The Grammarphobia Blog

When did those upper lips stiffen?

Q: At what point in US history did we stop speaking with a British accent? Did the founding fathers have British accents? Any information you can give me would be helpful.

A: A better question would be, When did the British stop speaking like us?

The accent we recognize as British today developed after Britain and the Colonies went their separate ways (late 18th and early to mid-19th centuries). Americans never spoke this way, and before the late 1700s neither did the British.

The British once spoke much the way we do today. The dropped “r” (“fah” instead of “far”), the broad “a” (“lawf” for “laugh”), the dropped penultimate syllables (“secretry” instead of “secretary”), and so on are all relatively late developments.

An upcoming book about language myths that I’ve written with my husband will cover some of these issues, but it won’t be out for about a year.

In the meantime, you might look at a book called American Pronunciation, by John Samuel Kenyon (George Wahr Publishing Co., 1966). It’s on the scholarly side, and you’ll probably have to buy it used.

Buy Pat’s books at a local store or Amazon.com.