Origins of The American Accent

Discussion in 'English Only' started by davidl243, Jan 29, 2006.

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  1. davidl243

    davidl243 Senior Member

    London, England
    English, Scotland
    Hi all,
    It has always fascinated me the idea that America is a country of immigrants from all over the world, yet somehow all the different accents amalgamated and aggregated to form a (admittedly not completely) uniform American accent. How did this happen? How was it that this accent emerged out of so many different ones? And when did it emerge? Did George Washington speak as Americans speak today?
    Just a few of many questions i have on the subject, but i will leave these ones with you all just now, see if you have any thoughts/ideas/knowledge on the subject, thanks, David
  2. mjscott Senior Member

    Pacific Northwest, USA
    American English
    Oh, no! They're not all amalgamated into one accent! (At least to Americans!) Some of us can tell if you spent time in the Ohio Valley, if you're from the Northeast, whether or not your parents were immigrants from Skandinavian countries, etc.
  3. DaleC Senior Member

    Makes me want to finally find out if the answer has been found out. In the meantime, here are some relevant facts.

    Parts of America, especially east of the Appalachian Mountains and along the Great Lakes, still have highly different dialects from what the dialecticians call "general American". Apart from these exceptional regions, dialecticians have mapped three east to west belts covering the rest of the eastern half of the country.

    One line of evidence is to recognize the historical structure of the immigration from the British Isles before 1776. The American historian, David Hackett Fischer, wrote a big book about this, *Albion's Seed: four British folkways in America : four British folkways in America* (1989) (one of the most memorable books in my life.) He demonstrated that there were four waves distinct from one another in three ways: their date span, the regions of origin, and the regions of destination. (Fischer's scheme is East Anglia to New England, western and southern shires to the southern colonies, northwest England to New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and the belligerent folk of the Borders and Ulster all over, but mostly to the interior.)

    By my reasoning, another key clue of the mystery you identify is this: the Canadians speak general American and not one of the divergent regional varieties. Until about 1820, the only immigration into Canada consisted of Loyalists from the Thirteen Colonies, and this flow lasted only during the Revolutionary War (until 1782). One would expect the new Canadians to be a mishmash of refugees from all over the thirteen colonies, giving rise to a special dialect blend. "General American" does not have any southern dialects in its origins. And there has been virtuaLly no immigration from the USA to Canada since the 1780s. Therefore, "general American" must have already existed by 1776. Apparently, that was the dialect of most of the Loyalists, and it assimilated all other dialects spoken among the Loyalists. (To convert from "broadcaster American" to Canadian dialect, here's all you have to do: learn two or three vowels, speak slowly, and speak softly. Canadian speech is such a delight. The voices are soothing and the people all seem serene. They are slow talkers and don't interrupt each other.)

    Another piece of evidence: general American is not the local dialect of ANY of the major cities of the eastern seaboard except for part of Philadelphia. (Most of the region from Baltimore north to Philadelphia and 50 miles north beyond that has a sharply divergent dialect. The boundary between this regional dialect and general American passes through Philadelphia. I'm from Philadelphia proper, but from the general American portion. Thank goodness! :))
  4. davidl243

    davidl243 Senior Member

    London, England
    English, Scotland
    Of course i am not saying that all Americans speak the same, although i find it hard to distinguish between regional accents i am obviously aware that they exist. What i am referring to is what Dale referred to as "general american" - how did this come about, how did the accents of the immigrants form into what we know as the american accent? Thanks a lot Dale for the interesting info, i see you know a lot more about it than i do...:)
  5. DaleC Senior Member

    You mentioned George Washington. With the caveat that there must have been some language evolution in Virginia in the last two centuries, I would note that the local accents in the State of Virginia are typical thick "Southern" accents. The Southern accent region extends well beyond the eleven Confederate states. The early Presidents from Virginia, Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe must all have had thick Southern accents. The amazing diversity of dialects and accents in England accounts for the similar diversity here.
  6. foxfirebrand

    foxfirebrand Senior Member

    The Northern Rockies
    Southern AE greatly modified by a 1st-generation Scottish-American mother, and growing up abroad.
    I agree largely with the generalities in the book cited by DaleC. But it doesn't take into account the New Amsterdam and Pennsylvania influences on the pre-7-Years-War Colonial English language. I believe the Dutch and German languages from the Middle Atlantic States blended with English to form standard AE-- these are also the regions whence the preponderance of tories emigrated, before and just after the Revolution.

