believe the former. In neither case is is conceivable that his 10-year-old self is a credible source.

But of course I never said this. I was referring to your statement that Virginians had more generations to generate the accent because the Jamestown colony came first. The Jamestown colony was a failure. Only 60 people survived from the first load of colonists. It was only because of later generations of immigrants that Virgina grew into a sizable colony. There is no possibility that this small isolated group, always out of the mainstream of the state’s growth, could have affected the overall accent.

The Plymouth colony, on the other hand, started with many more people, more of whom survived, and had four additional major landings of colonists by 1629. It became the center for the state’s culture. When I said that “I’ll bet there were far many more in the north descended from the groups that came over in the 1620s than descendents of the Jamestown colony in Virginia.” I was saying that you have your history upside down.

When you write that “The colony in Virginia grew very rapidly, expanding to 15,000 persons by 1643, and 70,000 persons by 1700 (fully 1/4 of the entire population of the colonies at that point).” you are shifting the argument away from your original point to provide statistics more congenial to your argument. However, my contention has always been that immigration was continual; your statement reinforces my point, not yours.

I wrote, “After that time the boys were sent away to schools, often Northern schools, and developed a northern sound” and you completely ignored the “often” part of it to say the obvious, that some people did not go north. I have a special dislike for people who use this argument and I won’t take it further. Don’t do it again.

The notion that southern gentlemen went away to schools (not just college but boarding schools after the English style) is from contemporary cites. I gave one; there are many more.

Once again, unless you have some good academic or contemporary cites for the accents of Lee and Washington or on the development of the southern accents, I am not going to respond to your continued citeless assertions.

Strictly speaking I don’t think there is a distinct “American accent”. There are many accents to be found in the United States, Canada and Mexico. Some regions are so strong as to be barely understood by others. As far as the immigration influences and who was here first. This is totally absurd idea to think you can define it this way. Our language is comprised of many languages and a ethnic influences.
BTW European influence first arrived here from Spain via Mexico. The Spanish influence is very strong here in the southwest USA.
Louisiana has probably the most recognizable accent IMHO.
The dialect in some areas can scarcely be considered English.

So what accent are we talking about? Are we just restricting this to New England?

In response to the OP. The American accent began to develop when the first nomadic tribes ventured here across the Bering Straits Land bridge.

In response to the assertion that southerners have no relation to early colonists. That is pure bullshit. My many times great grandfather Richard Oldham came across on the second voyage of the Mayflower. I can trace all branches of my family tree back across “the pond” several hundred years with one exception. The Cherokee nation my (ggggggx grandmother) from whom one side of my family derives was married into the Mason/Moody family in the early 1700’s. Of course both the Mason’s and Moody’s had been here several generations by then.
My father’s direct ancestry (our surname Galaway) came from Ireland prior to the revolution and rec’d commendation for his part in the revolution. He’s buried in Oglethorpe county Georgia. His grandson came to Texas in the 1850’s and brought a strong accent passed down to his son. My father new him and said his Irish/Georgian accent was so bad that folks here could barely understand him.
I had another ancestor born in Finland in the 1700’s, his ancestors immigrated here via Nova Scotia>Maine>Texas. The census here lists his (ggggrpa Bjorklund’s) native tongue as Scottish. I am unfamiliar with Nova Scotia, so the language would be what?

The point is… there are too many influences to pin it on any one in particular.