When Did Americans Lose Their English Accents?

Huntn

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Very interesting article that first acknowledges that the idea of an American accent or a British accent is a gross simplification.

It then goes onto say that it is not so much the American accent diverged from England as that both sides were fluid and changing, and that a noted significant change, what we Americans would likely identify today as an English accent, is a change that started occurring at the turn of the 18th Century in England, when affluent society adopted non-rhotic speech (soft versus hard Rs in words) as a matter of status.

I can identify newscaster England English versus cockney English, versus Scottish, versus Irish accents but they all sound related so there is more to accent than just hard or soft Rs. Having watched My Fair Lady a while back, I can’t remember if Eliza Doolittle was being taught to pronounce hard or soft Rs. :)

In the US, I can identify Mid Atlantic, Boston, New York (Brooklyn?), New Hampshire, Texas, Louisiana, Minnesota, and Southern accents. As an adult we moved to Nashville for a year, and my son had a friend who talked so rapidly, I had difficulty understanding him. :)

When Did Americans Lose Their British Accents?

excerpt:
As for the "why," though, one big factor in the divergence of the accents is rhotacism. The General American accent is rhotic and speakers pronounce the r in words such as hard. The BBC-type British accent is non-rhotic, and speakers don't pronounce the r, leaving hard sounding more like hahd. Before and during the American Revolution, the English, both in England and in the colonies, mostly spoke with a rhotic accent.

Around the turn of the 18th 19th century, not long after the revolution, non-rhotic speech took off in southern England, especially among the upper and upper-middle classes. It was a signifier of class and status. This posh accent was standardized as Received Pronunciation and taught widely by pronunciation tutors to people who wanted to learn to speak fashionably. Because the Received Pronunciation accent was regionally "neutral" and easy to understand, it spread across England and the empire through the armed forces, the civil service and, later, the BBC.

Across the pond, many former colonists also adopted and imitated Received Pronunciation to show off their status. This happened especially in the port cities that still had close trading ties with England — Boston, Richmond, Charleston, and Savannah. From the Southeastern coast, the RP sound spread through much of the South along with plantation culture and wealth.

After industrialization and the Civil War and well into the 20th century, political and economic power largely passed from the port cities and cotton regions to the manufacturing hubs of the Mid Atlantic and Midwest — New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit, etc. The British elite had much less cultural and linguistic influence in these places, which were mostly populated by the Scots-Irish and other settlers from Northern Britain, and rhotic English was still spoken there. As industrialists in these cities became the self-made economic and political elites of the Industrial Era, Received Pronunciation lost its status and fizzled out in the U.S. The prevalent accent in the Rust Belt, though, got dubbed General American and spread across the states just as RP had in Britain.

Of course, with the speed that language changes, a General American accent is now hard to find in much of this region, with New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Chicago developing their own unique accents, and GenAm now considered generally confined to a small section of the Midwest.
 
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yaxomoxay

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Of course, with the speed that language changes, a General American accent is now hard to find in much of this region, with New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Chicago developing their own unique accents, and GenAm now considered generally confined to a small section of the Midwest.
You should hear West Texas... or South Carolina. Worked about 10 years with a guy from South Carolina; to this day I still don't have a clue of a single word he said.
 

eyoungren

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Very interesting article that first acknowledges that the idea of an American accent or a British accent is a gross simplification.

It then goes onto say that it is not so much the American accent diverged from England as that both sides were fluid and changing, and that a noted significant change, what we Americans would likely identify today as an English accent, is a change that started occurring at the turn of the 18th Century in England, when affluent society adopted non-rhotic speech (soft versus hard Rs in words) as a matter of status.

I can identify newscaster England English versus cockney English, versus Scottish, versus Irish accents but they all sound related so there is more to accent than just hard or soft Rs. Having watched My Fair Lady a while back, I can’t remember if Eliza Doolittle was being taught to pronounce hard or soft Rs. :)

In the US, I can identify Mid Atlantic, Boston, New York (Brooklyn?), New Hampshire, Texas, and Southern accents. As an adult we moved to Nashville for a year, and my son had a friend who talked so rapidly, I had difficulty understanding him. :)

When Did Americans Lose Their British Accents?

excerpt:
As for the "why," though, one big factor in the divergence of the accents is rhotacism. The General American accent is rhotic and speakers pronounce the r in words such as hard. The BBC-type British accent is non-rhotic, and speakers don't pronounce the r, leaving hard sounding more like hahd. Before and during the American Revolution, the English, both in England and in the colonies, mostly spoke with a rhotic accent.

