When did Americans start sounding funny to English ears? By the time the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, carefully composed in the richly-worded language of the day, did colonial Americans—who after all were British before they decided to switch to become American—really sound all that different from their counterparts in the mother country?
If you believe historical reenactments in film and television, no. Many people assume colonists spoke with the same accents their families immigrated with, which were largely British ones. Of course, sociolinguistic studies regularly show that speakers of American English seem to have a gentle inferiority complex about their own different accents, often rating British accents as higher in social status, for instance. So anglophone language attitudes being what they are, the accents of historical figures often end up British-inflected anyway, which, for audiences on both sides of the pond, seems to add an air of artistic verisimilitude to what might otherwise be a bald and unconvincing narrative. This might ultimately be a stretch for Romans and Nazis and evil villains. But is it really out of left field for the principal historical figures of colonial British America, on-screen or off-, to have sounded more or less British, with its tumbling mess of quirky regional dialects, a Scot here, a Cockney there, as well as the ever present Queen’s English?
Well, yes and no. The story of America’s linguistic independence is not so simple as some believe. Of course, most colonial Americans certainly did not sound like your average modern Brit does today, but nor did they sound like the Queen. By the time America was ready to consciously uncouple itself from the mother country, it had long since achieved a kind of linguistic independence. Thanks to a remarkable kind of linguistic melting pot process, early Americans spoke with a standard dialect all their own that was often met with approval by English observers, in contrast to how certain American accents are sometimes judged today.
American colonists often surprised their British counterparts by the fairly uniform and standard way they had of speaking, across the colonies, regardless of their regional, family or class backgrounds. In 1770, an English visitor remarked:
The colonists are composed of adventurers, not only from every district of Great Britain and Ireland, but from almost every other European government…Is it not therefore reasonable to suppose that the English language must be greatly corrupted by such a strange admixture of various nations? The reverse is however true. The language of the immediate descendants of such promiscuous ancestry is perfectly uniform, and unadulterated; nor has it borrowed any provincial, or national accent from its British or foreign parentage.
From the early eighteenth century, way before any political independence was even a glint in John Adams’s eye (especially since he hadn’t actually been born yet), this apparent linguistic homogeneity and egalitarianism were noted by observers as proof that, while British English speakers could easily reveal details about their background through their speech, it was much harder to pinpoint an American speaker’s background in the same way.
Far from being peopled with only British and European immigrants and their accompanying speech habits as some might assume, there was a robust and growing population of Americans, with a homegrown American variety of English that had not only been born by this time, but had already prospered through a few generations of native-born speakers, long before the Declaration of Independence was written.
Further evidence of this can be seen in a rather curious collection of advertisements for runaway indentured servants and felons (who were often immigrants from the old world) in which regional speech becomes a defining, out-of-the-ordinary, “identikit” characteristic, as much as physical details were, such as a scar or a limp. Servants’ language would be often be described as “plain,” “good,” “bad,” “broad,” or “broken,” showing that it was seen as different from the generally received American standard of speech of the time.
“Ran away from the Subscriber … a Servant Man, named John Smith, … an Englishman, and speaks very plain.”
“Run away . . . from Germanna in Virginia, five Servant Men, belonging to his Excellency Colonel Spotswood Governor of Virginia . . . The said Cole an Englishman, speaking remarkably on the West-Country Dialect . . . aged about 30 Years . . . The said Redwood an Englishman, speaking broad West-Country . . . aged about 30 Years . . . The said Gaar an Englishman, speaking likewise as a West-Country Man . . . aged about 30 Years.”
Many described the American dialect of the day positively as being, surprisingly, pretty close to the accepted British grammatical standard of London “polite” society, “good English, without idiom or tone,” even if there were some accent differences and linguistic variation. Paul Longmore notes, for example, that many colonists pronounced “cover as kivver, engine as ingine, yesterday as yisterday, yes as yis, and Sarah as Sary.” While these would have been indicators of lower status in England, in colonial America speakers of all classes and regions might have used these forms, diluting them as signs of social status.
So how did this come about, given the jumbled-up cultural and linguistic diversity of colonial American backgrounds (adventurers or otherwise)? Stemming from the same source, how did American and British dialects become so different?
