Americans do not have a British accent. Why?
June 6, 2013 1:29 PM   Subscribe

I was at lunch today and asked my friends "Why don't American's have British accents in their speach?" They were dumbfounded and began to wonder themselves so I turn to Ask MetaFilter to find the answer.
posted by usermac to Writing & Language (34 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
We used to. That was a few hundred years ago. You may as well ask why Britons don't have a Norman accent.
posted by Tomorrowful at 1:32 PM on June 6, 2013 [5 favorites]

Time & language evolution. British speakers have a different accent than they did 200 or 400 or 600 years ago also. Australian speakers took their accent a different direction, but they also had a "British" accent when they were colonized in the 1700s. Language evolves, slowly, day by day, person by person, and the result is regional accents, and eventually, different languages.
posted by brainmouse at 1:32 PM on June 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

You might enjoy Albion's Seed.
posted by Ideefixe at 1:34 PM on June 6, 2013 [4 favorites]

Some do. Talk to some of the fisherman on the NC coast and you will hear it.

Outer Bank English
posted by wrnealis at 1:35 PM on June 6, 2013 [14 favorites]

That was a few hundred years ago.

Less than that.
posted by seemoreglass at 1:35 PM on June 6, 2013

Early Americans did. The accent changes over time, and also bear in mind that only very early on were we all English. People started immigrating from other countries pretty soon after America was founded. Accents mingle.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 1:36 PM on June 6, 2013

That's just the way it works. Changing demographics + time.

It works on a small scale, too. My dad is from rural Indiana, and had a stereotypical rural Indiana accent (warsh your clothes, etc). Then he moved to a more populous area for college, and just developed more of a broad Indiana/midwestern accent. Then the whole family moved south to Georgia and after more than 20 years, he's developed a hint of a southern twang. My brother has never left the south and has a full on drawl. I moved to Chicago and now I do that thing with my As.

So it goes.
posted by phunniemee at 1:36 PM on June 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

Americans never had British accents. Received Pronunciation is a post-American-Revolution shift, and the American accent is closer to how George III would have spoken than Elizabeth II's accent.
posted by Etrigan at 1:36 PM on June 6, 2013 [65 favorites]

The Tidewater accent, associated with the southern Chesapeake Bay region, is often spoken of as "English." This is particularly true of the Tangier Island accent. But the idea that the Tangier Island accent preserves Elizabethan-era English is a canard (not just because the island was settled later, but the speech of the islanders of course evolved over several centuries).

You also need to talk to some very old folks (interview in nursing homes?) to still hear regional accents.

Americans don't identify with accents to the extent that British Isles people do (hence Gawker's Game of Thrones accents post was somewhat baffling to Americans)
posted by bad grammar at 1:46 PM on June 6, 2013

Etrigan has it.

And to get an idea of changes over time, even in the same country, this OU video is all about how Shakespeare would originally be pronounced (parallels start at three minutes in).

Also - which British accent? Travel and mass media are levelling things out a lot, but you can still drive half an hour in parts of the UK and have a massive change in regional accent.
posted by Coobeastie at 1:47 PM on June 6, 2013 [14 favorites]

Well all that plus, we've had an incredible mish mash of folks from all over to mutt it out. And, well there was a distinct push to create an American identity, ever wonder why we dropped the 'u' from words like colour, why some American words just don't translate that well and vice versa? Noah Webster is at least partially to blame. He and others believed strongly in political, but cultural independence as well.

I'd hesitate to buy too much into the "Americans never had British accents" article as it includes such things as: "...while the typical American accent has changed only subtly..." Show me a typical American accent please?
posted by edgeways at 1:48 PM on June 6, 2013

I had a both a history professor and a linguistics professor say that it was because the colonies quickly became literate (for religious purposes), and words then were pronounced phonetically, as opposed to Britain, which lagged behind. I'm too behind at work now to to find sources, though.
posted by General Malaise at 1:51 PM on June 6, 2013

Your accent comes from the people you talk to day after day, year after year, moreso when you're young. Those speaking English in North America and Great Britain used to have the same accents (or the same natural variation in accent) due to originally coming from the same areas. Change in pronunciation is natural, and tends to spread throughout a group of people who communicate. But the geographic split between the population of Great Britain and North America means that those who live in one tend not to have that much communication with those who live in another (even today, but so much less just 20 years ago), and thus don't share the same changes. Since the early 1600s the accents of English speakers in both North America and Great Britain have been slowly drifting apart, from a shared starting point but going in different directions. Neither group ever had the same accent as the other does today, but only that shared accent in the past which both still retain some aspects of while having lost others.