Around the turn of the 18th 19th century, not long after the revolution, non-rhotic speech took off in southern England, especially among the upper and upper-middle classes. It was a signifier of class and status. This posh accent was standardized as Received Pronunciation and taught widely by pronunciation tutors to people who wanted to learn to speak fashionably. Because the Received Pronunciation accent was regionally "neutral" and easy to understand, it spread across England and the empire through the armed forces, the civil service and, later, the BBC.

Across the pond, many former colonists also adopted and imitated Received Pronunciation to show off their status. This happened especially in the port cities that still had close trading ties with England — Boston, Richmond, Charleston, and Savannah. From the Southeastern coast, the RP sound spread through much of the South along with plantation culture and wealth.

After industrialization and the Civil War and well into the 20th century, political and economic power largely passed from the port cities and cotton regions to the manufacturing hubs of the Mid Atlantic and Midwest — New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit, etc. The British elite had much less cultural and linguistic influence in these places, which were mostly populated by the Scots-Irish and other settlers from Northern Britain, and rhotic English was still spoken there. As industrialists in these cities became the self-made economic and political elites of the Industrial Era, Received Pronunciation lost its status and fizzled out in the U.S. The prevalent accent in the Rust Belt, though, got dubbed General American and spread across the states just as RP had in Britain.

Of course, with the speed that language changes, a General American accent is now hard to find in much of this region, with New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Chicago developing their own unique accents, and GenAm now considered generally confined to a small section of the Midwest.
You mentioned Mid-Atlantic. My understanding is that this was an intentionally created accent sometime back in the 30s-50s. Radio was king then and you needed to be understood. Thus a lot of the early movie actors had Mid-Atlantic accents.

Cary Grant's accent for example. That's Mid-Atlantic. There were even schools for this. But over time it faded out.
- - Post merged: - -

You should hear West Texas... or South Carolina. Worked about 10 years with a guy from South Carolina; to this day I still don't have a clue of a single word he said.
I forgot to include Texas... :)
From the age of 5 to 9 I lived in Houston. That was four years of my life, but 40+ years later, even after living 20 years in California and another 19 in Arizona, my Texas accent is still uncontrollable. It pops up all the time and my wife cringes every time.
 
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Huntn

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You mentioned Mid-Atlantic. My understanding is that this was an intentionally created accent sometime back in the 30s-50s. Radio was king then and you needed to be understood. Thus a lot of the early movie actors had Mid-Atlantic accents.

Cary Grant's accent for example. That's Mid-Atlantic. There were even schools for this. But over time it faded out.
- - Post merged: - -



From the age of 5 to 9 I lived in Houston. That was four years of my life, but 40+ years later, even after living 20 years in California and another 19 in Arizona, my Texas accent is still uncontrollable. It pops up all the time and my wife cringes every time.
I mentioned Mid-Atlantic because that is where I grew up in Washington DC and it’s suburbs. I‘ve known for decades that news organizations would not hire anyone addressing an audience who had an accent. That may have eased somewhat in the last decade. It is that neutral tone sound they wanted. I think I have this accent because no one seems to be able to identify where I was raised. As mentioned some of the regions are VERY distinct sounding. :)

Also, I have two brothers, one stayed in the DC suburbs and sounds just like me. My other brother moved to southern Maryland, and he now sounds like a country boy. :)
 
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Septembersrain

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You mentioned Mid-Atlantic. My understanding is that this was an intentionally created accent sometime back in the 30s-50s. Radio was king then and you needed to be understood. Thus a lot of the early movie actors had Mid-Atlantic accents.

Cary Grant's accent for example. That's Mid-Atlantic. There were even schools for this. But over time it faded out.
- - Post merged: - -



From the age of 5 to 9 I lived in Houston. That was four years of my life, but 40+ years later, even after living 20 years in California and another 19 in Arizona, my Texas accent is still uncontrollable. It pops up all the time and my wife cringes every time.
I've been told I get that Texas accent when I'm drunk. I also get that Texan crazy too. Born and raised here until age 18 but lived in Alaska and Florida too. Moved back to Texas when I was 27. It's likely I'll never live in another state again. I'll be 36 this year.
 

LizKat

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You should hear West Texas... or South Carolina. Worked about 10 years with a guy from South Carolina; to this day I still don't have a clue of a single word he said.
Try New Orleans sometime if you're a Yankee. One of my brothers worked barges on the Mississippi for awhile. He could barely understand diner waitstaff as they asked if he'd like a glass of water or coffee before ordering, setting the menu down in front of him.