The differences between British English dialects and American ones have been eagerly examined and debated ever since the American colonies were established. Some fairly resilient linguistic myths have arisen as folk explanations for why British and American dialects are the way they are. The story goes (and this is one popular myth that some historians and linguists still hold tightly to) that Standard American English and the Elizabethan language of Shakespeare are practically BFFs. This is perhaps because the very early British settlers in Jamestown came over just before “Shakespeare breathed his last” and before many of the defining sound differences we see today in the British Received Pronunciation standard dialect, such as losing the “r” sound at the end of syllables, occurred. The usual claim is that American English is the OG English, an older, archaic form of British English, beautifully preserved as a linguistic fossil in a museum case, while meanwhile it was actually British English (namely RP) that was undergoing all manner of changes and corrupting itself in the process, and generally becoming less real, y’all.
The often-cited mistaken belief that Shakespeare, then, sounded much more American than he did British, and thus American English must be free from any modern linguistic “corruption” that follows, is a notion that sounds “grateful to American ears,” in defense of a much maligned dialect, as George Philip Krapp points out in back in his 1927 paper “Is American English Archaic?”
Though we can’t know for sure how Shakespeare or Elizabethan English truly sounded, listening to examples of linguistic reconstruction of the pronunciation, from clues in the verse and commentary, suggests that Shakespeare’s speech was more akin to some contemporary regional west country British accents than American English. Krapp, among others, makes a compelling argument against the theory that a transplanted dialect or language to a new place suddenly has its linguistic development arrested at the point of colonization, so that examples like American English or Acadian French must simply be more archaic than the dialects that continued evolving in their home countries.
Far from being an isolated community, the American colonies developed culturally and linguistically while being in constant, vibrant contact with the outside world and with a healthy flow of immigrants from Britain, Europe and other countries—as well as each other, as American colonists were apt to move more than their British counterparts as land was being settled. There was an urgent need to interact with people from many different backgrounds and social class in an effort to form a self-sustaining community.
The truth is, in the context of a linguistic melting pot, where there are many dialects and languages all interacting in a mad rush to understand each other, a kind of linguistic leveling occurs, neutralizing and dropping the most marked speech characteristics, as dialects mix together under certain social influences, and a common mode of speech, or koine, emerges. No single dialect is really transplanted intact and unchanging (because as Krapp points out, language is not a vegetable). American English is not eighteenth-century British English frozen in time while British English varieties changed in a different direction. American English behaves no differently from any other dialect in this way; it develops and innovates but also maintains certain linguistic characteristics meaningful to its speech community, in the same way that British English does.
Paul K. Longmore’s study lays out how it does so. A koine such as colonial American English formed, of course, under the influence of the various immigrant dialects that feed it, the majority of which came from the south of England. But it was also leveled out by communication practicalities — as people move from place to place they reduce their use of really marked dialectal forms in order to understand each other, defaulting to more general ways of speaking. Finally, the cultural and social influences so important for an emerging immigrant population that wanted to achieve a different kind of social status and mobility played a big part in this dialect mixing; namely, what kind of speech that would have been more well-received as a “prestige” dialect.
But in order for linguistic innovation to really take root, you need a bunch of colonial babies. Colonists adapted to and adopted different modes of speaking, mixing up their dialects, leveling out many regional quirks, which in turn was transferred to their innovating colonial kids, who developed it further and became the first native speakers of this new American tongue. Starting with a source of a handful of dialects, the founding generation of settlers weren’t immediately followed by a huge influx of immigrants with other dialects and languages until an American koine was already mostly established by newer generations of Americans, at which point more recent immigrant waves began to adopt the prevailing ways of speaking. Newly-arrived immigrants, whether British, Irish, German, or Swedish, might have accommodated and adopted the newly emerging koines of the colonies while code-switching back into their regional dialects at home. Many eventually abandoned their native tongue and assimilated into the wider linguistic community.
So by the time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, it’s clear Americans didn’t have to hold their tongue with the British—they spoke with the national dialect that had steadily evolved for at least two generations before 1776.
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Wiley on behalf of American Anthropological Association
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University of Illinois Press
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The MIT Press
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Southern Methodist University