Larry Rymal in Texas recently sent this question, which I suspect lies on the minds of many others: “I have a question. It has bugged me ever since ‘day one’: Why is our general American accent different than the British accent. I’m not referring to the difficult-to-understand cockney accent, but the general London accent of the Queen or the Prime Minister.
My thought has been that since we primarily immigrated from England, why didn’t the sound of the words? Why is the general American accent not similar to Australia’s and New Zealand’s, for example?”
I have talked on this subject a lot but can’t find anything I’ve written directly to the point. To understand the answer to Larry’s question, we need to know about the nature of dialects, how they arise and how they become languages. I have discussed this in A Language is a Dialect with an Army.
Another reason dialects arise, not covered in that blog, is that, as the area in which a language is spoken expands, speakers at the periphery come in contact with peoples speaking other languages. More often than not, speakers of both languages intermingle and begin speaking each other’s language but imperfectly, the properties of the native language carrying over into the second language and vice versa. At some point, everyone in the region may speak the dominant language but with the peculiarities introduced by the secondary language.
This is similar to what happened in the US but in the US the change in pronunciation and new vocabulary was added by immigrants who moved to the periphery of the US. All the immigrants who ended up running this country originally landed on the east coast, most passing through customs on Ellis Island, and settled in the northeast. (West coast immigration came later.)
As these foreigners entered the US, the original English speakers moved south, where the dialectal features of 18th- and 19th-century UK English are best preserved. The accents of Presidents Carter and Clinton reflect the upperclass British shift of [r] to [ah] and the pronunciation of [o] as [uh-u].
Lower class UK dialectal traits are found in the dialects of those living in rural areas. Don’t forget that large numbers of Africans were also imported into the South, where you can find considerable influence of West African languages on the dialects of people of European extraction.
The Italians, Germans, Poles, Russians, etc. came in through Ellis Island in New York and settled near by. Many characteristics of their foreign accents were absorbed by the English spoken in the area around Ellis Island. That is why the variations in accents are so marked in New York and New Jersey.
So why are there no accents or dialects out west? Well, when immigrants overpopulated New York and New Jersey, they began moving westward. They were joined by southern farmers looking for free land.
As this great migration progressed, people speaking different accents intermarried and otherwise interacted in school, church, and business. In so doing, they shared their accents to such an extent that they created a common grammar of syntax and phonology (pronunciation) which they carried with them all the way to California.
Visitors to alphaDictionary from Washington, Oregon, and California who take our Rebel-Yankee Test, often complain that they test reports that they are 51% Yankee or 52% Southerner. The fact that these scores are so close to 50-50% reflects the fact that the dialectal differences of the South and North blended quite evenly.
So, that is why speech in the US is different from that in the UK, why we have “accents”, which is to say “dialects”, and why they are limited to the east coast of the US and not heard out west. You can easily see how the same thing happened in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and India.