Brits Originally Had American Accents!
American English and British English are now as different as the countries and people they represent. Whether it's the way words are spelled, or how words are used, it's pretty clear that over time we've become very much our own distinct countries.
A major and obvious difference between Brits and Americans is our accents. They're really nothing alike. Americans are rhotic and pronounce their r's, while the Brits are non-rhotic and don't pronounce them.
This has likely caused some confusion for people, as I know I've been confused quite a few times by this. For example, someone in a store recently asked me if I knew where to find "tops." While I found the request strange, I went along with it. I asked if they meant shirt tops or toy tops. The person just stared at me in confusion. "You know, like the sheet you put down on the ground under your tent." Oh, boy. I guess they meant "tarps."
It is the standard British accent that has drastically changed in the past two centuries, while the typical American accent has changed only subtly.— Natalie Wolchover
When Did the Accents Diverge?
In 1776 many things were afoot in the United States and Britain. Most notably, of course, the Declaration of Independence was signed, severing political ties with Britain. By 1783 Britain had to finally give in and recognize American independence.
Apart from the obvious divergences that happen when two countries are across the ocean from each other (customs, culture, food, etc.), the accents began to diverge as well—and not necessarily in the way you may imagine.
By the late 1780s, The Industrial Revolution (1760-1820) was well underway, and many people who had grown up poor suddenly found themselves very wealthy. This new upper class in England wanted to distinguish themselves from the lower classes. It's as simple as that. They carefully cultivated an accent that would set them apart by changing from rhotic to non-rhotic speech. Much like Americans, native Brits pronounced their r's. In their newly adopted non-rhotic speech, the upper class sounded nothing at all like the lower classes in England.
There is a certain advantage to the British accent. I do notice that Americans love it; they think we Brits are smarter than perhaps we are.— Piers Morgan
Americans Preserved British English
Over time, non-rhotic speech caught on in Britain. It became popular and fashionable to sound rich and educated. It was posh to get professional elocution lessons and perfect their non-rhotic speech. The armed forces helped distribute the new accent around the country and other colonies, and non-rhotic BBC broadcasts sealed the deal. Eventually, as we've seen, non-rhotic speech became the standard in England. However, Ireland, Scotland, and parts of England have retained their r's.
American English, on the other hand, has undergone much smaller changes. For the most part, Americans now sound like the British used to up until the Industrial Revolution (1760-1820.) In essence, traditional British English has been preserved by Americans.
Anyone living on the East Coast of the US will wonder, "Well, what about the Boston and New York accents then?" The accents in these areas are noticeably non-rhotic, while they are completely surrounded by rhotic speakers nearly everywhere else in the country.
The fact is, Boston and New York were huge cities of trade, and were deeply influenced by the British elite. They picked up the non-rhotic accent and have kept it ever since.
The Shakespearean Accent Isn't What You Think It Is
Shakespeare was an English poet and writer of the mid-16th century. Virtually all of his movies and plays are now spoken with a non-rhotic English accent. However, this is incorrect.
In fact, Shakespearean English sounds much like American English sounds today. In his day the British were still speaking with a rhotic accent, and would do so for another couple hundred years until the Industrial Revolution.
However, other language changes have occurred since then that no longer represent Shakespearean English, either in Britain or America. For example, we all pronounce vowels differently than he did. In Shakespeare's day, "love" rhymed with "prove."
For the most part, however, American English sounds more like Shakespearean English than current British English does. But that doesn't mean he sounded like Americans, exactly. It's just the closest modern language equivalent we have.
Did You Know That Brits Originally Had American Accents?
Sources and Further Reading
McCulloch, G. (2014, March 18). A Linguist Explains What Old-School British Accents Sounded Like. Retrieved October 7, 2018, from http://the-toast.net/2014/03/19/a-linguist-explains-british-accents-of-yore/
Ro, C. (2018, February 08). How Americans Preserved British English. Retrieved October 7, 2018, from http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20180207-how-americans-preserved-british-english
S. (2015, June 12). Is the American Accent the Original British Accent? Retrieved October 7, 2018, from http://englishforless.com/2015/05/american-accent-the-original-british-accent/
Soniak, M. (2012, January 17). When Did Americans Lose Their British Accents? Retrieved October 7, 2018, from http://mentalfloss.com/article/29761/when-did-americans-lose-their-british-accents
Wolchover, N. (2012, January 9). Why Do Americans and Brits Have Different Accents? Retrieved October 7, 2018, from https://www.livescience.com/33652-americans-brits-accents.html
Questions & Answers
© 2018 Kate P