When Did Americans Lose Their British Accents?

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Readers Nick and Riela have both written to ask how and when English colonists in America lost their British accents and how American accents came about.

There are manymany evolving regional British and American accents, so the terms “British accent” and “American accent” are gross oversimplifications. What a lot of Americans think of as the typical "British accent” is what's called standardized Received Pronunciation (RP), also known as Public School English or BBC English. What most people think of as an "American accent," or most Americans think of as "no accent," is the General American (GenAm) accent, sometimes called a "newscaster accent" or "Network English." Because this is a blog post and not a book, we'll focus on these two general sounds for now and leave the regional accents for another time.

English colonists established their first permanent settlement in the New World at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607, sounding very much like their countrymen back home. By the time we had recordings of both Americans and Brits some three centuries later (the first audio recording of a human voice was made in 1860), the sounds of English as spoken in the Old World and New World were very different. We're looking at a silent gap of some 300 years, so we can't say exactly when Americans first started to sound noticeably different from the British.

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. 

Talk This Way

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. 

Of course, with the speed that language changes, a General American accent is now hard to find in much of this region, with New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Chicago developing their own unique accents, and GenAm now considered generally confined to a small section of the Midwest.

As mentioned above, there are regional exceptions to both these general American and British sounds. Some of the accents of southeastern England, plus the accents of Scotland and Ireland, are rhotic. Some areas of the American Southeast, plus Boston, are non-rhotic.

15 Pairs of Words That Surprisingly Come From the Same Source

Both flour and flower come from the same root word
Both flour and flower come from the same root word
Lena_Zajchikova/iStock via Getty Images

We take for granted that many English words have counterparts that sound related, but aren’t. Even though know and no sound the same, their meanings are so different we assume they have different etymological sources (which the spelling differences also suggest). However, sometimes words we might not expect to have anything in common historically do in fact go back to the same source. They’re called etymological doublets; here are 15 of them.

1. Flour/Flower

Flour, just like flower, came from French fleur. It was named that way because the part of the plant used to make it was considered the “flower of the grain,” the best part of it, taking away all the chaff and other impurities.

2. Lobster/Locust

Both go back to Latin locusta, for locust, which also turned into the French langouste and Old English lopustre. The lobster is the locust of the sea.

3. Inch/Ounce

Though one measures length and the other weight, they both go back to Latin uncia, meaning a twelfth part. The original ounce was 1/12th of a pound.

4. Of/Off

Of and off were once the exact same word but in a stressed vs. unstressed pronunciation. It wasn’t until the 17th century that they developed different uses to the point where they were considered different words.

5. Etiquette/Ticket

Etiquette was a French word for a note attached to something that listed its contents. It was borrowed into English as ticket and into Spanish as etiqueta, where it came to be associated with the listed rules of protocol for the Spanish royal court. It then came back into French and English with the social protocol meaning.

6. Costume/Custom

Both come from Latin consuetudinem, meaning "accustomed to," or "habituated." Both referred to the general habits of a group, including how they dress, among other things. Costume wasn’t explicitly connected to just the dress sense until the 1800s.

7. Species/Spices

Both come from Latin specie, for "appearance" or "form." Spice came into English first, from Old French espice. Species was later borrowed directly from Latin.

8. Reward/Regard

In Anglo-Norman, reward and regard were alternate pronunciations of the same thing. While the g version took on the senses of "to look at," "give attention to," and also "to merit, esteem, or respect," the w version settled into the current sense of giving something on merit.

9. Dainty/Dignity

The Latin word dignus meant "worthy." While dignity refers to a sense of "worthy" that includes serious notions of honor, respect, and rank, in dainty, dignus lives on in the sense of being worthy for being delightful, precious, and pleasing.

10. Naïve/Native

Both come from Latin nativus, meaning innate, natural. Naïve is "natural" in the sense of being unspoiled and native is an innate belonging to an origin.

11. Shirt/Skirt

The ancestor of the Old English scyrte developed into a word for the upper part of an undergarment in many Germanic languages, but it’s not entirely clear how it also developed into the skirt word for a lower garment in English.

12. Tradition/Treason

Tradition is from the Latin tradere, for the act of handing over or handing down. Treason also comes from tradere, with the sense of handing over or delivering. The tray in betray also goes back to this sense of tradere.

13. Tulip/Turban

Both are approximations of the Persian word for turban, dulband, which a tulip was said to resemble.

14. Maneuver/Manure

Maneuver comes from the Latin manu + operari, to work by hand. But so does manure, which was originally a verb meaning to "till the land."

15. Grammar/Glamour

Grammar goes all the way back to Latin and Greek, where it referred to all aspects of the study of literature. In the Middle Ages, it came to be associated with just the linguistic parts, and particularly with the study of Latin. The fancy, educated class studied Latin, and also things like magic and astrology, so the word grammar sometimes referred to that aspect too. A mispronounced version, glamour, went on to stand for the magical, enchanting quality we use it for today.

This list was first published in 2015 and republished in 2019.

