A linguistic query
December 29, 2012 6:59 PM   Subscribe

How long did it take for the United States to lose all traces of a British accent among its citizens?

Upon watching the movie "Lincoln", my wife had an interesting thought. In 1865, wouldn't a lot of folk still have somewhat of a trace of a British accent, and if not, how or why would regional accents have developed in such a relatively short period?
Obviously, "Lincoln" is just a movie, but we wondered if Lincoln himself would have been raised by a family with traces of a British accent or not... how languages and dialects develop regionally is fascinating, and I know so little about how it all works.
posted by newfers to Society & Culture (18 answers total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
We kind of didn't. There's a great Mental Floss article about this. The short story is that Brits and Americans both spoke with hard R's (rhotic speech) until non-rhotic speech became popularized in Southern Britain in the 19th century. Americans imitated this posh "Received Pronunciation" for some time, but eventually the influence of British pronunciation waned. As the article points out, these pronunciation differences do not take regional accents into consideration--this is a general comparison between GenAm/Network English and BBC English.
posted by xyzzy at 7:13 PM on December 29, 2012 [7 favorites]

I hope this isn't an unuseful answer, but I think this question would make more sense couched in terms of some specific metric. The difference between British and American English accents is comprised, definitionally, of whichever sounds/phonological features/prosodic elements/etc. differ between the two. And, both goalposts are moving all the time; American English isn't a changing dialect shifting away from a static British English.
posted by threeants at 7:13 PM on December 29, 2012

The "British" accent isn't a uniform thing. Immigrants from Britain came with differing accents, then mixed - also with Dutch, German and French immigrants, not to mention slaves and people from other places (many people came, for instance, from Moravia.) At least some of Lincoln's ancestors came to America more than 150 years before his birth. It's easy to imagine that, in a country loaded with different accents from native speaker of different languages, an accent could be lost in one generation.

So while that doesn't answer the question, it might explain why (in addition to the points above), the average American doesn't speak like the average British person. That said, some regional American accents have vocabulary and aspects of pronunciation that can be traced back to specific regions of Britain.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 7:18 PM on December 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

Leaving aside the problem that there is no one "British" or "American" accent, as both places have a great number of regional accents, your question seems to assume that the accent the British have now is the same accent the British had when the American colonies were founded, while the American accent has changed over time. This is not the case. The way people speak in both countries has changed significantly since the 1600s. There are a lot of well-researched theories on what the shared English spoken by the British and Americans during the 1600s might have sounded like, but no one lacking a time machine really knows for sure.

You can't listen to a recording of Abraham Lincoln, but there are of some Americans we do have voice recordings of who would have been alive during Lincoln's lifetime. So you might be able to get at least a decent idea of what Americans sounded like in the 1850s if you poke around the internet for old recordings. but you can listen to recordings of American voices from the early 1900s here.
posted by BlueJae at 7:24 PM on December 29, 2012 [15 favorites]

There's not really any such thing as a "British" accent. English spoken in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland comes in oodles of different forms and dialects. Some English dialects today are nearer to English as spoken in the US than others. Likewise, some US dialects are nearer to those spoken in England than others. Moreover, all of these dialects--both those in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland and those in the US--have been developing since the earliest English-speaking settlements. The language that those settlers took with them is as different from English spoken in England today as it is from the English spoken in the US today, if not more so.

It is better to think in terms of dialects developing apart, slowly gaining features (or rather, a set of features) unique to that specific dialect and which make it distinct. This began with the very first generation of settlers, as their different dialect backgrounds meant they created a shared dialect which had a combination of features not found elsewhere. So even from earliest times there was the potential for a keen listener to know who was and who wasn't born or brought up in the US, as their dialect was different from any other, even if only in small ways. But over time the number of features not shared between dialects in the US and dialects in the British islands has grown. Of course, we still share a great number of features, which is why we can understand each other's speech.

The question might be more inlightening if phrased, "What features of Abraham Lincoln's (or his parents') dialect were more like certain English dialects than US dialects of today?"

(Also, given that the English spoken in the US today arose in England, it's not possible to "lose all trace" of that without speaking a different language: English influence is the language itself.)
posted by Jehan at 7:35 PM on December 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think that this question requires a little unpacking. There isn't really an answer to it, as framed.

No one lost an accent - not the Americans, and not the British. No dialect is an "accented" version of another. All living languages are constantly changing, and when speakers of those languages are separated, a change that occurs in one group can no longer spread to the other group as easily. This creates differences in the language spoken between the two communities; you now have separate dialects. Eventually, you may end up with separate, mutually unintelligible languages.