    Regional origin is important to some degree, but superimposed on this is the question of class and enfranchisement of the British Emigrants. My own family all came over prior to 1640 or so, dozens of surname branches, all destined for New England and all of them fleeing not "religious persecution" but Cromwell and his middle-class revolution. If I believe the Pilgrimcentric myth about this era, I have to see my family history as atypical-- I doubt if it was, because immigration in Virginia and Maryland also consisted mainly of the Cavalier class, the ones in Maryland being overtly Catholic.

    After 1660 the pattern changed, and Puritans who felt the ominous sea-change of the Restoration started striking out for better lives, having heard success stories about emigration for a generation or so. These more middle-class people tended to aim for the tier of colonies north of Virginia and south of New England. Because they were tradesmen rather than displaced aristocrats, they blended with their forerunners from other countries-- English came to be spoken in New Amsterdam and Germantown not by military conquest but by commerce and demographics.

    The resulting population is, I think, the group where standard AE arose, and with it the Canadian variant, slight as it is. This is a northern dialect from the point of view of the piedmont and mountain-country populations south of the Chesapeake bay, people who weren't even middle-class-- many of them rounded up in the "border counties" where brigandage was rife, and where for centuries "marcher lords" tried to reconcile Saxon and Norman sovereignty with Celtic fractiousness. It's these people who evolved what we now call a Southern or Confederate or Appalachian accent.

    I don't think the Founding Fathers from Virginia spoke this dialect of Cumbria, Northumberland, Yorkshire and lowland Scotland. They came from no further north than Lincolnshire and were not all that different from the "East Anglians" mentioned above. Hill-country dialect became more influential after the War of 1812 and the age of Jackson.
  7. DaleC Senior Member

    You refer to the book by Fischer that I referred to. But the statements you make are not those of the book.

  8. foxfirebrand

    foxfirebrand Senior Member

    The Northern Rockies
    Southern AE greatly modified by a 1st-generation Scottish-American mother, and growing up abroad.
    Again-- I don't believe that what I'm "standing on its head" is the true or accurate character of the British settlement of New England-- particularly those who came over earliest, in the two mass-exodus "Great Migration" crossings of 1630 and 1635 under Winthrop's leadership. The Mayflower was first, it set the myth in motion-- but there is a book called "Plantagenet Ancestry of New England colonists," (not sure if that's verbatim) that traces family origins and finds a preponderance of evidence that people who made the extraordinary move of crossing the Atlantic were to a large extent those who were threatened by the Puritans, displaced by the takeover of England by Parliament and the middle class.

    There was a tax on emigration by people the Establishment didn't want to leave, such as aristocratic governmental functionaries and dissenting Anglican clergymen-- a lot of people dissembled about their circumstances and their origins, and continued to do so in the New World, particularly those who, like my ancestors, were already accustomed to keeping their Catholicism clandestine in a hostile and dangerous Protestant world-- and originally the danger didn't come from radical dissenters but from the high Anglican Establishment itself.

    My statement "if I believe the Pilgrimcentric myth" points to the fact that I am in dissent about the idea that Puritans made up the bulk of New England colonists-- and of course I'm talking about the decade or two before 1642, as I clearly indicated. That kind of mass emigration would've impaired the Puritan revolution in the home islands, I believe. I know of 118 specific ancestors who appear on ship's manifests prior to the deposition of Charles I, and their pattern is consistently in contradiction to the prevailing wisdom about class origins in early New England-- with a sample that large, I find it hard to believe that my families are entirely unrepresentative of the trends of their times.