Also, just to answer some other answers. No North American has an accent closer to British in the past than any British English speaker today. All accents are changing, just in different ways. You can find archaic aspects in standard accents and innovation in marginal accents.
posted by Jehan at 1:52 PM on June 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

Americans do have British accents. The British, however, do not.
posted by MrMoonPie at 1:53 PM on June 6, 2013 [3 favorites]

Since moving to North Carolina, I've noticed a definite similarity between the upper crust Southern accents of wealthy older people and certain aspects of the British accent.
posted by something something at 2:00 PM on June 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

Etrigan has it.

Everyone has an accent, and regional accent change over time. The OP Shakespeare is a great example. For a more recent example, watch some American movies or political speeches from the 1930s. Americans do not talk like that now.
posted by Tanizaki at 2:04 PM on June 6, 2013 [3 favorites]

Neither group ever had the same accent as the other does today, but only that shared accent in the past which both still retain some aspects of while having lost others.

Exactly. It's a misconception to think that Americans of the 1600s and 1700s spoke with a British accent* as it sounds today and suddenly started speaking with a different American accent after independence, while the British have continued to speak the same way right down to the modern day.

Instead, both modern-day British and modern-day Americans speak English in a different way than anyone spoke English in the 1700s -- it's like a trunk gave way to two (and more) branches, instead of one trunk and branches off of it.

There have been changes on both sides of the pond. Americans don't sound like we talked in the 1930s, and even the Queen doesn't talk in exactly the same way she did in the 1950s. (Her vowels have shifted.)

"British accent" being, of course, a gross simplification as English is remarkably diverse in Great Britain
posted by andrewesque at 2:09 PM on June 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

The British had plantation settlements in North America and Northern Ireland, so parts of the Southern US were settled by the same protestant lowland Scots who were settled in Belfast. It might just be my imagination but I think there's still some similarity in the way the two groups speak.
posted by bonobothegreat at 2:16 PM on June 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

That NC islands accent doesn't sound at all British to me. It sounds exactly like it should: halfway between Baltimore and Atlanta. Neither of which sound remotely like anything I've heard on the BBC.

Interesting theory I've just come up with-

American:Canadian::Australian:New Zealand. (Non French-Canadian anyway)
posted by gjc at 2:23 PM on June 6, 2013

A couple of decades ago I was living in Chattanooga Tennessee, and had lived there just long enough that I was starting to become aware of the hyperlocal accents. Dunlap had a distinct accent from Soddy-Daisy, for instance, even though they were only 25 miles apart. And though many Yankees say "a Southern accent", Texas is very distinct from the Appalachian accent roots.

Anyway, we were hosting a family from Epsom-Surrey, England, and visiting the Chickamauga battlefield, and the very local docent asked where they were from, expecting a hyper-local answer. The ensuing discussion was fascinating, but...

Really, have you thought about what you mean by a "British" accent? Scots, Cockney, Liverpool, English and Irish, all of the British Isles, are all very very different. Similarly, in the U.S. Downeast is not Mid-Atlantic is not Long Island is not New Jersey is not Boston (or even neighborhoods in those areas), let alone the various Southern dialects, or the differences between the generic northeast and California, even though they can sound pretty similar.

When I was growing up, my paternal grandparents worked very hard to instill a Mid-Atlantic accent. My "a"s were all "ah"s, I under-pronounced my "r"s, not to a Rhode Island extent, but it was the language of the national news, of the actors of the "classic" B&W films. If I try to go back to that accent now, even as a coastal Californian, I'll sound horrendously outdated, and newscasters now sound very very different from newscasters then. And this is in a relatively homogenous mass media.

So, yes, North Carolina probably started in the same place as Scottish English, 250 years ago. Boston probably started as English, with a big influx at some point of Irish. Further inland the northern Midwest got a huge hit of northern European languages, Hochdeutsch, Norwegian, etc, on top of that English.
posted by straw at 2:35 PM on June 6, 2013

Interesting theory I've just come up with- American:Canadian::Australian:New Zealand.

Even more so, as with both the US and Canada you will find regions where you can hear definite influence from some European country (it is patently obvious to me that the Newfoundland accent was influenced by the Irish accent).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 2:36 PM on June 6, 2013 [3 favorites]

The "British accent" is itself a 19th century invention. Even in England, there are accents which have close and broad vowels. For example, where I live in the Black Country the accent is closer to German in vowel pronunciation and speed of speaking than it is to broader, "British" English. I agree though, time had taken its toll on American speech by the time of Teddy Roosevelt. It is also important to note that many native English speaking Americans learned English from people who were not native speakers. That experience lead to the broad vowels we consider part of American speech today.
posted by parmanparman at 3:23 PM on June 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

Also, Americans don't speak with American accents. The "typical" American accent that you hear on TV is a form of the Northeast Accent is kind of thought of as "default" but that's really not true. Within the Northeast, there are distinct regional accents - hell, even Boston and Rhode Island (a mere 20 miles south) have distinct accents. Even within the city of Boston the Southie accent is distinct from the "Brahmin" accent.

