Anyone who has seen a Shakespearean play or historical drama is probably familiar with the differences between American and British accents. The British accent seems so formal and historical, while the American accent can seem like a casual upstart in comparison. So how did the United States shift away from the traditional British accent in the first place?
The truth isn’t so simple. In fact, we can’t say that the United States ever truly abandoned the original British accent, because the British accent from hundreds of years ago is significantly different than that of today’s. There are several key factors to consider when discussing the divergence between British and American accents.
Languages Change Constantly
Languages and accents are not static. In fact, they change constantly. Any language and/or accent can be especially impacted by factors like isolation and exposure to other languages.
Isolation of communities in the United States could work in two directions. Some communities may have preserved the accents of their ancestors, while other communities may have developed their own unique quirks. Accents in the United States may also have been influenced by other languages, including indigenous languages and languages of other immigrant communities.
The Role of Rhoticity
Rhoticity is one of the main differentiations between standard American and British accents. While there are regional exceptions, American accents are often rhotic, meaning the letter “r” is pronounced. However, British accents are often non-rhotic, which means speakers may drop the letter “r” as long as it isn’t at the beginning of the word (such as rope) or following a consonant (such as break). Think of the words “car” and “mother” in both accents and you can see the difference in action.
But Americans didn’t just decide to start pronouncing “r” suddenly. In fact, in the 1600s, the British usually pronounced the letter, too. Non-rhoticity spread through the British Isles over time, and many British immigrants arrived in the United States before non-rhoticity hit their homelands.
So, while Americans of British descent continued to pronounce the letter “r,” the accents of British citizens evolved to drop the letter.
Changes in “A”
The pronunciation of some instances of the letter “a” also evolved in the British Isles.
American accents favor pronouncing the “a” in words like “path” similarly to how it is pronounced in “trap.” However, British accents pronounce the “a” in words like “path” more like the “a” in “father.” However, as with rhoticity, it is the British standard that changed and not the American standard.
Are Today’s American Accents Like Historical British Accents?
Opinions are mixed, but it is safe to say that when it comes to the pronunciation of “r” and “a,” American accents may have more in common with historical British accents than do modern British accents.
However, it is also important to remember that American accents constantly change, too, and regional variations abound.
Both British and American accents are constantly evolving. Rather than trying to determine how, when, or why American accents diverged from British accents, it is perhaps more accurate to view each accent as taking a separate path towards change as soon as colonists left the British Isles.
Interested in more about accents? ALTA offers Accent Training services to help modify pronunciation issues so speech can be more easily understood by native speakers.
Meredith Kreisa is a Wisconsin-based freelance writer with a love of languages, learning, and culture.