American accent origins?
December 2, 2006 12:05 AM   Subscribe

What are the origins/evolution of the American accent? In particular, where did they get the heavily rounded vowels (e.g. 'a' in "fan"), the long airy 'r' sounds (e.g. in "terror") the lack of the 'y' sound in words like "tube", and the flat 'a' sounds in words like "castle" and "master". Where in the UK did/do they speak like this? Are there any differences across states in the way these are spoken?
posted by vizsla to Society & Culture (20 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
As I have little interest in pretending to know anything about phonology, I can point you towards a book partially about the subject that I found to be absolutely fascinating and illuminating: Made in America by Bill Bryson.

It's a fine companion to his more popular book about the English language, The Mother Tongue.
posted by incomple at 12:14 AM on December 2, 2006

Some links.
posted by occhiblu at 12:16 AM on December 2, 2006

I once heard that it was the UK accent which diverged, and Brits used to sound more like Americans or Canadians.

This wikipedia article seems to substantiate that theory, although it's really technical.

See also here.

And yes the accents certainly do differ across states. There are very distinct differences in speech patterns between, say, New York, Boston, California and the west coast, Texas and the south, the midwest, and the northern midwest (eg Wisconsin). Not to mention Canada, which has its own peculiar English speech patterns. But you can find more precise information online. Wikipedia seems to have an army of linguists created very detailed articles.
posted by PercussivePaul at 12:17 AM on December 2, 2006

More technical linguistic info, with information about how sounds vary by American region.
posted by occhiblu at 12:21 AM on December 2, 2006

English accents have changed a lot in the intervening centuries -- more so over the past few decades/decade (Essex for example). I mean, kids don't speak like they used to.

But sometimes, the ancient sounds linger on. IANAE, but I think it's more of a question of, when did they diverge?

Some Canadians I know, sound like they're putting on some kind of ye olde English "farmer's accent".

I can't recommend more highly the two Bill Bryson books. And if you're in the UK, there's a programme that's been airing at tea time on Fridays on BBC2, 'Johnny Kingdom: A Year On Exmoor' -- now that's an accent!
posted by popcassady at 4:47 AM on December 2, 2006

Viszla, the "American accent" you seem to be referring to is what I think of as "newscaster-speak," which is vaguely midwestern and even more vaguely equivalent to UK English's Received Pronunciation as traditionally practiced by, e.g., the BBC's announcers.

As PercussivePaul correctly notes, there are enormous regional variations in American accents, just as there are in the UK. If I speak in my "native voice" my region of origin (Southeastern United States) is essentially instantly recognizable to most Americans,
posted by enrevanche at 5:19 AM on December 2, 2006

a book partially about the subject that I found to be absolutely fascinating and illuminating: Made in America by Bill Bryson.
It's a fine companion to his more popular book about the English language, The Mother Tongue.


Or, to be more precise, by all means read Bryson for teh funny, he's a funny guy, but do not trust anything he says. He knows just enough to be wrong in entertaining ways. My rule of thumb: the less you actually know about Bryson's topic, the more you'll enjoy the book.

As for the question, see occhiblu's links and start reading up on it; this is not the sort of question that can be dealt with in an AskMe thread.
posted by languagehat at 6:29 AM on December 2, 2006

In Albion's Seed, by David Hackett Fischer, he connects the regional accents of the South and New England to the regional accents in Britain from where the majority of the respective American region settlers came from.
posted by Atreides at 7:48 AM on December 2, 2006

Albert C. Baugh, History of the English Language, can answer this question and more.

If you can get your hands on the 1980s PBS series "The Story of English" with Robert MacNeil, you can see and hear comparisons of English speakers from parts of England and the parts of America they influenced, one after the other.

Want to try a comparison on your own? Find a British TV show that features working-class characters from southwestern England, like the help in the 80s sitcom "To the Manor Born". Compare their speech with the U.S. southern accent as spoken by Chuck Yeager, Johnny Cash, Ann Richards.
posted by gimonca at 8:19 AM on December 2, 2006

It's got several gross inaccuracies, and it's not really much help on accents (vowels shift stochastically, both spatially and temporally) but Melvin Bragg's Adventure of English (torrent) is a fine documentary to watch on the evolution of English from German dialect through pidgen into modern. And Bragg's classic plummy accent is to die for, especially when he attempts to pronounce dialects such as Australian and Canadian.

