Some time ago, I asked Americans why they speak English differently. None of the people who were present knew the answer. “We probably messed it up over the years.”, said one of them finally. Over all these years, one line of a famous American poem has stayed in my ears. “…, and the Americans are worst of all because they speak it wrong.” I started doing some research, and this is what I found out.
When I grew up, I decided to become an English teacher. I studied at the Department of Applied Linguistics. Besides methodology, classroom management and phonology, we also got a thorough insight into American literature. We talked about American poetry. There was one poet who I particularly liked and still like—Odgen Nash. I always found the following poem very funny.
by Ogden Nash
Let us pause to consider the English. Who when they pause to consider themselves they get all reticently thrilled and tinglish, Because every Englishman is convinced of one thing, viz: That to be an Englishman is to belong to the most exclusive club there is: A club to which benighted bounders of Frenchmen and Germans and Italians et cetera cannot even aspire to belong, Because they don’t even speak English, and the Americans are worst of all because they speak it wrong.
The poem, of course, continues, but I want to stop here. I remembered this poem when I wrote my blog about Independence Day in the U.S. The question came up in me why Americans speak English differently. Weren’t the first settlers people from England?
In 1776, the Patriots (Americans) and the Redcoats (English) spoke with accents that were much closer to the contemporary American accent than to the Queen’s English.
It is the standard British accent that has drastically changed in the past two centuries, while the typical American accent has changed only subtly.
Traditional English, whether spoken in the British Isles or the American colonies, was largely “rhotic.” Rhotic speakers pronounce the “R” sound in such words as “hard” and “winter,” while non-rhotic speakers do not. Today, however, non-rhotic speech is common throughout most of Britain. For example, most modern Brits would tell you it’s been a “hahd wintuh.”
It was around the time of the American Revolution that non-rhotic speech came into use among the upper class in southern England, in and around London. According to John Algeo in “The Cambridge History of the English Language” (Cambridge University Press, 2001), this shift occurred because people of low birth rank who had become wealthy during the Industrial Revolution were seeking ways to distinguish themselves from other commoners; they cultivated the prestigious non-rhotic pronunciation in order to demonstrate their new upper-class status..
“London pronunciation became the prerogative of a new breed of specialists — orthoepists and teachers of elocution. The orthoepists decided upon correct pronunciations, compiled pronouncing dictionaries and, in private and expensive tutoring sessions, drilled enterprising citizens in fashionable articulation,” Algeo wrote.
The lofty manner of speech developed by these specialists gradually became standardized — it is officially called “Received Pronunciation” — and it spread across Britain. However, people in the north of England, Scotland and Ireland have largely maintained their traditional rhotic accents.
Most American accents have also remained rhotic, with some exceptions: New York and Boston accents have become non-rhotic. According to Algeo, after the Revolutionary War, these cities were “under the strongest influence by the British elite.”
Courtesy of International TEFL Training Institute, New York, USA.