Have you ever wondered how the North American accent came about? Why does the accent we train clients to achieve here at L2 Accent Reduction Centre sound so different from the British Accent? Isn’t the British accent more original or “proper”?
The general North American accent that we teach is called a rhotic accent – meaning we pronounce our /r/’s in words like ‘artist’, ‘work’ and ‘perch’. The British dialect that we most commonly attribute a proper English accent to is called Received Pronunciation (RP). Received Pronunciation is called an R-less dialect because they leave out the /r/ in words like ‘artist’ so that they sound something like /a:tIst/. That being said, it is important to keep in mind that there are many different accents in both North America and the UK. There are some American accents such as a New York or Boston accent which are largely R-less and alternately, there are some British accents that are rhotic.
Historically, most English settlers to North America sounded much like the rest of the speakers back home in England. They spoke with a rhotic accent. Yes, a rhotic accent that sounded much like the one we use today in North America. During the Victorian Era, Received Pronunciation came into fashion with the upper echelons of society and soon, everybody was attempting to emulate their “posh” accent. While British colonists in some areas of North America adopted RP, the balance of power in the continent was shifted to manufacturing and business centres such as New York, Chicago, and Detroit, where the rhotic accent was still popular. As the influence of these areas grew, so did the rhotic accent, until we have the distinctly different accents that we have today.
In a sense, the North American accent could be considered the “original” English accent! We have seen this kind of linguistic conservatism in many other cases, such as with the divergent Spanish accents between Spain and Latin America, and with Quebecois and the French of France. In each case, the original accent has been preserved in the colonial areas while the language has quickly evolved in their countries of origin.
This neat historical story of the American Accent is yet another living indicator that language is constantly shifting and evolving, both on a global and a personal level. If whole countries can change their accent on a whim, what’s stopping you from coming in and changing your own accent today?
(For a detailed and much better written account of how Americans came to lose their British accents, check out this awesome Mentalfloss article!)