In July 1776, the United States declared its independence from the United Kingdom, initiating a war that would end in the creation of a new country. For decades already, the two societies had slowly been growing apart. This gradual separation raises some interesting linguistic question, most specifically: When did Americans lose their British accent? Did the founding fathers sound more like King George III or like a modern-day president?
While a fascinating question, it’s incorrect to say that those living in the United States ever “lost” their accent. Instead, they formed their own, new accent. How exactly this happened is tied to the unique development of the country, as well as some factors back in the United Kingdom. Here, we’ll dive into some of the ways the voices of these two countries diverged.
UK’s Accent Before The Revolution
The United Kingdom is a relatively small country — it’s roughly one-fortieth the size of the United States, or about the size of Michigan — but it’s very rich in dialects. Driving around the country, you’ll run into a number of different accents. When people refer to some singular “British accent,” they might be referring to Received Pronunciation, the high-class dialect associated with the Royal Family and British period series. Then there’s BBC English, which is another benchmark of the British standard that is used by broadcasters (though in recent years, the BBC has featured a greater diversity of dialects). Or, they might be referring to a more nondescript London accent. That’s far from the only way Brits talk, however.
Another thing to keep in mind is that the accents we’re talking about are not the same as the modern-day British accents. It’s tempting to think of British English as an older version of spoken English — especially because of the aforementioned period pieces — but it, too, has been evolving over the centuries. If recordings existed from the British citizens of the 17th century, they would certainly not sound identical to today.
The important takeaway here is that all of the ingredients that would make up the American accent already existed in some form in the United Kingdom. Using the retroflex R, for example — as in, pronouncing the R in words like “park” and “car” — has been in common practice in the accents of Southwest England for centuries. Same goes for all the vowel sounds that today distinguish American and British Englishes. These ingredients were mixed differently when they reached a new continent.
Migration And Dialect Leveling
As people from the British Isles started traveling to the New World, people with different accents immediately started to mix. While someone from the northeast and the southwest of England might have had little occasion to interact before, they could easily have ended up in the same part of the new country. This initiated a linguistic process of koineization, or dialect leveling.
Dialect leveling is what happens when a bunch of different ways of speaking come into contact with each other. Over time, the accent features that are most common tend to overtake others. For example, if more people pronounce the retroflex R than don’t, then the new accent that forms will most likely have the retroflex R.
Dialect leveling doesn’t happen overnight — just like you don’t lose your accent when you spend a week in a new place — but the accent will change quickly generation by generation. When a child is born to parents who have different accents, they’ll have to find some way to make sense of the conflicting pronunciations. Within the span of just a couple generations, dialect leveling can change the sound of a population very noticeably.
The American accent was thus a dialect leveling of a number of different British dialects. In addition to that, though, was the influence of people from all over the world. The Dutch, for example, had already settled in New York — or, before that, New Amsterdam — and so they too contributed to the new American sound.
During the 17th and early 18th centuries, the accents on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean continued growing side by side. Surprisingly, the vocalic R that is so associated with the British accent today was not always part of the accent, and linguists believe it only started to emerge as a dominant dialect feature around the same time that the United States and England were growing apart. This R-lessness became a prestigious variant — as in, having this feature was associated with refined, learned or wealthy social groups — and this factor may have contributed to speakers on the Eastern seaboard in the British colonies to adopt or maintain R-less pronunciation.
While the Boston and New York accents are by no means similar to English accents, their use of the vocalic R was influenced by the significant contact with and migration from England during the colonial period of American history. Once the Revolutionary War happened, however, the situation quickly changed.
Accents After The War
Once the United States fully took their independence from the United Kingdom, they underwent a period of relative linguistic isolation. And whenever any kind of isolation happens, it speeds up the process of divergence. This split between the two countries coincided with the expansion of the United States westward, which contributed to even more linguistic isolation within the new country. Even more so than before, British and American English separated from each other.
The evolution of the American accent is also deeply tied to the expansion of the United States in general. Those original thirteen colonies quickly expanded westward, creating new pockets of isolated people. This geographically separated more American speakers from the prominent R-less dialect speakers in England and some of the East Coast cities in the United States.
The accents that formed in the United States also were heavily influenced by the waves of migration that came into the country. There’s a reason people from New Orleans don’t sound the same as those from the Pacific Northwest; there were different accents mixing together. The idea of there being a singular American accent is relatively new, because the country has always been a linguistic patchwork.
Another element in the American accent is that in the aftermath of the Revolutionary War, there was a certain desire to contrast American English with British English. With written English, this was famously advanced by Noah Webster, who changed the spellings of certain words like “colour” and “centre” in his dictionary, which he wrote to give American English its own identity. Though this is only one aspect in the larger story of American isolation from the United Kingdom, it certainly was a factor in the formation of the new country’s image of itself.
How We Talk Today
The United States and the United Kingdom are on much better terms today than they were at the end of the 18th century. Even so, the accents are unlikely to merge again. The two countries each have their own separate identities, and maintaining accent distinctions is one way to reinforce that separateness. Despite the special relationship between the two countries, there’s not much will to reunite.
That doesn’t mean the American and British accents have stopped changing, however. As recently as this year, for example, linguists pointed to evidence of a new American accent coming about because of the interaction between Spanish and English speakers in Miami. So long as there’s more than one person speaking a language, there’s going to be some form of evolution. It’s impossible to predict what we’ll sound like a century from now — nor what global events might affect that sound — but we know for sure it will be different from today.