History of the American Accent (and How to Learn the American Accent)

By Michael E. Andrews

While considering the history of the American accent, most people suppose that “British English,” as we hear it today, is pretty much the same as what British people spoke when America was being colonized, and that it is the American accent that has shifted and taken on new characteristics. In actual fact, the truth is closer to the reverse. The variations of the English language which today falls under the umbrella category of “British English” have changed significantly since America’s colonial years.

Many characteristics of American English have retained the original sounds and patterns which were imported from Britain all those centuries ago. A person intending to learn the American accent will actually be learning a form of English similar to the one that was being spoken centuries ago by the British themselves.

Before venturing further into the history of the American accent, it should be noted that general references to “American English” and “British English,” unless noted otherwise, will refer to the generally accepted, most widely used, or “standard” forms of speech in the United States and in England. (The word “British” actually refers geographically to Scotland and Wales as well as to England, but for purposes of linguistic discussion; those areas are host to entirely different accents.)

Both America and England have recognizably different local dialects, which natives in particular can identify as coming from specific geographic areas. However, both nations also have a form of speech which is widely recognized as the standard, and which can most notably be found among national newscasters and those catering to a nationwide audience. For anyone wishing to learn the American accent, a national newscaster would be an ideal model of speech to emulate.
English in the 17th and 18th Centuries–The Same on Both Sides of the Atlantic

Clearly any discussion of the history of the American accent will also need to involve the evolution of the British accent, given that the American variations are being contrasted primarily against the British. The history of the American accent shows that in many ways it is the American, rather than the British accent which has largely been the one to shift.

Some of the main differences between standard American and standard British accents will help to highlight how the two accents have shifted away from one another over the course of the history of the American accent, and also start providing some pointers about the differences to those wishing to learn the American accent.

On both sides of the Atlantic, seventeenth century speakers of English used a “flat A” in the pronunciation of words like “bath” and “pass”–as speakers of standard American dialects still do today. The flat A and the pronunciation of the letter R are perhaps the most notable features of today’s American speech for anyone who wants to learn the American accent.

Seventeenth century English was largely rhotic (meaning that the letter “R” would be pronounced whenever it was present in a word), and a person wishing to learn the American accent should note that American English still retains this characteristic.

Most dialects of British English today are non-rhotic, dropping the pronunciation of the letter “R” except in cases where it is followed by a vowel. So, for example, most speakers of British English will pronounce the “R” in the word ‘really’, but not in the word ‘harp’. A speaker of American English, on the other hand (or a person wanting to learn the American accent) will fully pronounce every “R,” and in doing so, will sound more like the speakers of British English of several centuries ago.

The Mel Gibson film, “The Patriot,” in its coverage of the American Revolutionary war, stuck close to historical facts on nearly every account. One area in which the film makers deliberately chose to break with history, however, was in the matter of the characters’ accents. The producers chose to make it easier for viewers to tell which “sides” the characters belonged to, by inserting a historically inaccurate difference in accents between the American colonials and the British loyalists.

A person watching the film will note that the American colonial characters speak with what is now a common American accent, while the British soldiers and characters speak with today’s Received Pronunciation of English. The history of the American accent, of course, tells us that all of these characters’ speech would have been indistinguishable from one another, and no one in that conflict could tell by a mere speech pattern what “side” another person was on.

In fact, that very issue became a matter of great controversy not long after, because British naval officers trying to impress British citizens into mandatory service as sailors had no way of telling whether an English-speaking man was British (and “fair game” to them) or American (and therefore “off limits”).

Passports hadn’t yet been invented, of course, and it was entirely due to this difficulty of shared dialect and the controversies over press-ganged Americans that the American government first began to consider the matter of issuing legal documents of citizenship. If there had been a difference in dialect at that point, lower class Brits might have hastened to learn the American accent in order to avoid being pressed into service by the Navy–but as it was, the accents were still indistinguishable
English in the 19th Century–a British Shift to Non-Rhotic

It was around the end of the eighteenth century that the shift to non-rhotic speaking began to take off in Britain–or more specifically, in southern England. Scottish, Irish, and Welsh dialects remain rhotic to this day, as does the standard American, but near the end of the 18th century the shift to non-rhotic speech began to appear as a class distinction among speakers in southern England.

The upper class speakers of English began to take up the “fad” of the shift to non-rhotic speech, or dropping the letter “R” from its place in many words, and this manner of speech itself soon became a means of identifying a person’s social standing. Along with the shift to non-rhotic speech came the shift to the drawn out “A” sound, transmuting words like “bath” and “grass” to “bahth” and “grahss” with a vowel sound similar to that in “father.”

