This episode was written and produced by Kevin Edds.
When you describe yourself to others you might mention your height, hairstyle, or maybe your build. But one of the most telling things about you is something you can’t even see, yet it defines you more than you realize. Your accent tells others where you’re from, who you identify with, and maybe even where you’re going. How did accents evolve and why are American accents so different from British accents? Featuring Hollywood Dialect Coach Erik Singer and Linguistics Professor Dr. Walt Wolfram.
Music featured in this episode
Norwich by Steven Gutheinz
Figma by Steven Gutheinz
Erste by Steven Gutheinz
Moments by Steven Gutheinz
Lives Are Threads by Salomon Ligthelm
What We Used to Be by Matthew D. Morgan
We As One by Phillip Cuccias
Chateau by Steven Gutheinz
Redrawn by Steven Gutheinz
Heo by Kino
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View Transcript ▶︎
From Defacto Sound, you're listening to Twenty Thousand Hertz... The stories behind the world's most recognizable and interesting sounds. I'm Dallas Taylor. This is the story… of accents.
[Montage of various accents in movies]
I love accents. Every time I hear someone who sounds different from the way I speak [Borat clip] I take notice and wonder where they were born, who influenced their upbringing, and sometimes whether or not I could speak like that.
Quick note: any accents you hear in this episode are not necessarily “the best.” I know that people are fiercely proud of their accents and have strong opinions about what constitutes an accurate depiction. So for better… *[Capote Clip] or worse… [Austin Powers Clip] w*e’re just gonna have fun with this.
[Dallas starts off in British accent] **For all English-speaking people, our language started somewhere—ok that’s terrible, but it’s the best I can do. While the evolution of our language took many centuries, Early Modern English, the version used by Shakespeare, dates from around 1500. And modern English, pretty close to how we speak now, came along about a hundred years later, right about the time the British began colonizing North America.
So I’m curious, did the American colonists from England originally have a British accent? But first, I wanted to speak with someone who’s an expert on accents.
Erik: I'm Erik Singer and I'm a dialect coach.
An accent is just the sounds of a particular variety of speech. The sound system, the pattern, the pronunciation. A dialect is the larger category. A dialect basically includes things like syntax and word order and even lexis, kind of those individual items, different ways of saying things, different ways of referring to something whether you call it pop or soda or coke, that's a dialect feature.
Simply put, dialect is more what you say, accent is how you say it. Erik has worked with some of the biggest names in Hollywood. He helps them fine tune the speaking portion of their performances when they take on the role of either a real-life or fictional character with an accent. He’s studied and trained for years to be able to both do accents, and also teach them. I asked him what some of his favorite accents are to perform.
Erik: Depends on the day, depends on when I'm coaching how I feel because there's a big part of that. Let's see, just to sort of pick a few that I definitely have an affinity for. My mother is Swedish. [in Swedish accent] One of things I love about Sweden is the food and the culture, it's something I have a great affinity for. So I make my own herring and aquavit. [in a Southeast London accent] I have great affinity for southeast London. [in a Xhosa accent] I like doing Xhosa even if you can't get the clicks in there when you're just speaking English.
[in a Xhosa accent] Xhosa is an indigenous language to South Africa. Nelson Mandela was a Xhosa speaker and South Africa has 11 official languages and Xhosa is one of the biggest.
[in a French accent] If you think of very stereotypically French accent, the lip corners tend to be sort of pulling in towards the teeth, they're advancing a little bit. [in a 1950s RAF colonel accent] If you think of a sort of very stereotypical 1950s kind of RAF colonel sort of thing, it's the opposite. The jaw is very high and the lip corners tend to spread a bit.
Erik is pretty talented, but everyone has their kryptonite right? I wondered which accents are harder for him to perform.
Erik: Welsh accents tend to be tricky for American actors. We generally haven't heard a lot of Welsh. I just never had the opportunity to work on a Geordie accent, which is Newcastle.