At first the bro thought the waitress was saying "your car a weatherboy or gopher?" and was wondering if he was maybe being asked if he wanted to take the meal out. The words all seemed spoken as if with a heavy scarf wrapped around the face so the sound was muffled and ends of words elided into following words or just dropped. For the first time in his life he said he felt retrospective empathy for the guy in the back of the Chinese takeout joint who brings the food out to the cashier by the front desk and seems not to know "Thank you very much" from "That's not what I ordered."
 

eyoungren

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I've been told I get that Texas accent when I'm drunk. I also get that Texan crazy too. Born and raised here until age 18 but lived in Alaska and Florida too. Moved back to Texas when I was 27. It's likely I'll never live in another state again. I'll be 36 this year.
We left TX for Calif in 1980 and I have not been back since. But, I can tell you the exact street address since they made me learn it when I was in Kindergarten.

The lightpost my dad installed out front is still there…according to Google Street view.

My accent usually only comes out when I'm tired or actually talking about Texas.
 

LizKat

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Add to local dialect list "Wiscaaahnsin" - with a short "a".
Hah, and to offset that, there's the really flat "a" of the Great Lakes area of upstate NY. It ends up as nearly a diphthong so turns words like "back" almost into "bee-ack". I spent only 7 years there but it took me 10 years in NYC to leave that regional dialect tag behind.
 

Rogifan

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I’m often wondered what exactly is an American accent? The way someone speaks in Alabama is going to be completely different then Minnesota. It’s like when people say British accent when they actually mean English. Scots and Welshman speak quite differently than Londoners.
 

Huntn

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I’m often wondered what exactly is an American accent? The way someone speaks in Alabama is going to be completely different then Minnesota. It’s like when people say British accent when they actually mean English. Scots and Welshman speak quite differently than Londoners.
That sort of idea has been mentioned. The first thing I mentioned that the author of the link leads off with the statement the idea of an American vs a British accent is a gross over-simplification. Then it goes on to talk about hard vs soft Rs which is a distinguishing difference between the US and England, although some NE accents in the US use soft Rs like cahd instead of card. I want to say New Hampshire. Then there is discussion about varying accents. :)
 
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Scepticalscribe

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One further point worth noting is the fact that, in the UK, social class - even more so than is the case with regional variation - is very strongly identified with accent.

Thus, accent is a signifier of social class, even more than, (or as much as), it is of region of origin, or region where one might have spent some considerable period of time.
 

theluggage

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It’s like when people say British accent when they actually mean English. Scots and Welshman speak quite differently than Londoners.
(I am not a linguist but, hey, this is the internet... :) )

Even that's a drastic oversimplification: as well as general trends from north-to-south and east-to-west many major cities and/or counties in the UK have an distinct accent, often with a shedload of dialect words/phrases (Liverpool, Birmingham, Newcastle, Glasgow are just a few examples). Even us Brits sometimes struggle to keep up with the last two (...and of course, any person actually from the region could probably distinguish a Newcastle accent from Gateshead, just across the river...)

'BBC English' is very much class-based and, until quite recently, would have been 'imposed' on anybody with a regional accent who attended a "respectable" school and aspired to higher things. But while RP is closer to southern English accents than anything else its still not how many working/lower-middle-class people even in southern England speak.

The idea that the demise of BBC/RP caused the split between US and English accents sounds nice and feasible - and people do so like their class-based narratives - except... wouldn't you then expect US accents to still resemble the English regional accents that were 'supressed' by RP?

No US accent sounds like any regional English accent to me. What I do hear is some Irish English and some "International English" - e.g. the sort of accents you hear from Dutch/German/Scandinavian/Israeli people who speak fluent English.

...but then, surely, the null hypothesis is that accents and dialects in the "great melting pot" are an amalgam of whatever permutation of nationalities - not just British - have settled in each region over the last few centuries.

Plus, I'm highly skeptical of any evidence of how people spoke that pre-dates the release of the Compact Cassette in 1963 (i.e. an audio recording device that the majority could afford - if you want to quibble you don't have to go much further back to eliminate affordable reel-to-reel recorders). Any sound recordings before that would be from highly selected samples.

Or you can interview people about how their grandparents spoke back when people spoke properly and annunciated their words unlike young people today who mumble all the time and you could leave your front door open and...
 
