American and British speech are so different that even professional actors struggle with sounding authentic.
So when did Americans lose their English accent?
Maybe Americans never had an English accent. At least not a modern British accent.
English is constantly changing. In the late Middle Ages Geoffrey Chaucer wrote the Canterbury Tales:
Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour
And it sounds even stranger that it looks.
English started out as an Anglo-Frisian dialect of Old Western German, with some influences from the Saxon dialect and Old Norse (brought by the Vikings). The Norman French invasion of 1066 dramatically changed the language. English before that was unrecognizable:
Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
A sound clip of Beowulf shows how incomprehensible Old English is to a modern speaker.
Back to what English might have sounded like when the British first colonized America four hundred years ago. Shakespeare wrote his plays a few decades before Jamestown and Plymouth Rock, and linguists today have reconstructed the sound of Shakespearean English using elocution guides from the early 1600s, analyzing spelling errors and rhyming schemes, etc.
Several things stand out while listening to a sound clip of Romeo and Juliet in the original pronunciation. One is that there’s no English dialect today that sounds like this, but it’s easy to see how this dialect could evolve over time into American English, Irish English, and Scottish English. Notably, the letter R was fully pronounced, unlike British and Australian English today.
However, London English of 1600, like today, was not representative of all British dialects. It’s notable that elocution guides from Shakespeare’s day say that one should pronounce R like a growl. Today’s soft R sound didn’t become widespread in England until around 1800. But the fact that elocution guides from 1600 had to point out the proper pronunciation of R means that some British dialects were non-rhotic early on.
In other words, America was settled when most English was still rhotic but with some exceptions. England eventually went full blown non-rhotic, but America did not. Today, American rhoticism is displacing New England’s historical non-rhoticism. Here in Maine, summer tourists are often disappointed that most of us sound more like Ben Affleck than John F. Kennedy. Australia, however, was settled after the American Revolution, which is why its dialects are non-rhotic like modern day England’s.
But it’s more than English sounding very different 400 years ago when America was settled. British dialects of centuries past were even more diverse than they are today. There are five foundational groups that created American English:
Can you guess which dialect this biblical passage is written in?
De Song of Songs, dat is Solomons’s
Let him kiss me wud de kisses of his mouth
for yer love is better dan wine…
My beloved spoke, an’ said to me: Git up, my love, my fair un, an’ come away…
Song of Solomon 1:1-2 & 2:10
That would be Sussex, England of centuries past. In Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America, David Hacket Fischer notes that this dialect had disappeared in England by the mid-1800s, largely due to rising educational standards and British insistence on proper London English.
The first British colonists in America settled in Virginia, and from there they established other Southern colonies. These colonists hailed mostly from southwest England, and their speech patterns have lived on in Dixie while becoming extinct in Britain.
The elongated vowels, such as Aahm instead of I’m, was another dialect feature brought across the pond, as were certain words that today we think of as not only uniquely American but uniquely Southern: howdy, moonshine (whisky), laid off, mighty (instead of very), mess of greens, pekid (ill), book learning, jeans, traipse, unbeknownst, tote, disremember, woebegone, chomp, true grit, and belly ache.
Fischer quotes a Pennsylvania woman’s surprise upon meeting a Southerner “who…never pronounces the R at all” (page 256). This speech habit also has long been associated with New England. East Anglia was the 17th century Puritan stronghold from which most New England colonists hailed. This might be the origin of New England’s “pahk the cah” accent.
While filming a movie in Maine in 2001 British actor Tom Wilkinson described the broad Maine accent as a “brother” to an English Norfolk accent, going so far as to say that a Mainer with a thick accent could walk into an East Anglia pub and convince folks that he’s a local (though that’s an exaggeration).
Non-rhoticism may have started in East Anglia, reaching northern England last. But the Quakers left for Pennsylvania before non-rhoticism reached Yorkshire. The hard R sound of the American middle colonies was destined to become the dominant American dialect, perhaps because its geographical position allowed it to spread not just west, but northwest and southwest as well.
Fischer says that the dialects of northern England resulted from the commingling of Anglo-Saxon and Nordic languages. He calls it “muscular speech – bluff, literal, direct, vivid, forceful and plain-spoken” (page 470).
As various British dialects commingled in America, some English regionalisms disappeared while others survived. Americans discarded the northern England pronunciation “coom” for come, but retained northern Britain’s short A in dance.
Middle American words adopted by the rest of the country include bamboozle, abide, blather, boggle, by golly, chuck (throw), dumbfounded, flabbergasted, fuzz ball, elbow grease, flare up, good grief, guzzle, gumption, mad (angry), thingamajig, and many more.
Another key group are the Scots-Irish. They were the last foundational group of colonists. Recruited to act as a buffer between the polite English settlements of the coast and the Native Americans to the west who were angry about their land being taken, the militant Scots-Irish were cut out for the task.
For centuries the Scots tried to fight off their English conquerors (think Braveheart), and later when they settled in Northern Ireland this militancy was extended to religion as a clear marker between Protestant Ulstermen (Scots-Irish) and the Catholic Irish.
The Scots-Irish contributed much to American culture (praise God and pass the ammunition!), which extended west as whites fought Native Americans (how the West was won).
Coming late to the colonial party, they mostly adopted the dialects they found in America, so their Scots-Irish brogue didn’t survive. But they did leave a linguistic mark, such as yonder, thar (there), wrassle (wrestle), buck nekkid, critter, adding a- before a verb such as a-goin’, scrawny, honey as a term of endearment, and of course little shit referring to a small child.
Other Influential Groups
Other groups, though less influential, also played a foundational role in American English. For example, Native Americans gave us numerous place names, and words like raccoon for species native to North America.
Africans were involuntarily brought to America and learned English informally, giving rise to speech patterns such as verb omission (“where you at?”). African-Americans gave us juke (as in jukebox), okra, gumbo; revised forms of non-English European words such as banana and banjo; coined new words such as jive and boogie-woogie; and popularized other words such as okay and jitterbug. Use of language is also key. Rhyming to make a point and greater expressiveness than found in European culture greatly influenced American speech.
The Dutch, who settled New Amsterdam (later New York) before the British, gave us Yankees and cookies.
Later immigrant groups also contributed. The Irish taught Americans to say “I will” instead of “I shall.” I could go on and on about Spanish words that have entered American English. Finally, what would American English be without Yiddish borrowings such as schmuck and schlep?