The Grammarphobia Blog

PAHST times

Q: In a blog entry a few months ago, you said the British used to speak with an accent similar to the one Americans have now. This was pretty stunning to me. Without recordings, I can’t quite figure out how you know this. If it’s correct, I’m surprised that all the colonists in the recent John Adams series on HBO speak with British accents. Given the research that must have gone into that project, how could such a big blunder be made?

A: I explained in the blog item that the familiar characteristics of what we now think of as a British accent – that broad a (as in PAHST for “past”), the dropped r (FAH for “far”), the dropped syllables (SEC-ruh-tree for “secretary”) – developed relatively recently, in the late 18th and early to mid-19th centuries.

Before the Revolution, the Colonists as well as Englishmen in the mother country had similar accents. In many ways, you might say, we we kept the original.

How do we know? Because there were written accounts. People wrote about these changes at the time they were happening – in books on speech and elocution, in articles in contemporary newspapers and journals, in pronouncing dictionaries, and so on.

If you’d like to know more, I can recommend a couple of books by scholars of the subject:

Talking Proper: The Rise of Accent as Social Symbol, by Lynda Mugglestone (Oxford University Press).

American Pronunciation, by John Samuel Kenyon (George Wahr Publishing Co).

I can’t explain why the colonists in the HBO series speak with a modern British accent rather than the “American” accent used by English speakers on both sides of the Atlantic at the time.

But this is apparently not the only blunder in the John Adams series. The Wikipedia item on the series lists more than a half-dozen other examples of what it describes as “historical inaccuracies.”

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