Perhaps we have the more original English accent

Fascinating report from Mental Floss about the so-called English accent vs. the American accent:

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. We don’t know much more about said accent, though. Various claims about the accents of the Appalachian Mountains, the Outer Banks, the Tidewater region and Virginia’s Tangier Island sounding like an uncorrupted Elizabethan-era English accent have been busted as myths by linguists. …

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.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • phil_style

    I was having this exact discussion with someone last night.

    The best example are the words “Tuner” and “tuna”.
    In most US accents, the words are obviously different, because of the pronunciation of the “r”, in Tuner, but not in Tuna.
    In most of England (but not northern Ireland, or much of Scotland/ Wales) the “r” is dropped in Tuner, so it sounds exactly like the word Tuna.

  • Kenny Johnson

    My mom is from Massachusetts (I was born and raised in Cali). She lives on a street named Cota – which she pronounces “Cottah” — not unlike how she says the former U.S. President’s name. :)

  • John Mark

    Where I grew up, if your name is Ed it is pronounced with two syllables. I have been told pretty much everywhere I have ever lived or traveled I don’t know how to speak English, either the King’s or General American. Possibly because of some misguided romantic impulse or from watching too many 18th century period dramas or simply a subliminal wish to be sophisticated I love British accents. It would be interesting to prove they are ‘phony’ though. O my, that would be a blow….

  • Rick

    Have you ever noticed that when a British singer sings, their pronuciation sounds more like american english? I have honestly had times when I heard a singer speak for the first time and not until then did i realize they were not american. I have always thought that phenomenon supports the american accent as the more natural one. The beatles may have sounded fairly british at times in their music, but less than in their speaking. other british artists’ accents are undetectable in their singing.

  • James Petticrew

    Ach you’ll be claiming next your spelling is original too :-)

  • http://www.twitter.com/brandontheguy brandontmilan

    Phil #1- In quite a few versions of Southern and Appalachian English, Tuna and Tuner sound pretty similar.

    to use it in a sentence:

    “What kinda sandwich do you want, tuner salad or pimenter cheese?”

  • http://www.abyers.wordpress.com Andrew Byers

    Hi, Scott. As you know, I am living in England… so I get to experience firsthand the differences between American English and English English. This has nothing to do with accents, but my wife just posted a creative writing piece describing her day as a mom of four using British English (she supplies a “glossary” for baffled Americans!) It is good sport…

    http://mirandabyers.wordpress.com/2012/01/24/lost-in-translation/

  • DHennings

    Living in rural Washington, I met many years ago a transplanted farmer from the south of England who spoke with distinctive rolling r’s very much like the character who played Long John Silver in the classic Walt Disney production of Treasure Island. This is the speech of the shirefolk in both the BBC radio and Peter Jackson movie productions of the Lord of the Rings. (Cf. also the speech of the Cornwall natives in the contempory BBC comedy series, Doc Martin, vs. that of transplanted Londoners.)

    I suspect that the principle differences between “official” British and American English derive from the regions from which the earliest Anglo-American settlers were drawn. It’s interesting to compare Americans reading from the Anglican prayer book and trying to sound “British” (as in the broadcast compline service at St. Marks Cathedral in Seattle) with somebody like N. T. Wright who is Anglican and British and not the least bit stuffy in the way he speaks….

  • John

    Whatever the history of RP, no-one speaks it over here (UK) anymore. Even the BBC has moved towards favouring those with regional accents (this would be for the news which would have been the primary context for RP on the BBC). Interestingly the place in the UK whose accent most resembles RP is ….wait for it…Inverness, yes of monster fame. Only Scottish location where the rolling of r’s is absent as in harrrrrrd.

  • R Hampton

    What a coincidence. A couple of weeks ago I was reading about the Philly accent (I was born & raised in the suburban metro-area):

    …Second, alone of major speech groups on the East Coast we pronounce our R’s. We’re the cutting edge of defiant Americanism in the East. At one time pronouncing R’s was considered low-class. Henry James, as great a writer as he was an anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant snob (which means very great indeed), gave a speech to Harvard students at the turn of the century in which he said America would never be capable of a real literature until it stopped pronouncing R’s. To James, “r” was “an ugly sound… a morose grinding of the back teeth.”

  • R Hampton

    (continued)

    …Then in the 1920s, radio networks decided that real culture required pronouncing all the letters in every word. Some announcers, even today, take this so seriously that they pronounce the T in Christmas, and somehow get their tongues to sound the TH in clothes. A physical impossibility for me. Anyway, R’s got pronounced by announcers — which of course made them Good English. I’ve had arguments with New Yorkers who insist they pronounce the R’s in fellow worker, when what they say is something like ‘fellow wuhkuhrrr.’ Intervocalic R, the R before the consonant, like K, is very difficult for people who didn’t grow up using it.

    http://archives.citypaper.net/articles/081497/article008.shtml

  • John Mark

    James #5: Well, you know how arrogant we Yanks can be :).

  • Andy H

    Getting back to ‘tuner’ and ‘tuna’, the really funny thing about the posh southern English accent is that, on the one hand, they don’t pronounce their r’s, so that ‘tuner’ is pronounced more like ‘tuna’ – but on the other hand, many of them have a habit of adding an r sound to words ending in -a or -ah, so that ‘tuna’ is pronounced more like ‘tuner’!!!
    But at least they pronounce their u’s properly – so nothing like ‘tooner’ or ‘toona’!

  • TriciaM

    Memories! Canadian 5 year old comes home from her British school and says, “Today we did drawing and I coloured all the storks green.”

    Me: “Oh – I didn’t know storks were green.”

    Her: “Mrs Wylie says all storks are green.”

    Me: “Could you draw me a stork?”

    Her: draws a flower.

    It took years for that child to stop putting in rs that weren’t really there. I think she said orther for author until she was about 18.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X