Rumi Nation

February 23, 2010

Why don’t Americans speak with a British Accent?

Filed under: Uncategorized — qandablog @ 1:37 am

With the exception of Madonna, of course…

The original 13 colonies were British colonies. So, it is reasonable to assume that your average colonist during the revolutionary war spoke with a British accent. After the Revolutionary war, time and immigration slowly changed our accent to what is today.

Makes sense, right?

It may sound good, but the truth is quite different. In fact, in turns out that the likely reason English people speak with a British accent is pretty much the same reason Madonna does: To stand out from the huddled masses.

Let me explain. What we think of as “British English” is a relatively new phenomenon, starting in the early 1700’s. Around that time the aristocracy started to pronounce vowel sounds in that distinctly British way. Writers of the time comment on the changing vowel sounds, but there is no evidence of an organized movement. One of the most popular explanations for this is that the upper classes started to speak in this distinct manner to differentiate themselves from the lower classes.  Sort of like Madonna, or the Star Bellied Sneetches for you Seussphile’s out there.

Another counter intuitive  phenomenon is that accents tend to change slower in non-native lands and change quicker in the originating nation.

So what does this all mean? Your average run of the mill Englishman around the time of the American Revolution sounded more like a modern-day Midwesterner than like Hugh Grant. In fact, Shakespeare lived before the birth of “British English”. That means that the “high-falutin” Masterpiece Theater renditions of Shakespeare’s works sound less like the original performances than the High School Drama club  in Des Moines, Iowa.

Forget Kenneth Branagh, I want to see the Coen brothers do Shakespeare. That way I can hear it the way it was meant to sound.


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