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Huntn

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(I am not a linguist but, hey, this is the internet... :) )

Even that's a drastic oversimplification: as well as general trends from north-to-south and east-to-west many major cities and/or counties in the UK have an distinct accent, often with a shedload of dialect words/phrases (Liverpool, Birmingham, Newcastle, Glasgow are just a few examples). Even us Brits sometimes struggle to keep up with the last two (...and of course, any person actually from the region could probably distinguish a Newcastle accent from Gateshead, just across the river...)

'BBC English' is very much class-based and, until quite recently, would have been 'imposed' on anybody with a regional accent who attended a "respectable" school and aspired to higher things. But while RP is closer to southern English accents than anything else its still not how many working/lower-middle-class people even in southern England speak.

The idea that the demise of BBC/RP caused the split between US and English accents sounds nice and feasible - and people do so like their class-based narratives - except... wouldn't you then expect US accents to still resemble the English regional accents that were 'supressed' by RP?

No US accent sounds like any regional English accent to me. What I do hear is some Irish English and some "International English" - e.g. the sort of accents you hear from Dutch/German/Scandinavian/Israeli people who speak fluent English.

...but then, surely, the null hypothesis is that accents and dialects in the "great melting pot" are an amalgam of whatever permutation of nationalities - not just British - have settled in each region over the last few centuries.

Plus, I'm highly skeptical of any evidence of how people spoke that pre-dates the release of the Compact Cassette in 1963 (i.e. an audio recording device that the majority could afford - if you want to quibble you don't have to go much further back to eliminate affordable reel-to-reel recorders). Any sound recordings before that would be from highly selected samples.

Or you can interview people about how their grandparents spoke back when people spoke properly and annunciated their words unlike young people today who mumble all the time and you could leave your front door open and...
I think I read somewhere that the first recorded voice was 1860. And interesting thing is not just accents but the multiple original dialects you can find in many countries including the UK might have a effect on accents too.

Because of the way the US developed, we‘ve had all sorts of imported languages, but English has predominated. It’s no surprise that Louisiana accents have a French influence and Spanish is becoming much more predominant to the consternation of some of the establishment. I’ll mention Native American languages, but those I’ll project will remain nich languages.
 
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Scepticalscribe

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Accents change over time - both within a class, a region, and, not frequently - within an indivdual.

Listen to a broadcast of the Queen's Speech in recent years, and contrast that with recordings made when she first took the throne and broadcast to the nation over sixty years ago. Her accent - that "cut glass" upper class accent - was a lot more pronounced in the 1940s and 1950s, than it is now.

And listen to broadcasts - or recordings - made over half a century ago, or, even older, or interviews with people; even the well off, or upper class, often spoke with some form of a recognisable regional accent.

Re class, I think it important to note that class plays the sort of role in British (or, more precisely, English) socio-economic-political culture in what is still the UK, that race does in the US.

And, also, there have been other changes: For example - aside from class and region, and individual choice, in English there was what is known as "the Great Vowel Shift" which transformed how the language was spoken (and accounts, to some extent, for the discrepancy between how some words are spelt and how they are pronounced) between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

In addition, there was the standardisation of the language that occurred with the advent of an agreed written from of speech, with increased literacy, and with the widespread reach of printing, and invention of easily available paper (to replace parchment), books, periodicals, newspapers - the written form tended to dictate, or determine, to a certain extent, what form the spoken word took, as far as pronunciation went.

However, in the case of England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland - and later, the UK, - and later still.the US, the changes wrought in the language by the widespread availability of the printed word - and increasing literacy - both predated the existence of the US.
 
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Huntn

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Accents change over time - both within a class, a region, and, not frequently - within an indivdual.

Listen to a broadcast of the Queen's Speech n recent years, and contrast that with recordings made when she first took the throne and made a broadcast to the nation over sixty years ago.

And listen to broadcasts - or recordings - made over half a century ago, or, even older, or interviews with people; even the well off, or upper class, often spoke with some form of a recognisable regional accent.

Re class, I think it important to note that class plays the sort of role in British (or, more precisely, English) socio-economic-political culture in what is still the UK, that race does in the US.

And, also, there have been other changes: For example - aside from class and region, and individual choice, in English there was what is known as "the Great Vowel Shift" which transformed how the language was spoken (and accounts, to some extent, for the discrepancy between how some words are spelt and how they are pronounced) between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

In addition, there was the standardisation of the language that occurred with the advent of an agreed written from of speech, with increased literacy, and with the widespread reach of printing, and invention of easily available paper (to replace parchment), books, periodicals, newspapers - the written form tended to dictate, or determine, to a certain extent, what form the spoken word took, as far as pronunciation went.

