A friend was telling me about this idea a couple weeks ago, but I forgot to follow up or track it down, or look it up or whatever, and then I saw a Tweet from @kolbisneat reminding me about it. I’d always thought that the American accent had evolved out of the British accent, but it seems more likely that the British accent is what evolved after the upperclass started dropping their Rs.
First, letâ€™s be clear: the terms â€œBritish accentâ€ and â€œAmerican accentâ€ are oversimplifications; there were, and still are, innumerable constantly-evolving regional British and American accents. What most Americans think of as â€œthe British accentâ€ is the standardized Received Pronunciation, also known as â€œBBC English.â€
While there are many differences between todayâ€™s British accents and todayâ€™s American accents, perhaps the most noticeable difference is rhotacism. While most American accents are rhotic, the standard British accent is non-rhotic. (Rhotic speakers pronounce the â€˜Râ€™ sound in the word â€œhard.â€ Non-rhotic speakers do not.)
So, what happened?
In 1776, both American accents and British accents were largely rhotic. It was around this time that non-rhotic speech took off in southern England, especially among the upper class. This â€œprestigeâ€ non-rhotic speech was standardized, and has been spreading in Britain ever since.
Cripes, just realized I never linked to the article. That was really dumb. I added a link above and here it is here. Click on it several times. Poor form.