English society has long been incredibly class conscious, and up until the late eighteenth century, class and societal standing had been entirely a matter of birth and inherited position. Around the same time as the class-based shift to non-rhotic speaking, a new upwardly mobile merchant class was rising from among the “commoners,” and viewing the easily-learned matter of accent as a tool to be used in establishing credibility.

As the non-rhotic shift became an entrenched feature of class-conscious England, the concurrent history of the American accent shows much less change in the same period. Once again, although many people assume that it was the American accent- being located in a newer nation- that underwent changes from the “original” English, the history of the American accent shows the opposite to be true.

Of course, there continued to be an influx of new English speakers to America from various levels of British society, and some of the upper class settlers brought the new non-rhotic speech with them. Pockets of non-rhotic speech appeared in areas of America like Boston (where most natives still don’t pronounce the “R” in ‘Harvard’ or ‘yard’) and perhaps most notably as new plantation owners in the American south.

The history of the American accent is tied closely to the history of American politics; these non-rhotic speakers representing wealthy interests could well have become the standard of speech to which other Americans aspired, and which others would emulate when trying to learn the American accent. History would not have it so, however; the Boston powers became overpowered by the economic power house of New York City, and the non-rhotic plantation owners of the South lost the civil war to their rhotic-accented northern neighbors.

So although traces of those dialects linger, neither one became the standardized ideal of American accent. The history of the American accent could be said to solidify with the conclusion of the American Civil War. British speakers of English had shifted their pronunciation and speech patterns while their colonial counterparts kept older patterns, and those older speech patterns (now considered “American” speech patterns) prevailed over pockets of British influence in the South when the South was soundly defeated in the Civil War. Southern American speech was relegated to a secondary place as a “dialect,” while the American pronunciation which is considered standard today took its place as the American Accent.

How to Learn the American Accent: Pronunciation

In planning an approach to learn the American accent, several factors should be taken into account. Pronunciation is the foremost “give-away” with regard to any accent or dialect, but phrasing, idiom, and terminology are as much a part of any given dialect as the pronunciation of its words. The most characteristically recognized features of American speech, as emphasized in the history of the American accent, are the rhotic pronunciation and the shift (backward in time, so to speak) to the “flat A,” which Americans refer to as “short A” in many words.

Some additional characteristics of American pronunciation are highlighted below, so a person wishing to learn the American accent might take note, and then listen for these characteristics when listening to American speech–whether in person, or by watching television and movies or listening to radio broadcasts. My unique course ‘Learn the American accent-FAST!’ features all of the following rules (and many more) in precise detail and will teach you all of the aspects you need to know, in order to learn and perfect your American accent.

Rhotic speech–American English-speakers pronounce the letter “R” whenever it appears in a word.
The ‘flat A’ in words like “past” and “bath” rather than the broad “A” used by many speakers of British English.
The letter “T” in words like “bottle,” is pronounced as a voiced “D” sound rather than the ‘glottal stop’ which often occurs with British speakers.
Merger of several vowel sounds: In British English, the words “father” and “bother” may not rhyme, but American English has merged a number of vowel sounds, including the vowel which now serves in the first syllable of each of those words.

A person wishing to learn the American accent will need to make a mental note of these differences from British accents, and begin to practice them. As with learning an entirely new language, the success of an attempt to learn the American accent will depend largely upon the quality of tuition and only secondarily on the “ear” of the learning speaker (as well as the ability of that person to identify differences in sound and pronunciation and mimic those differences appropriately).

Since many learners do not necessarily have these abilities readily available, I have created my special course ‘Learn the American accent-Fast!’ which guides any learner, regardless of age, nationality or professional background through a step-by-step program through which learning the American accent is easy and fun. The result: you will develop a clear and smooth American accent.
How to Learn the American Accent: Idiom and Vocabulary

A person’s plan to learn the American accent will not be complete until that person has also mastered some of the basic differences in vocabulary and idiom. Even if the learner pronounced every word with perfect American pronunciation, the American listeners will not believe that person to be an American speaker (or even understand what is being spoken about, perhaps), if that speaker is using idioms specific to British English.

A speaker of American English doesn’t “go to the loo,” “ride the underground,” or “take a flyover.” Speakers of American English might have braces on their teeth but not on their pants, and the perfectly innocuous American reference to a “fanny pack” is completely unrelated to what a speaker of British English might envision.

Reading American newspapers and periodicals, watching American television, and listening to American broadcasting on radio or internet can be great resources for a person working to learn the American accent, particularly if that person doesn’t currently have access to live speakers of American English with whom to practice the accent.

Enlisting the aid of any friend who does naturally speak with an American accent can be an invaluable resource, as that person can point out and help to correct any poor pronunciation habits or vocabulary issues that might be creeping in, unnoticed by the learner.

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