At National Review, Charles C.W. Cooke offers a fascinating reflection on the politics of accents. Noting politicians’ tendency to drop their Gs when addressing Southern voters, Cooke points out that G-less pronunciation is actually closer to the original colonial voice than the current standard. More broadly, Cooke observes that the assumption that Americans used to have “British” accents is mistaken. Actually,
At the time of the Revolutionary War, American and British accents were somewhat similar, though informed by the usual geographical variations. Contrary to popular belief, colonial Americans did not speak with British accents of which the passage of time slowly has deprived them. Instead, the two accents diverged, with most of the changes being made on the British side — and somewhat deliberately, to boot.
Cooke goes on to suggest that Southern and rural accents are more authentic than Northern and urban speechways, which were influenced by the development of British “Received Pronunciation” in the 19th century. That’s true in a certain sense, but I think Cooke misses what’s interesting here. We often think of accents as cultural fixtures. In fact, they change all the time, often with remarkable speed.
Take one of the ways in which Standard American (the accent TV anchors use) deviates from British Received Pronunciation: its rhoticity, i.e. the pronunciation of the “R” sound. This dates only to the 1940s. Before World War II, the prestige accent in American life was, as in Britain, non-rhotic. The shift occurred during the war, possibly as a way of stressing Americans’ difference to their allies.
If you listen carefully, you can hear public figures adjusting to the new standard. For example, listen to this clip of Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., who wavers between rhotic (“are”) and non-rhotic (“thuh-ty”) pronunciations. Them compare the voice of his grandfather, the original Henry Cabot Lodge, who sounds almost like Winston Churchill.
And even the British prestige accent has changed more than you’d think from watching costume dramas like Downton Abbey. In his memoir Goodbye to All That, Robert Graves recalls that British aristocrats before the First World War favored a rather soft lisp. The clipped consonants we now think of distinctively posh emerged only after members of upper class encountered large numbers of American soldiers and officials.
While they aren’t as variable as fashions in dress, then, accents are far from permanent. I’ve always found them interesting because of the way that they respond to historical events of which many speakers aren’t even aware. How we talk is an important part of who are. But who we are changes more than we sometimes realize.