A Linguist Explains What Old-School British Accents Sounded Like

url-2Gretchen McCulloch last explained exactly how the Benedict Cumberbatch name generator works and why dogespeak is so doge. This piece was brought to you by a reader.

You might think that Shakespeare spoke with a British accent. And technically, you wouldn’t be wrong, because since Shakespeare was a full-time Brit, he must, by definition, have had a British accent.

But a lot of people, including many Shakespeare aficionados, take that to mean that a modern-day British accent (usually Received Pronunciation aka RP) is the best accent to pronounce Shakespeare with. Is this actually true?

Partly as a demonstration, partly because I just want an excuse to make everyone watch this truly excellent sketch, here’s Catherine Tate performing Sonnet 130 (the snarky one) for Comic Relief, in a British accent that is definitely not RP. You can start at 4:37 if you only want to watch her perform the sonnet, although the whole sketch is well worth the watch.

Or what about the accent of Ichabod Crane in Sleepy Hollow? (For the uninitiated, this is a TV series involving Ichabod, a British soldier who has been magically asleep since 1781, newly awoken from his enchantment and adjusting to the modern world, while also trying to break an ancient curse and figure out whether he has better chemistry with his cop partner Abbie or his former wife Katrina.) Here’s the series trailer for reference: you can stop after about 30 seconds if you’re pressed for time.

There’s a lot of buddy-cop plus magic stuff in Sleepy Hollow which is actually quite entertaining, but what I want to focus on is the fact that Ichabod speaks with a fairly standard-issue British accent, RP or close to it. Ignoring the realism of Headless Horsemen, is Ichabod’s accent any more reasonable than the affected British accents of Shakespearean actors?

As a matter of fact, there are actually very good reasons to think that neither Shakespeare nor Ichabod should be speaking with what we currently think of as a “British” accent at all. What? Yes, really. Let me explain.

imagesFirst, we need to talk about how it came to be that British and American accents are different in the first place. Most people assume that the British have always basically talked like that, and at some point after Shakespeare had died and while Ichabod Crane was asleep, the American colonists started speaking differently. That’s certainly what Sleepy Hollow assumes.

But it’s actually the opposite: at the time shortly post-Shakespeare and pre-Ichabod when the majority of British settlers arrived in North America, they actually spoke much more like current Americans than current Brits. One example is in the pronunciation of R after a vowel: at this time, everyone on both sides of the Atlantic was saying things like “paRk youR caR in HaRvaRd YaRd” (well, if cars had existed at the time, which they didn’t. Harvard Yard actually did exist, which, just…whatever, Harvard Yard).

We can tell that the rhotic pronunciation was the original one for a couple of reasons. For one thing, there has to be some reason why we write an R in those words in the first place, and basically everything that seems illogical about English spelling is actually totally reasonable if you go far enough back into the etymology. Another way we can show that people pronounced things in a particular way before we had recording devices to prove it is spelling variation, especially from less-standardized text like private notes and letters or from respelling schemes in early dictionaries. For example, if someone is writing “should” as “shud”, we can be fairly sure that the /l/ is silent for that person; conversely, if people don’t start writing “park” as “pak” until 1775, we can suppose that they didn’t start pronouncing it that way until around the same time.

So anyway, some Brits sailed across the Atlantic, speaking rhotically, and then they rebelled against the mother country, speaking rhotically, and then they founded America, speaking rhotically, and then they decided to make a time-travel action/supernatural TV series featuring some excellent characters of colour, still speaking rhotically. I may have skipped some steps, but speaking rhotically is in every single one of them. (Well, unless you speak one of the American dialects that isn’t rhotic, like Boston English or Southern English, but let’s not complicate things here.)

Meanwhile, back in Ye Olde England, everyone had also been speaking rhotically for quite a long time, but people started getting tired of it in the period just after the American Revolution. (Although we’re not quite sure why: perhaps this was just the 18th century equivalent of memespeak.) The first evidence we have of non-rhotic pronunciation is from a dictionary by John Walker in 1775, and pretty soon thereafter everyone was “pahking theih cahs in Hahvahd Yahd”. Metaphorically speaking. (Well, except for the people who speak a British dialect that is rhotic, like Northern English or Scots, but again let’s not complicate things.)

Is it surprising that the British were the ones who changed their way of speaking? Actually, not really. Language change generally happens faster in urban environments than in rural ones, so there’s a tendency for colonies (rural) to maintain the older forms of a language while colonizers (urban, at least in the capital where the most prestigious dialect is spoken) keep on innovating. So the same pattern happens in other languages: for example, Acadian and Quebec French preserve some older features that are now archaic in European French. (This is true at least until the colonies develop cities for themselves: other changes have happened in North America since then, such as the loss of the Transatlantic accent.)

Incidentally, the Great British De-Rhoticization (a term I just made up) also explains why Australian, New Zealand, and South African English are all non-rhotic, because these areas were settled after the British switched off their Rs, while Canada and the USA were first settled while everyone was still R-full. (More about British colonization if you want numbers.)

So let’s go back to Shakespeare: his dates are 1564 to 1616, which is far before the American Revolution in the 1700s and therefore long before anyone in Britain got it into their head to speak non-rhotically.

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