However, in the case of England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland - and later, the UK, - and later still.the US, the changes wrought in the language by the widespread availability of the printed word - and increasing literacy - both predated the existence of the US.
The great vowel shift, was that 18-19th century?
 

jtara

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Accent? What accent? Americans have an accent? No, it’s THEM who have an accent!

I had a radio announcing class in College. Midwest is pretty darn close to being a “standard American” accent, but has a few localisms we were taught to avoid. listening to, say, a New York based national news broadcast didn’t sound much different to me than the local newscasters, who didn’t speak much different than we did. (And certainly do not speak in a New York accent.) This is OF COURSE why The Great Bill Bonds was cast as (himself) the newscaster in Escape From The Planet of The Apes!

Gonna go a bit off topic here...

I’m surprised at the occasional recognition of my “Michigan accent”, since I’ve lived in California for 30 years. It shares some aspects with a “Sha-cog-go” accent, but a bit softer.

Besides the name of that city another good test of that accent is “coat hangh-ger”.

I switched from using the word “pop” to “soda” shortly after moving to California. In both places, when ordering at a fast food restaurant, it’s common to order soda generically - rather than naming a brand - since you just get a cup to fill from the fountain. (In parts of the South, soda is generically referred to as “Coke”, regardless of the kind of soda... well, at least in Atlanta!)

Anyway, I ordered ”pop” at McDonalds and the clerk thought I had said “pot”, and I got a shocked look. This was years before legalized marijuana. I switched words immediately!

(in a similar vein I made the mistake of ordering a Coke in Brazil and got a similar startled reaction. I quickly learned to say “qakka koala“.)

growing up in a Detroit, we had exposure to a good assortment of accents. The canucks right across the river had such a different accent, when they went out on the town they went “oot and aboot“. the auto industry brought many migrants and visitors from other parts of the country. Lots of cross-migration to/from the South so that was a common accent. Texas and California accents were hardly heard - mainly on TV and we mocked the California Valley Girl accent mercilessly “fer surrrre”!

I think the tendency to end every sentence with a question mark (rising intonation) in California is lessening. Maybe Californians have finally figured out that it’s why the rest of the country views us as airheads, since we never seem certain about anything?
 
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Huntn

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Gonna go a bit off topic here...

I’m surprised at the occasional recognition of my “Michigan accent”, since I’ve lived in California for 30 years. It shares some aspects with a “Sha-cog-go” accent, but a bit softer.

Besides the name of that city another good test of that accent is “coat hangh-ger”.

I switched from using the word “pop” to “soda” shortly after moving to California. In both places, when ordering at a fast food restaurant, it’s common to order soda generically - rather than naming a brand - since you just get a cup to fill from the fountain. (In parts of the South, soda is generically referred to as “Coke”, regardless of the kind of soda... well, at least in Atlanta!)

Anyway, I ordered ”pop” at McDonalds and the clerk thought I had said “pot”, and I got a shocked look. This was years before legalized marijuana. I switched words immediately!

(in a similar vein I made the mistake of ordering a Coke in Brazil and got a similar startled reaction. I quickly learned to say “qakka koala“.)

growing up in a Detroit, we had exposure to a good assortment of accents. The canucks right across the river had such a different accent, when they went out on the town they went “oot and aboot“. the auto industry brought many migrants and visitors from other parts of the country. Lots of cross-migration to/from the South so that was a common accent. Texas and California accents were hardly heard - mainly on TV and we mocked the California Valley Girl accent mercilessly “fer surrrre”!

I think the tendency to end every sentence with a question mark (rising intonation) in California is lessening. Maybe Californians have finally figured out that it’s why the rest of the country views us as airheads, since we never seem certain about anything?
You betcha, I dropped ”soda” and adopted “pop” soon after moving to Minnesota. And yes, there is a Minnesota accent, which I would describe as Nordic, don’t ya know. As far as regional phraseology, this is the where I first heard, Can I go with?, where “you” is left off. :)
 

jtara

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Youpers (michigan UP or upper peninsula) use this too, as well as Ontario Canadians.

oddly, this is also apparently a tip-off for identifying Californians. Just drop the “don’t” and add the rising intonation. Apparently this has spread to Nevada.

don‘t get me started on Ne-va-da vs. Ne-vah-duh!
 
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