You know what's instructive. Read Gawain and the Green Knight, dwelling on the pronounciation. Then read Trainspotting. You get a good sense for how English diverged from Scots relatively recently.
posted by meehawl at 10:05 AM on December 2, 2006

Read David Hacket Fisher's book Albion's Seed. Or read the webpage for a summary of his study of the lingustic origins of the American accent.

His point is that the American accent was most heavily influenced by the Northern Irish immigrants and Scots (English speaking people of Scottish origins living in the border region of Scotland and England) who settled in the Appalachian backcountry.

His thesis is that this accent spread countrywide because it sounded gutsy.

I quote from the website:
"This style of speech and behavior, brought to the Appalachian highlands by tough Protestant pioneers from Northern Ireland and the Scottish-English border region, has spread westward across the mid-southern latitudes of the U.S. "There's something about that style that appeals well to other regions," noted Fischer. He suggested that it struck Americans as unaffected, masculine, and decisive."

Again, the link to read up on all this is
posted by gregb1007 at 11:27 AM on December 2, 2006

I can't claim to know much about it, but I'd think that influences from other, non-English speaking immigrants are a big part of the equation here. Certainly here in Wiscsonsin, there are still rather Scandinavian accents to be heard, which influences how we say our vowels and such.
posted by wandering steve at 12:20 PM on December 2, 2006

It seems ludicrous to think that changes in dialects and accents could happen on a broad scale from people individually thinking "Wow, that accent sounds really masculine and decisive. I'm gonna talk like that from now on!"

Most people don't change the way they speak consciously. They do it over time to adapt to their surroundings, to assimilate. If Northern Irish and Scots accents took over in America surely it's because those were the people with the largest influence on society -- the teachers, the shopkeepers, etc. The ones who spoke the most at a local level, basically.
posted by attaboy at 1:20 PM on December 2, 2006

attaboy, accents may have an appeal that works on a subconscious level. It's not that anyone per say makes a conscious decision to pick one accent over another for some reason.
posted by gregb1007 at 2:53 PM on December 2, 2006

That's exactly my point. But the phrase, "it struck Americans", suggests a fairly active decision-making process. I don't think changes like this happen within a short enough time-span that you can attribute them to emotional appeal.

I'd posit instead that the spread of a style of speech, especially when it's across such a vast territory as we're talking about, is much more likely due to the movement of people across that territory. I don't think Texans started talking like Appalachian Scots-Irish settlers because they heard it on TV or in Western movies. Instead I think those people were the ones who had the biggest influence on the founding and growth of the communities where the accent dominates today. The Scots-Irish took their accent with them wherever they went and in many places became the dominant voice, both figuratively and literally.
posted by attaboy at 3:11 PM on December 2, 2006

Thanks for all the answers. Some fascinating links in that lot.

Regarding the Northern Ireland theory proposed by gregb, this question was inspired by me listening to an Irish guy who had an American wife and the similarities of their accents struck me. Whilst it may not have been conscious, I'm buying into that theory somewhat - only the Irish do that thing with their 'r's as far as I can tell. No doubt however, there were many influences besides Irish.
posted by vizsla at 4:01 PM on December 2, 2006

My husband is from Los Angeles. We live in Seattle next to a man from Scotland, David.

David recently had a repairman over, and while talking to the man, asked the repairman if he was from LA. Stunned, the man asked how he knew that.

"Ye soun' just like me neighbor!" said David.

And LA is not exactly known for its natural accents, except maybe Valley Girl. Native Americans could never recognize that my husband is from LA, yet to a Scot, the differences were clear.
posted by GaelFC at 4:21 PM on December 2, 2006

some irish accents can be mistaken, by the english, for american accents
posted by londongeezer at 4:43 PM on December 2, 2006

And LA is not exactly known for its natural accents, except maybe Valley Girl. Native Americans could never recognize that my husband is from LA, yet to a Scot, the differences were clear.

Depends a lot on where in LA the person was from, really.
posted by Atreides at 8:42 AM on December 3, 2006

Most Texans can tell what PART of the state someone is from by the subtle difference in their accent...and we hate it when someone on TV attempts at Texas accent; they never get it right.
posted by rcavett at 12:56 PM on December 3, 2006

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