Importantly: neither accent is the "original" one.

Also, there was never only one American dialect, nor only one British dialect. As has been noted above, immigrants to the US spoke a variety of different British dialects and mixed with speakers of other languages entirely. There was no single time period or region in which this was occurring. The picture of American English(es) at this time is actually quite complicated, and you can't pinpoint a certain time when it was suddenly "not British" anymore.

You can try to answer the question in terms when specific differences arose, like non-rhotacism in Britain, but (a) none of these features is the dividing point between "these dialects are the same" and "these dialects are different," because the differences we sense now are the result an accumulation of multiple changes over time, and (b) none of these features will be shared (or not shared) by all the dialects on either side of the pond.

The languages are still changing, too. In two hundred years, someone else might ask the same question: When did Americans stop speaking like the Brits? And by then, there might be some other salient difference. Maybe in future Britain, no one ever uses the "th" sounds anymore; it's all "f" or "v". Someone attempting to answer the question, then, might point to the last time that Brits ever used "th" sounds.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 7:40 PM on December 29, 2012 [4 favorites]

Others have done some unpacking; what I'll throw into the mix is Charles Dickens' American Notes, based on his visit in 1842. He doesn't talk much about the difference in accents, but he does deploy his typical ear for such things to catch and give voice to regionalisms. (And says some very rude things about recent British arrivals in the US.)
posted by holgate at 8:00 PM on December 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm American and I had a temp job in London in the late 80s at a branch of NatWest in Streatham, one of my worst temp jobs ever. I had to update index-like cards from dictation tapes, usually addressing overdrafts. Most of the dictation was from the branch manager and I couldn't understand shit, worse than Charlie Brown's teacher, waah waah waah waah. I was sooo bad it was embarrassing.

Some dictation, however, was from the assistant branch manager and he was from Northern England, York I think. Finally, someone talked in a way that I could understand. I can't put my finger on the difference and someone mentioned that a lot of English emigrants to America were from the North and the accent is closer to current American dialect. Anyway, it was the longest month of my life. While they were impressed that their little branch had someone answering the phone with a posh American accent (people think they've called New York!), I think they were glad to see me go and I was glad to be gone.

(I could understand the spoken word, just not the dictated.)
posted by shoesietart at 8:15 PM on December 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

We didn't "stop" speaking with a British accent.

British speech sounded different from the way it does now when settlers of British ancestry left Britain in the seventeenth century. Then the British-Americans were separated from Britain by an ocean without recorded communications of any kind. This continued for centuries, during which people from other parts of the world also immigrated to what is now the US, bringing their own ways of speaking with them. For most of US history, there was little in the way of mass media, and no way of hearing how other people spoke unless you traveled and heard it for yourself. Which was slow, difficult, and rare.

American accents and British accents evolved separately from each other for 300-odd years until the invention of the phonograph. By which point it was too late to force them to merge. In fact, right now is probably the height of any shared awareness of different anglophone dialects, just because we can now easily talk on the phone and have access to each others' media.
posted by Sara C. at 8:18 PM on December 29, 2012 [5 favorites]

It's totally gone yet. Go visit Tangier Island, VA. They still speak full on Elizabethian. I think it maybe the only place left in the US where the accent is so pronounced.
posted by COD at 6:10 AM on December 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you're looking for an easy read on the subject, I really enjoyed Bill Bryson's Made in America, about the evolution of American English.
posted by pitrified at 6:33 AM on December 30, 2012 [3 favorites]

A good, highly detailed read on this is Richard Bailey's book “Speaking American: A History of English in the United States.” Chapter 3 in its entirety is online here.

Of special note is the disappearing Boston Brahmin accent, which gives me a reason to link this favorite video of two gentleman in conversation from the documentary "American Tongues", another resource for you.

Compare that to Tangier, VA mentioned by COD above (quite sure he meant to say it's not totally gone yet).
posted by vers at 6:54 AM on December 30, 2012 [6 favorites]

Here's a nice short account; pull quote: "It is the standard British accent that has drastically changed in the past two centuries." Previous commenters have provided some good links for further research.

> If you're looking for an easy read on the subject, I really enjoyed Bill Bryson's Made in America, about the evolution of American English.

If you're looking for an informed and informative read, on the other hand, skip Bryson. He's always fun to read, but he doesn't actually know what he's talking about, and one's enjoyment of his books is generally in inverse proportion to one's knowledge of the subject matter.
posted by languagehat at 7:11 AM on December 30, 2012 [11 favorites]

I'm chiming in with what other people have said, but I want to make this a bit more concrete.

