March 27, 2008

American Accents

Stupid Question ™
March 4, 1999
By John Ruch
© 1999

Q: Since most of America’s settlers were from England, why don’t we speak with British accents?

A: Accent—the way words and sentences are pronounced—is a part of dialect, the regional variation in a language’s vocab, pronunciation and grammar.

Dialects exist because we learn to speak by listening to other people. Since very few people sound exactly alike or speak “correct” English, personal idiosyncracies imitated by children (or by adults who admire a particular way of speaking) can blossom into dialects.

“British accent,” for example, is an umbrella term for hundreds of accents derived over centuries. Irish, Scottish and English accents all sound quite different.

The younger U.S. has only three major dialects—those of New England, the South and the Midwest/West.

Despite the difficulty of defining a single national accent, there are some fundamental differences in American and British dialect. The average British male speaking voice may range over two octaves, with much slurring of syllables.

The American accent is generally flat, low-pitched and marked by a nasal twang. There’s a tendency to enunciate all the syllables in a word.

Other former colonies, such as Australia and South Africa, have accents that are distinctive but still quite British. What’s special about America?
The big difference was that the U.S. broke off contact with England fairly early, allowing American dialects to develop with less “official English” influence.

Early colonists had low literacy, no dictionaries and a frontier spirit of innovation. Their English was unconcerned with grammar, and open to new words and pronunciations.

Limited contact with England also prevented them from keeping up with favored British accents and pronunciations (the “standard” English accent has changed several times). In short, colonial speech was extremely flexible. A single family’s idiosyncratic speech could influence the dialect of a whole region.

These mostly unconscious, anonymous processes caused the American dialects to shift rapidly. By 1778, the rebellious Constitutional Congress decreed that official communications to the British be made “in the language of the United States.”

While America’s accents are certainly distinctive, they still have clear roots in British dialects.

For instance, the dropped R’s (“curse” becomes “cuss,” “burst” becomes “bust”) and drawled vowels of both New England and the South come from the areas’ Southern English settlers, and from lingering coastal contact with English seafarers.

And while no one knows where our trademark nasal twang came from, it also may have English roots. While the Puritans were still in England, critics made fun of their nasal voices.

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