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Glad You Asked

December 7, 2009

Q: At what point did Americans start speaking differently than the British? How did it happen? Did children suddenly start speaking differently than their parents? We are assuming that the first Pilgrims had British accents, yes? And for that matter, how did Southerners gain their drawl, and the Californians theirs?
—Kristin Howard ’81, Oakland, CA

A:The early settlers from the British Isles arrived here with different accents, depending on where they originated, and they and the British began to drift further apart [in accent] as distance kept the groups separate. But we Americans weren’t the only ones who changed — British speech changed too. So neither the Pilgrims nor the English of the period had what we’d call a “British accent” now neither sounded much like Laurence Olivier. As for the Southerners, their way of speech owes something to the south of England (which by the 18th century had lost its Rs) and something, certainly, to the speech of the African-American slaves who had developed their own variety of English. Californians don’t have a “drawl,” really, but their speech is largely a development from the American midland speech of earlier settlers, which mutated into an accent of its own.

—Thanks to Geoffrey Nunberg, linguist and professor at the Berkeley School of Information

From the November December 2006 Life After Bush issue of California.

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