[Billy Elliot clip]
The other thing that can make an accent difficult to acquire is just kind of psychological and identity stuff. It's an act of the imagination taking on an accent.
So there are these very, very technical aspects to what an accent is, how those sounds are formed. But you can't do it if you can't imagine yourself as somebody who speaks that way. It's your mind, it's your imagination, it's your heart. And so, if it's hard to imagine yourself as someone who speaks with a given accent, it's going to be a lot harder to get there.
Ok, so back to my initial question, what did British colonists sound like when settling in North America in the 1600s up to say 1776?
Erik: There wasn't only one English accent, there were many. There were three other big waves of migration. This is a little bit simplified, but we all think of the pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock, and so, whatever that accent was then, was surely what sort of predominated in those kind of Massachusetts colonies. Virginia, sort of Tidewater, Virginia was settled to a large extent by sons of well-off families and their servants. Then, there was the Quakers who came over into kind of Delaware, Maryland area and sort of spread west into Southern Pennsylvania, so there were lots and lots of accents.
I realized that it might be hard to pin Erik down on answer here, but in the most general terms I asked him what would most of those accents sound like in the colonies at that time?
Erik: It would have sounded quite strange to our ears but I would say definitely American just because this pronunciation or non-pronunciation of R sounds after vowels is such a major feature, it's a huge divide [The Patriot clip]. The different vowel sounds between things like hat and half, where for us, hat and half it's the same [The Patriot clip]. Those two huge things I think would probably give us the impression that all English speakers in England and in the States or the colonies sounded more like Americans do now than like Brits do now.
If many of these colonists more or less sounded American, then how did the accents back in Britain change to what we now know them as today?
Walt: We have a sort of preconceived notion of what British dialect should sound like, and it's typically without its Rs. You know, so it's not rhotic.
That’s Walt Wolfram. He’s a sociolinguist at North Carolina State University, specializing in social and ethnic dialects of American English. In a 50 year career he’s written 20 books and over 300 articles on variation in American English.
Walt: The accents of American English pretty much reflected areas of England. For example, you get people who settled on the coast of Virginia and islands, for example, and in North Carolina on the islands there, and they were very rhotic. That is, they pronounce their Rs in "four," and in "war," and so forth. They were very rhotic, because they came from southwest England where people still pronounce their Rs. On the other hand, there were some areas of England which were becoming quite R-less, because that was becoming the standard in London in the 1600s and 1700s and so they were more R-less.
This new accent that today is called “Received Pronunction” or RP for short may have begun in the 1600s but it would take a while before it became so synonymous with Brits.
[Downton Abbey clip]
Walt: But basically, it's simply the standard of London, of southern England, because of the prestige and because of the social class. That became the acceptable sort of norm.
[Downton Abbey clip]
Basically, prestige in accents is in the ear of the beholder. So, speaking of prestige, with all of this r-full and r-less business, did Shakespeare’s plays around 1600 sound the way we imagine them today?
Walt: If you look at Shakespeare's background, to the extent that we know about him, he actually used Rs. He wouldn't sound like we imagine a British person to sound like at that time.
Erik: You go back to Shakespeare and the Rs were really hard. So this idea that some Americans have I think that a Shakespeare should always be pronounced in an RP accent is fine if that's your taste [Shakespeare excerpt] but it sounds absolutely nothing like what Shakespeare's actors would have sounded like. [Shakespeare excerpt], somthhing like that.
It was very R-full, really hard Rs, kind of almost a little bit piratical, sort of stereotypically piratical and it was very fluid and efficient. They left out a lot of sounds.
As accents in England began to change over the next few centuries so did American accents. But early in the 20th century an interesting phenomenon occurred as they came crashing back together in a brand new accent that didn’t evolve—it was created. We’ll get to that in just a minute.
From colonial times to the early 1900s - accents continued to slowly evolve in America. But around the 1920s and 30s a new accent popped up… almost out of nowhere.
