Language in the News, Recommended Reading

Change Across the Pond: British and American accents

Today’s blog inspiration comes from an article from Mental Floss magazine titled, “When Did Americans Lose Their British Accents?” 

I have to admit that this is a question I had never thought to ask, but once I read it, I thought “yeah, when DID they split?”

First, I have to say thank you to the author for pointing out that the accents thought of today as “British” or “American” are more media-based than regionally-based, and that pronunciations have changed and continue to change because of several factors like economics or cultural influence. The more we are reminded that language is fluid, the less likely we are to stigmatize those who are driving the changes.

On that note, I find it absolutely fascinating that it was the rise of non-rhotic Received Pronunciation in England that really began to separate British and American speakers, and that it was the accent of choice because it was “regionally ‘neutral’ and easy to understand.” I think the “regionally ‘neutral'” is particularly telling. Often times, certain accents are tied into ideas about a particular type of person with certain traits, from a certain place, and that the way they speak is a quick way to identify and ultimately stereotype them. By finding a pronunciation that wasn’t tied to a geographic location, the desired stereotype could be assigned.

What about the comment that it was “easy to understand”? Easy for whom? Since this pronunciation was said to have “spread across England and the empire,” and that empire included colonies in locations across the globe, I would assume a great deal of interactions between the language of the colonizers and the language of the indigenous peoples. But if you’ve never encountered speakers of a language before, what frame of reference exists for judging if it’s easier or more difficult to understand?

All in all, a great question and an interesting answer that continues the conversation about language change. Add your thoughts to the comments below!

 

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