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.

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The Surprising Origins Behind 9 Modern Slang Expressions

Rihanna attending a 2018 movie premiere with eyebrows on fleek
Rihanna attending a 2018 movie premiere with eyebrows on fleek
ANGELA WEISS/AFP/Getty Images

Slang evolves so quickly these days—especially on social media—that it can be hard to recall how we first learned a term, much less where it actually came from. This list will help you figure out whether you should be thanking Erykah Badu, LL Cool J, or an academic journal for some of the expressions you love to throw around in conversation and online.

  1. FOMO

A marketing strategist named Dan Herman claims to have identified the FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) phenomenon and published the first academic paper about it in The Journal Of Brand Management in 2000. Yet the credit for the popular usage of FOMO often goes to venture capitalist and author Patrick J. McGinnis, who used the term in 2004 in an op-ed for Harvard Business School’s magazine The Harbus to describe the frenetic social lives of his grad school cohort. (One acronym from the op-ed that McGinnis deserves complete credit for: FOBO—Fear of a Better Option.)

  1. Bye, Felisha!

A diss by any other name might still sting as sweet, but there's something satisfying about ending a conversation with "Bye, Felisha!" (Though it’s often mistakenly written as Felicia.) The phrase comes from the 1995 stoner comedy Friday, co-written by and starring Ice Cube as Craig, a young man in South Central Los Angeles just trying to get to the weekend. When the mooching bit character Felisha (played by Angela Means Kaaya) asks Craig’s friend Smokey (Chris Tucker) if she can borrow his car and then a joint, Craig mutters "Bye, Felisha." And now everyone says it, though usually as an exclamation.

  1. Lit

In the last few years, lit has been literally everywhere—in popular music, speech, memes, and a series of articles about what it actually means. People have been using the word to mean “intoxicated” since at least 1918, when John McGavock Grider, an American pilot who served in England's Royal Flying Corps during World War I, used it in his book War Birds: Diary Of An Unknown Aviator. In recent years, however, hip hop has brought the word back to describe a general excitement that can be achieved with or without substances.

  1. Woke

Neo-soul singer Erykah Badu has been credited with bringing woke into popular usage with the 2008 song “Master Teacher,” which was a collaboration with the musician Georgia Anne Muldrow. But using the word to mean “aware in a political or cultural sense” dates back to 1962, when novelist William Melvin Kelley tackled appropriation of black culture in a New York Times article entitled “If You’re Woke You Dig It.” The Oxford English Dictionary finally “woke” up (sorry) and included this timely definition of the word in 2017.

  1. Humblebrag

Humankind has probably been humblebragging since that one Neanderthal complained about how bloated he felt after eating too many woolly mammoths over the weekend. Credit for the term, however, goes to Harris Wittels, the late comedian and writer best known for Parks and Recreation. He coined humblebrag in 2010, explaining the concept through retweeted examples from celebrities on the @Humblebrag Twitter account before publishing Humblebrag: The Art of False Modesty in 2012.

  1. On Fleek

This phrase was first used in 2014 by a Vine user named Peaches Monroee to describe perfectly groomed eyebrows. But fleek is defined in the annals of Urban Dictionary as early as 2003 as “smooth, nice, sweet” and 2009 as “awesome.” It quickly evolved to encompass anything that’s flawlessly on point, until adults started awkwardly using it and younger, hipper English speakers moved on to the next vernacular phrase we’re probably not cool enough to have heard yet.

  1. First World Problem

A cousin of humblebrag, this phrase is a helpful reminder to count our blessings and stop complaining about trivial setbacks, like a delayed flight or, if you're really fortunate, slow Wi-Fi on the yacht. It may feel like a relatively new addition to the vernacular, but the phrase "First world problem" has been around since 1979, when an academic named Geoffrey K. Payne used it in an article in the journal Built Environment (although Payne was talking about legitimate First World Problems, notably housing). The more ironic usage developed in the 1990s, perhaps helped along by the Matthew Good Band song "Omissions of the Omen," which included the term in the lyrics. But it didn't go mainstream until it became a self-deprecating internet meme around 2005.

  1. Yas/Yass/Yaass

Everyone’s favorite new affirmative was added to the Oxford Dictionary in 2017 and defined as “expressing great pleasure or excitement.” Many first heard it on Broad City, which debuted in 2014. But according to "Reply All," we owe its current popular American usage to the LGBTQ black and Latino ball scene of the 1980s, where attendees hollered “Yas!” at the sight of fiercely strutting drag queens. Ball culture was fertile linguistic ground, by the way: The subculture also gave us voguing (which inspired Madonna), fierce, throwing shade, and more. Call it the Kween’s English.

  1. G.O.A.T.

James Todd Smith, better known as the rapper LL Cool J, clearly loves wordplay: The letters in his stage name stand for Ladies Love Cool James. So it’s no surprise that he brought the acronym G.O.A.T. (Greatest Of All Time, pronounced like the name of the animal) into popular usage with the 2000 hip hop album of the same name. But many trace the use of G.O.A.T as an initialism to boxer and fellow wordsmith Muhammad Ali, who frequently referred to himself as "the greatest" and occasionally "the greatest of all time." In 1992, Ali’s wife Lonnie even incorporated Greatest of All Time, Inc. (G.O.A.T. Inc.) to consolidate and license her husband’s intellectual properties.

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