Recently, my mother who is originally from Minnesota, was carrying on a phone conversation with someone back in Minneapolis. She now speaks with a "New England" accent - even though her original accent is more like an extra from Fargo. The woman she was talking to said point blank that she couldn't understand her accent, at which point my mom dropped back into that deep "Ya you betcha" accent and was told "Oh, ya, that's much better!"

The US might not have as many distinct accents as the UK, but to say that there's an "American" accent is a sweeping generalization.
posted by sonika at 3:36 PM on June 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yeah, basically, no one anywhere today speaks like anyone did anywhere in 1776, except by the most remarkable of coincidences (or due to nearly complete linguistic isolation of a very small number of people.) The changes in the various Slavic/Eastern European languages are similarly remarkable. Heck, Yiddish and Hebrew aren't even like what they were fifty or sixty years ago (thanks to the spectacular migration and mixing of the post-Holocaust Jewish diaspora.)

Language is like biology, except the changes are detectable in a single human being over the course of a few months, instead of a large population over the course of decades or centuries.
posted by SMPA at 3:39 PM on June 6, 2013

watch some American movies or political speeches from the 1930s

They mostly didn't talk like that then, either. They were speaking with a "trans-Atlantic accent" which was a pattern of speech specifically created for the theater as well as taught to certain members of the upper classes.
posted by deanc at 3:40 PM on June 6, 2013 [3 favorites]

The "typical" American accent that you hear on TV is a form of the Northeast Accent is kind of thought of as "default" but that's really not true.

The 'newscaster' accent is roughly an accent from the midwest. I guess television takes place in somewhere that looks like southern California where everyone sounds like they're from Iowa.
posted by hoyland at 3:55 PM on June 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

American:Canadian::Australian:New Zealand. (Non French-Canadian anyway)

Maritimers (who live in the region of Canada east of Quebec and north of New England) also have distinctive accents that do in some ways resemble the Outer Banks NC accent from above.

Maritimers all have different accents, because of geography (it's a big area with many natural obstacles), political boundaries (they were all different colonies at one time) and ethnicity. Newfoundland, which has the most distinctive regional accent in Canada, was settled in large part by the Irish, and has only been part of Canada for 60 years.

PEI has it's own distinctive accent, as does New Brunswick.
posted by KokuRyu at 4:35 PM on June 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

One thing that hasn't really been mentioned is that sociolinguistic difference itself arises as a way for groups to distinguish themselves. American accents are generally more similar to each other than to various British accents because the US sees itself as a speech community and, with varying levels of consciousness (but mostly unconsciously), asserts itself as such by maintaining and pushing the distinction.
posted by threeants at 7:50 PM on June 6, 2013

Another interesting question is why British people don't have American accents, given the penetration of your media. We are certainly absorbing a number of idioms such as the (to my ear deplorable) practice of commencing sentences with the conjunction "So", but there isn't any particular shift in tonality that I can detect despite saturated exposure to TV and films from birth.
posted by falcon at 11:41 PM on June 6, 2013

Yes, it is all about community. People talk the way they want to be perceived. My boss, from central Illinois, can turn the twang on and off at will. When he is speaking with us Yankee tight-asses from Chicago, he sounds no more country than someone from Tinley Park. When he is speaking with people from Springfield, they can sound like they are speaking Cajun. (Springfield is physically and culturally south of the Mason-Dixon line in many ways. It is a very strange place.)

We use accent to differentiate ourselves, or to ingratiate ourselves. Both consciously and unconsciously.
posted by gjc at 4:05 AM on June 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Accents always diverge when a population is separated by significant barriers (geographical or sociological) that keep the two populations from communicating freely. The American and British constellations of accents have slowly drifted apart since the colonies were settled many years ago. Neither country today speaks the way people spoke when the colonists' ships left port; accents in both countries have changed equally over the intervening years, but in different ways.
posted by pracowity at 4:25 AM on June 7, 2013

Immigrants to America weren't always English. If you had a big pocket of German folks or Dutch folks speaking in a English as their second language, it's not surprising that English would sound different in their regions and develop regional idiosyncrasies over time, both in different regions of the US and different compared to British English. That's a gross simplification of language change, of course, but I think it gets to the gist.

Also, as someone said above, modern British English also sounds different from how 1600s British English would have sounded.
posted by mermily at 4:35 AM on June 7, 2013

Just saw this today. I think it is relevant. It is about different accents in the US and how we all don't even speak the same English as each other here in the states.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 10:26 AM on June 7, 2013

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