Erik: Well, it's got lots of names. Popularly known certainly as transatlantic, sometimes, Mid-Atlantic, which is weird. But either way, sort of like you were born on an island in the middle of the ocean between England and the US. It used to be called Good American Speech and before that it was called World English. It is, for the most part, kind of a hybrid accent.
Walt: For FDR, it was his natural dialect [FDR clip]. In a sense, while it had some characteristics that people think of as transatlantic, they were natural to him, which is quite different from an actor, for example, like Audrey Hepburn, who might want to appear to be transatlantic, and therefore be R-less, and pronounce her Ts as in "better,"[Audrey Hepburn clip] or "bettah," and so forth. They choose R-lessness. They choose a few vowels, like "bad" as "bad," and "ban" versus "ban,". They choose a half a dozen features and promote those, and they become sort of associated with this sort of transatlantic, which to a Britisher sounds, "Oh my gosh. That's a bad British accent." And to an American, they may not know the difference, and so it all sounds sophisticated to them.
Erik: Yeah, it conferred prestige. This is an idea that I think is not with the times now because this kind of idea of picking a certain group of people or way of speaking and saying everybody else speaks wrong or badly, we’re then telling people who speak non-standard dialect or a lower prestige dialect, you're bad and wrong or sloppy and that's just absurd on its face.
I assumed that the Transatlantic Accent was just a fad and died out completely. But then there was that little show on NBC called Frasier…
Erik: Yes, Niles Crane. So, David Hyde Pierce trained at Yale, and Yale Drama School, like pretty much every American Drama school of the time when he was training, that was sort of the bible. So this good American speech pattern was universally taught in actor training programs long after nobody spoke it naturally anymore, it still is taught in a lot of places.
It's still useful for period stuff certainly. If you're going to set a movie in the 1950s and the characters are actors, well, go for your good American speech absolutely.
Speaking of Good American Speech, there’s a perception in America that some accents are less becoming or desirable to have than others. So a sort of “General American” accent has taken hold.
Erik: There's this mythical beast called general American, put the general in quotes. It's not one accent, it's more sort of the absence of certain things, which is it's the absence of particularly regionally identifiable features. So if I say Tom or coffee or hat, those are things that are going to stand out to anybody and kind of make them say, "Oh, I know where you're from." So if you don't have any of those, then, people might say you sound kind of general American. Of course, there's lots of variations still in there. Half of Americans rhyme the words COT and the words CAUGHT, right? So cot and caught, "I caught a on a cot." Canadians pretty much all do that.
This “lack of an accent” as you might describe it can be a bit… boring. I asked Erik if he could give me one of my favorites… an accent from Fargo.
Erik: So Minnesota, so that's very different and I know a lot of people from there are quite sensitive about kind of stereotypical or exaggerated version of that, and it's not to say that everyone from Minnesota might talk like that but there are people who do for sure.
There are a whole range of regional American accents that have been around for hundreds of years. From New York, to Boston, to Chicago, to Cajun, to a whole variety of Southern accents. But what about newer ones like Valley Girl? Or the Kardashian-esque Vocal Fry?
Erik: I think it's a little hard to define. I think people mean different things by Valley Girl, although there are probably some common features like uptalk [SNL Californians clip] and definitely, like vocal fry is a part of that. That's when your vocal folds start kind of vibrating a little slower than they would for like all your voice [The Kardashians clip]. But both of those features actually are really widespread in American speech. Australian accents and Northern Irish accents and Scottish accents very often have a rise at the end of a phrase or a sentence.
Walt: So what you have today are you have new dialect areas in northern California, in the northwest, so for example in Seattle and Portland, areas like this, are creating dialects that are regionally distinctive. The point is this: Everybody wants to be from somewhere. And our dialect indicates where we're from.