People in some parts of the US pronounce words poison and boil "pizen" and "bile". This was apparently the original (as in late 17th century) pronunciation, since words like smile and toil, and line and join rhymed in poetry from this time period. There are variant spellings of coin and coil that suggest they were pronounced something like "quine" and "quile".

In Newfoundland and some parts of England, pain and pane are not pronounced alike, and, generally, a long A in words where it's spelled ai or ay is pronounced differently from the long A in other words. In other parts of England there are two different long O sounds, and words like tow and toe and grown and groan are not pronounced alike. The differences in spelling originally reflected differences in pronunciation that are only preserved in a few modern English dislects.

So if you went back in time, you would get closer and closer to 17th century English. Most people would "mispronounce" poison, boil and foil as "pizon", "bile" and "file". They'd have a funny 'groany' O and a 'pale' A in words like take, pane, sale, coat, boat and toe. There'd be other differences, and 17th century English would still have dialects. It wouldn't really sound like modern American or British English, but there would probably be an odd bit of Minnesota-Welsh-Newfie twang in how they pronounced some of the vowels.

(Of course, if you went back even further, people would pronounce silent gh's and the vowels would start sounding really strange.)

The following Wikipedia articles go into this in more detail: Phonological history of English diphthongs, Phonological history of English vowels, English-language vowel changes before historic r.
posted by nangar at 7:18 AM on December 30, 2012 [6 favorites]

I agree with vers. When I was little(1960's) and we would go to the Outer Banks of NC the older fishermen my Dad hung out with had the coolest accents. Very Elizabethan.
Also you have to remember that all the original immigrants to the US weren't British. There were Dutch, German, French, Norwegian, etc. Thats why there's all kinds of regional dialects, which sadly have dwindled due to TV, media....
posted by PJMoore at 7:59 AM on December 30, 2012

The America of Lincoln's youth was a large, sparsely-populated, mostly rural nation, but it was also one with unprecedented diversity and mobility, even (perhaps especially) before the arrival of the railways.

Lincoln's family moved from Kentucky to Indiana, then Illinois; Lincoln himself travelled quite some distance before his political career began. During his early years, German and Irish settlers came through the midwest in large numbers. That's a much more diverse linguistic environment than the one for someone living in, say, rural Gloucestershire at the same time. On the other hand, there are places like the remoter parts of Appalachia that were settled at a particular point and largely retained that homogeneity and social isolation to this day.

If you lived in a port city on the eastern seaboard, and were connected to the extensive transatlantic trade (in people as well as goods) you most likely had more contact with foreigners of merchant navies or Americans from elsewhere along the coast than you did with people who lived a few hundred miles inland. But that manifests itself differently in the large port cities and in the smaller fishing communities, the latter representing a linguistic thread that stretches from the Outer Banks and Tangier up to Maine, Newfoundland and across to Ireland and Britain. (Perhaps one of the hardest mental leaps today is to appreciate how the sea connected people.)
posted by holgate at 10:21 AM on December 30, 2012 [3 favorites]

I think American Tongues is great, but it's worth remembering that it's at least 20 years old now and largely deals with the ways that elderly people were speaking when it was made. Which makes it an interesting document of American speech of the 20th century, but doesn't say a lot about how people talk now.

I don't happen to think that Television Is Killing Regional Accents, or whatever people are getting worked up over these days, but language changes very quickly. I don't speak the same way my grandparents do. The way my grandparents speak is interesting to learn about, of course, but it's hard to get a sense of how American speech is or was or might have been like British speech when you become aware that things change even on a micro level, in living memory.

I'd be extremely interested to hear recordings of how young upper crust Bostonians and Tangier natives speak in 2012. Do they still have the accents heard in American Tongues? Is it something else, and if so, what direction did they go in? Does a 20 year old Boston Brahmin sound more like a 20 year old in Southie, or more like a 20 year old Manhattanite? Or is the accent still unique, but just unique in a slightly different way?
posted by Sara C. at 10:47 AM on December 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

A very, very late addition:

Here's linguist David Crystal reading selections from Shakespeare in Elizabethan English. (The bit from Toilus and Cressida is definitely my favorite of the set.)

Mr. Bad Example linked to Crystal's readings yesterday on MetaFilter. It hadn't occurred to me look for anything like that.
posted by nangar at 6:43 AM on March 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

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