What Did the Original Colonists Sound Like?
Hi, I'm Craig, and I'm an OC—Original Colonist—and this is mental_floss on YouTube. Today I'm going to answer Jacob Mitchell's big question: What did the original colonists sound like? Did they have a modern British accent? Let's get started!
Every time I attempt a British accent the commenters get angry. Don't get angry. So, it turns out that accents are pretty complicated things. Like when Jacob says, "modern British accent," he probably means what linguists call the Received Pronunciation, or R.P., or rp.
There are a ton of different accents in the UK, but the Oxford English Dictionary defines the R.P. as "the standard accent of English as spoken in the south of England." And that's what Americans typically mean when they say "British accent" (but let's be honest, Americans never talk about other countries at all). There's a flip side to that too: Americans have tons of different accents, but the general "American" accent is what a British person would call an "American accent." They might not do [air quotes] though.
At that time both accents were rhotic, like an American acent. Rhoticism means the letter R is pronounced in words like hard and park. In Received Pronunciation, that R sound isn't pronounced. Should it be "Eceived Ponunciation," then? Of course there aren't any recordings from the seventeenth century, so we can't know for sure what British and American people sounded like, but linguists are pretty sure both are rhotic because the R exists in those words, so it's probably supposed to be ponounced.
Experts have also observed that it wasn't until the late eighteenth century that British people started to write words like hard or park while omitting the R for time in shorthand notes. It takes time to write that R with all those curves.
So, where did the modern British accent come from? According to the Cambridge History of the English Language, the Received Pronunciation emerged in southern England during the Industrial Revolution. People were born into lower classes and then became wealthy developed a way of speaking so they could set themselves apart from the social class they had surpassed. The book states "London pronunciation became the prerogative of a new breed of specialists—orthoepists and teachers of elocution. The orthoepists decided upon correct pronunciations, compiled pronouncing dictionaries and, in private and expensive tutoring sessions, drilled enterprising citizens in fashionable articulation."
So, if you ever see a movie or play that takes place in Britain before the eighteenth century, those characters should be speaking in American accents. Mind blown!