When Did Americans Lose Their British Accents?

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Getty Images

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.

Why Do We Call a Leg Cramp a Charley Horse?

iStock.com/Jan-Otto
iStock.com/Jan-Otto

If you’re unlucky enough to have experienced a charley horse—a painful muscle spasm or cramp in your leg—then you may have found yourself wondering what this nonsensical phrase even means. Who is this Charley character? Where did he come from? And what does he know about my pain?

Like the words flaky and jazz, this term likely entered the language from the baseball field. While the idiom’s etymology isn’t 100 percent certain, archived newspaper articles suggest it was coined by a baseball player in the 1880s. We just don’t know which player said it first, or why.

According to a January 1887 article in the Democrat and Chronicle, the phrase was well-known to baseball players at the time—but to the average person, charley horses were as enigmatic as “an Egyptian hieroglyphic.” That year, charley horses were mentioned in a slew of newspapers across America, and some attempted to tackle the phrase’s murky origin. “Nearly every sporting journal gives a different version as to how the term charley horse originated in baseball circles,” the Oakland Daily Evening Tribune reported at the time.

The likeliest tale, according to the paper, centered around John Wesley "Jack" Glasscock, a shortstop who at the time was playing for Indianapolis. At some point a few years earlier, the player had strained a tendon in his thigh during a game and afterwards went home to his farm, where his father looked after a lame old horse called a "Charley horse." When the senior Glasscock saw his son limping along, he reportedly exclaimed, “Why, John, my boy, what is the matter; you go just like the old Charley horse?” John supposedly shared the funny turn of phrase with his teammates, and from there it spread. Similar accounts were reported in other newspapers, but they were attributed to various other players.

Other reports say the phrase has nothing to do with a live animal, but rather the fact that an injured player, while running, resembles a rocking horse or a child riding astride a wooden hobby horse.

The New Dickson Baseball Dictionary by Paul Dickson details a few other theories. In two versions of the same basic tale, Orioles or Chicago Cubs players went to the races and bet on a horse named Charlie who "pulled up lame in the final stretch." The next day, a player pulled a tendon in his leg and was said to resemble “our old Charlie horse.”

Alternatively, its origin may relate to an old workhorse that was tasked with pulling a roller across the infield. “Often in the 1800s, old workhorses kept on the grounds of ballparks were called Charley. The movements of the injured, stiff-legged ballplayers were likened to the labored plodding of these old horses, and the injury itself eventually became known as a ‘charley’ or ‘charley horse,'" Tim Considine wrote in 1982's The Language of Sport.

It also appears that charley horse originally implied a much more serious injury—or perhaps there was a bit of hysteria surrounding a condition that seemed new and scary in the late 19th century. The Democrat and Chronicle described a charley horse as a “giving way of one of the small tendons of the leg” and said an injured baseball player might need an entire season to recover. Another article from 1887 said ballplayer George Van Haltren’s relatives were worried he would get a charley horse, “although they do not know what that is.” He was said to have been “very fortunate” because he had “not yet encountered the terrible charley horse.”

For comparison, Healthline.com now says charley horses “are generally treatable at home” by stretching, massaging, or icing the afflicted area, although the muscle pain can linger for up to a day in some cases. So there you have it. We may never know the exact etymology of the charley horse, but the next time you get a sharp pain in your leg, you can thank an old-timey ballplayer for making your struggle sound so silly.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

Which Language Did English Borrow These Words From?

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