16 Buggy Ways to Say Mosquito

LoveSilhouette/iStock via Getty Images
LoveSilhouette/iStock via Getty Images

It’s summertime, and you know what that means: attack of the mosquitoes. You might be one of a lucky type who rarely attract bites, or you might be someone skeeters love to feast on. If you’re the latter, you’ll want plenty of ammunition for name-calling (and plenty of chickens, apparently). Luckily, we’ve teamed up with the editors at the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) to bring you some ways people across the U.S. refer to the bloodsuckers, and a couple of bonus terms from outside the States too.

1. Maringouin

Referring especially to a large mosquito, this Louisiana term is French in origin and ultimately comes from marigoui, which is Tupi-Guarani, a South American Indian language family. According to American Speech, maringouin is Creole dialect “used as early as 1632” and recurring “regularly from that time on in the letters and narratives of explorers and missionaries.” Good to have on hand would be the mangeur maringouin, a bird also known as the chuck-will’s-widow, and Louisiana French for “mosquito eater.”

2. Swamp Angel

A swamp angel is anything but, at least where skeeters are concerned. Used especially in the South and South Midland regions, the term swamp angel is often used by "old-timers," according to a 2002 quote captured in DARE from the St. Petersburg Times.

3., 4., AND 5. Gallinipper, Katynipper, and Nipper

Also known as a gabber napper, a galliwopper, and a granny-nipper, gallinipper is used in the South, South Midland, and especially the South Atlantic.

While a quote from the 1906 book The Parson’s Boys asserts that gallinippers are so-called “because at each ‘nip’ they took a gallon,” according to DARE, the origin of the term is unknown, having been “much altered” by folk-etymology and “other processes.” A connection might be gally, which means to frighten or confuse.

The earliest citation of gallinipper in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is from 1801. However, DARE antedates that by over 200 years with this choice quote from New England’s Prospect by William Wood: “The third is Gurnipper ... her biting causeth an itching upon the hands or face, which provoketh scratching.”

In Tennessee, katynipper is used, while according to the OED, nipper refers to a large mosquito in Newfoundland.

6. Snow Mosquito

A snow mosquito is a “large, early-season mosquito,” according DARE, that comes "out under the snow” and “only for two or three weeks in the spring.” The term, and the insect itself, might be found in California, Alaska, and Wyoming. A 1962 book called Quoth the Raven describes the bugs as “clumsy, heavy fliers” with a “droning hum, like that of an airplane,” which “gives ample warning of their presence and makes an offensive against them easy.”

7. Nighthawk

Nighthawk might be your next hair metal band name, but it's also an epithet for the mosquito, as quoted in North Carolina. Other definitions in DARE include a kind of bird, a kind of worm, a nickname in the West for “a ranch hand in charge of horses or cattle at night,” and a euphemism for a chamber pot in Georgia.

Another name of the nighthawk bird is mosquito hawk. According to the Linguistic Atlas of the United States by Lee Pederson, the “skeeter hawk is a cuckoo [sic] bird that catches mosquitoes.” It’s also a dragonfly, at least in the South and scattered throughout the Mississippi Valley, so called “from their continually hunting after Muskeetoes, and killing and eating them,” according to The Natural History of North Carolina, published in 1737.

8. Brasshead

Brasshead is a mosquito moniker you might hear in northwest Florida. Where it comes from isn’t clear—perhaps the insect’s yellow coloring, the hardness of its stinging proboscis, or its audacity for biting.

9. Drill Bug

You can also call the piercing pests drill bugs, as one might do in Illinois.

10. Mitsy

This deceptively cute shortening of mosquito might be heard in Ohio.

11. Mossie

Another abbreviation, mossie is primarily Australian slang, according to the OED. Its earliest citation is from 1916: “You won't be eaten by mosquitoes outside if you get on the breezy side. The ‘mossies’ haven't gone out of the house yet.”

12. Cousin

If you’re in Virginia and hear someone complaining about cousins, they might have annoying relatives—or they might be annoyed by mosquitoes. Why cousins? “Because they are so many and they stick so close,” according to a quote in DARE.

13. Paul Bunyon Mosquito

You guessed it: an extra-big one. Named for the mythical giant lumberjack, Paul Bunyan mosquito is a term that might be used in Michigan.

14. Texas Mosquito

A way of describing a biter as big as Texas. A 1900 issue of the Ft. Wayne Sentinel of Indiana claims that while “much has been written about the Jersey mosquito,” the “proper kind of a press agent” might make the Texas mosquito “head and heels over his brethren in New Jersey.”

15. Snipe

This term might come from the mosquito’s resemblance to the snipe bird and its long bill. According to a 1872 issue of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, the story that some “Philadelphia sportsmen” shot at “New Jersey mosquitos,” thinking that they were snipe, is “an invention.” The City of Brotherly Love residents apparently “knew what the insects were, but despaired of killing them in any other way.”

16. Jersey Mosquito

So what’s the deal with Jersey mosquitoes, and why is this appellation for a hefty skeeter named for the state?

It doesn’t have to do with the size of the state but where it comes from: the salt marshes of New Jersey. They are “notorious,” say Lester A. Swann and Charles S. Papp in their 1972 book, Common Insects of North America, as well as “fierce biters and strong fliers” who “attack in full sunlight.” Variations on this chiefly Northeast saying include Jersey bird, Jersey bomber, Jersey eagle, and Jersey robin. The phrase may sometimes be pronounced Joisey mosquito.

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