Isolation is one reason some accents have lasted for as long as they have. One popular theory is that Appalachian English is a preserved remnant of 16th century Elizabethan English.
[Inglorious Bastards clip]
Walt: Well, it's true and not true, okay? The true aspect of it is that there are certainly older retentions of the English language. For example, in Appalachian English, the prefix like, "He's a'huntin' and a'fishin'." That certainly is an older English phenomenon that has been preserved, as are pronunciations like, "twiced" and "onced" for "once" and "twice." There are certainly older pronunciations.
The problem is that at the same time, Appalachian English is changing and becoming a dialect unto itself, and so there are lots of things that are actually new in Appalachian English. It's sort of like, "Something old, something new, something borrowed, you know, something blue." A few years ago a crew from BBC came to visit the island of Ocracoke...
Ocracoke is an island off the coast of North Carolina.
Walt: Someone had said, "Well, that's where the really Elizabethan, Shakespearean English is found." It's true that they do have some older features that were around at the time of Shakespeare. They say "thar" for "there" and they also say for "high tide," they say "hoi toide," which is a little more British and older. They have some traits that certainly are remnants of former days.
Many people throughout their lives supposedly “lose their accents” or have them transform into a different one. When a southerner moves north they often start to lose that classic southern drawl. Could some accents be dying out?
Erik: there are some sounds and languages generally that are a little unstable, that are a little more likely to be changed or dropped into something else as language change goes on. And we have two of them in English, it's the two different TH sounds like in this and thin, one is a voiced, one is unvoiced, right? And every time we see those in languages, they eventually morph or change or get dropped over time. You can definitely hear that in what's called multicultural London English, which I love, kind of a V or an F sound instead.
A good example of this is the way some Londoners say Mother and Brother as muvah and bruvah.
Erik: I think I've come across predictions that by 2150, English won't have those sounds at all. So, that's always ongoing. New accents are always coming and going and merging and splitting and distinguishing themselves from each other.
Every time I hear someone who sounds different from the way I speak it reminds me that the world is vast and diverse. It’s a collection of people with different ideas, different cultures, and different identities. These identities began thousands of years ago, and they’re still with us.
Erik: Because we evolved in this social, communal small groups and so, you have to be able to recognize and distinguish your people from the other people. We've grown very, very attuned to these minute differences, even if we can't say technically what they are, we're like, "Oh, you're not one of me," or "You're my kind of guy."
Just coming back to the idea that accent is identity, it's a way of encoding and signaling almost completely at an unconscious level for most people, who they feel like they are, who they want to be seen as, what group they feel like they belong to. It's the richness and the variety that is so fascinating and so deeply human.
Walt: Dialects are identity. They index where we come from, who we are, where we're going, and so in a sense, to be without a dialect is to lose something of your personal character, your regional identity, and your sense of who you are, and the communities that you come from. They're about as critical as any other aspect of diversity. This would be a much less interesting place if everybody spoke the same way.
Twenty Thousand Hertz is presented by Defacto Sound. A sound design team working with production companies, advertising agencies, filmmakers, and game developers to make their projects sound incredible. Find out more and get in touch at defactosound.com.
This episode was produced and edited by Kevin Edds… and me, Dallas Taylor… with help from Sam Schneble. It was mixed by Jai Berger.
Many thanks to dialect coach Erik Singer for joining us. You can learn more about Erik’s accent coaching at ErikSinger.com -- that's Erik with a 'K"... If you search for him on youtube, you can find an incredible breakdown he did of 32 actors accents. Also, thanks to Linguistics Professor Dr. Walt Wolfram. You can check out his latest work in the new documentary, Talking Black in America: The Story of African-American Language. And thanks to youtube.com/socratic for use of their Shakespeare sonnet #94.
The music in this episode is from Musicbed. They represent more than 650 great artists ranging from indie rock and hip hop to classical and electronic. Head over to music.20k.org to hear our exclusive playlist
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Thanks for listening.