    And believe me, record-keeping at the time was dismal-- too many people had too many reasons to be discreet about their origins. If you have family origins in early New England you don't have a prayer of learning much about them-- unless they were in court a lot, in civil disputes and answering minor criminal charges like drinking on Sunday, "raffling" or selling cider to the Indians.
  9. Isotta

    Isotta Senior Member

    English, Hodgepodge
    Dale--could you tell us more about "what the dialecticians call 'general American?' "

  10. DaleC Senior Member

    When introduced before World War 2, the term alluded to the definite absence of a standard dialect. There probably never will be a standard; that wouldn't be the American way. Obviously, though, most Americans speak enough alike one another that they are oblivious to each others' subtle differences in accent. Certainly, the phonetic inventory given in dictionaries and grammars worldwide as "American pronunciation" is general American (GA) -- over a hundred million Americans don't share that vowel inventory. This is the nearly homogeneous English one is most likely to hear in the mass media (TV programming and movies) and out "in the field". And certainly, this is the pronunciation of Canadians, except for a couple of vowels here and there. The Canadian differences are so infrequent that Canadians can easily hide their accent. But the key fact is: even when a Canadian doesn't make an attempt to hide their accent, being 99.9 percent GA, is far closer to GA than *any* of these American regional varieties found in the eastern half of the country.

    Nevertheless, close to half of Americans speak dialects that sound conspicuously different from "general American". General American just covers far more territory and has far more speakers than those others.
  11. mainejohn New Member

    I grew up in western Connecticut and with a minor exception here and there I feel I sound the same as my friends in Halifax, Nova Scotia and Sacramento, Calif. My theory is that "General American" evolved at about the same time literacy in the US became widespread, and that in western New England (where GA is the norm), speaking phonectically was emphasized by the local schoolteachers. For example "Worcester" was always pronounced "Wooster." That pronunciation was never challenged until people could read and began to ask "Why isn't it pronounced Wor-ses-ter"? (although its still pronounced "Wooster"). Generally speaking, when people saw the letter "r" in a word, they felt it was logical to pronounce it (as in "Bar Harbor", instead of "Bah Hahbah)
  12. Sepia Senior Member

    High German/Danish
    Where does the accent we always heard in "The Sopranos" fit into this picture? (Or Sophia from "Golden Girls" for that matter.) I thought the idea of classifying a whole lot of different areas' as "General American" was dead and gone several decades ago.
  13. mainejohn New Member

    The accent that you hear in "The Sopranos" is regional specific to the New York City/North New Jersey area. It is, for the most part, non-rhotic, and is just one variation of the northeastern/coastal accents that run from Maine thru eastern New England, New York and into north New Jersey. "General American" may be an obsolete term, perhaps replaced now by "broadcast American English." Generally speaking, it is rhotic, and is the American English that is heard from western New England across the northern tier of states to the west coast. There are slight variations, of course, and one of those will be heard from Rochester NY thru Buffalo, Cleveland and Chicago, staying relatively close to the Great Lakes. Another, influenced by Scandinavian immigrants, can be heard in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and eastern North Dakota. I want to emphasize that these are my own observations from having lived part of my life in these areas across the northern tier over my entire life. I am 65. I have not done a formal study, and my comments should be taken as such.
    Last edited: Dec 1, 2008
  14. natkretep

    natkretep Moderato con anima (English Only)

    English (Singapore/UK), basic Chinese
    Linguists write a lot about accent levelling where communities with different accents come together and an emergent uniform accent results after a few generations. This is said to have given rise to the fairly uniform Australian accent. In the case of America, the western movement of the population is said to have brought together the various accents from the 13 original colonies. Mainejohn's point about the influence of education, particularly with reference to immigrants from continental Europe, is also relevant.
  15. Roberto_Mendoza

    Roberto_Mendoza Senior Member

    Michoacán, México
    Spanish - México
    Look at this link. It's a PBS documentary called Do You Speak American. It address this very same issue. Cheers.
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