How Did American And British Accents Diverge?

Common ancestry surprises are not just for species:

Reading David McCullough’s 1776, I found myself wondering: Did Americans in 1776 have British accents? If so, when did American accents diverge from British accents?

The answer surprised me.

I’d always assumed that Americans used to have British accents, and that American accents diverged after the Revolutionary War, while British accents remained more or less the same.

Americans in 1776 did have British accents in that American accents and British accents hadn’t yet diverged. That’s not too surprising.

What’s surprising, though, is that those accents were much closer to today’s American accents than to today’s British accents. While both have changed over time, it’s actually British accents that have changed much more drastically since then.

First, let’s be clear: the terms “British accent” and “American accent” are oversimplifications; there were, and still are, many constantly-evolving regional British and American accents. What many Americans think of as “the British accent” is the standardized Received Pronunciation, also known as “BBC English.”

How this happened.

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Sendai

    I thought it was pretty much common knowledge? It isn’t?

    (I should go out moar ^^;;;;;;;;;)

  • NakkiNyan

    From what I understand it is because of our immigrants. A lot of the immigrants are like the ones today, they don’t learn to speak the language they mimicked it. With them mimicking the language and passing it on to their kids where they may have later gone to schools and used the same accent as their parents the language stopped changing it’s accent.

    It wasn’t until later that we really started getting our own now we have the poorly named southern accent which is from about the northern half of Ohio going south until mid Florida and from that point all the way west to parts of AZ, California and Washington state.New York state headed east and everything north of it stayed pretty much the same. There are pockets of “odd” accents (Ex: Jersey accent) restricted often to single cities or multiple close cities and foreign accents like the southern 1/4 of FL has spanish and Haitian accents. Louisiana with the sometimes unintelligible accent and some different words it is almost diverging into is’s own language like the mexicans speak spanish but the mexicans and spaniards can’t understand each other very well even though they are considered to both be speaking “Spanish”. That said, Ohio and parts of Michigan are really starting to be taken over with the southern accent, I see it in my cousins who started changing their accents when they moved to North Carolina when they were around 9 and 11, it is odd though if you call them down there they have a moderate southern accent but as soon as their plane lands in OH it is gone, weird, must be something in the air :P

  • efrique

    Yeah, I’ve known about this for a couple of decades…

    And hardly anyone in the UK uses received pronunciation these days.

    Actually, a lot of the UK regional accents seem to be more or less dying off, as well as RP.