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How Did the Colonists Speak?

July 18th, 2019 History

Colonial-era reeanctors

Have you ever imagined how the earliest Americans sounded when they spoke aloud?

You might imagine that George Washington and King George III had British accents, like Patrick Stewart or Colin Firth. After all, the colonies were under British control at the start of the Revolutionary War.

In fact, chances are good that George Washington and the king sounded more like modern-day Americans than Brits.

Defining American and British Accents

America and Great Britain each have dozens of regional accents. What you might think of as an “American accent” is actually called the General American accent. It’s spoken all over the United States and is distinct from regional accents, like a Boston accent or a Louisiana accent.

On the other hand, when you imagine a “British accent,” you’re probably thinking of Received Pronunciation (RP), also called Queen’s English or BBC English. It’s different from Great Britain’s many regional accents, and it wasn’t spoken anywhere in the world until after the Revolutionary War.

A Nineteenth Century Phenomenon

During the colonial era, a colonist from Philadelphia visiting family in London would not have sounded exactly like the Londoners.

That’s because colonists came into contact with Native American languages and were also influenced by other settlers, including the Dutch, Swedish, French and Spanish. This created accents and new dialects that would have sounded unusual to British ears.

But English colonists and people in England probably sounded more similar than Americans and British people today.

The reason we sound so different now? The rise of Received Pronunciation.

Received Pronunciation

Received Pronunciation was first spoken in England around the turn of the 19th century—decades after the Revolutionary War—and became popular in southern England among the upper and upper-middle classes as a status symbol.

This made it the go-to accent taught by pronunciation tutors and teachers. Soon it spread across England as a “neutral” accent that was spoken by many in the armed forces, civil service, and later the BBC.

A number of things distinguish Received Pronunciation from other accents. One key difference is rhoticity. People with a rhotic accent pronounce Rs in the middle of words like “card,” while people with a non-rhotic accent pronounce it like “cahd.”

Before and during the American Revolution, people in England and English colonists spoke with a rhotic accent. But since Received Pronunciation is non-rhotic, many British people today speak with a non-rhotic accent.

Non-Rhotic Accents in the United States

After Received Pronunciation took off in England, many former colonists in America imitated it to show off their social status, too. This was especially common in cities that had ports and close trading ties with England.

That’s why many people native to Boston, Richmond, Charleston, and Savannah speak with a non-rhotic accent.

Of course, Received Pronunciation didn’t spread to the entire United States. Manufacturing hubs like New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Chicago became economic and political powerhouses, and the influence of British culture waned in these places.

The accents spoken in these places spread across the country, eventually becoming the General American accent we know today.

So the next time you hear a colonial reenactor speaking with a General American accent, be sure to compliment their linguistic acumen!

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