British people used to have American accents

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

While there are many differences between today’s British accents and today’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 ‘R’ sound in the word “hard.” 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 “prestige” non-rhotic speech was standardized, and has been spreading in Britain ever since.

UPDATE:
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.

British people used to have American accents

2 thoughts on “British people used to have American accents

  1. Aaron Pik says:

    I have no source for this handy (and don’t have time to dig one up right now), but there’s really interesting evidence supporting this: there’s medieval poetry that only rhymes with an “American” accent.

    Like

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