When most Americans are reminded of the early British accent, we think of posh tea times, fancy powdered wigs, luxurious and pretentious ways of life. We often praise the British accent, deeming it sophisticated and more desirable. But, these all seem to be ridiculous stereotypes, right? Despite this, there’s a reason why we associate this type of imagery with the accent.
The accent we are familiar with (especially on the West Coast) is called the “rhotic” accent. This means that we clearly pronounce the “-r” sound in words like “car, barn, far, first,” etc. Other instances of rhotic accents include Scottish English, Irish English, and Indian English. However, there are examples of NON-rhotic accents here in the US. For example, a common linguistic pattern on the East Coast would be leaving out the “-r” sound in the words above. This is what those types of accents have in common with British English.
Believe it or not, around the time when the first Americans left England, both had the same accent- a rhotic accent. Those in England during that time actually had a very similar accent to our own today in America. So, when and why did this change?
Around the time of the busily-growing Industrial Revolution, specifically the late 18th century, a distinct upper-class began to develop. This upper-class had gotten the majority of their wealth from this boom in production through factory managing, business owning, etc. So, in order to make their wealth and social superiority abundantly clear, they decided to develop a more “delicate” or “advanced” way of speaking. This way, they could identify who was of higher class and more socially privileged or gifted. Sounds kind of ridiculous when you think about it. Absurdity aside, this social trend quickly developed into the common way of speaking for many in the country regardless of social class as the centuries went on. Of course, England in itself has a multitude of distinct regional accents, but this accent in particular is the most familiar to Americans and is essentially the “original” British accent.
In other words, it was not the American accent that diverged from the British accent, but the reverse! Perhaps it serves as some sort of win for Americans to know that we have the original accent and it’s the British who are the strange ones.
Just remember next time you’re reading literature in English class, that, strangely enough, even William Shakespeare most likely had an “American” sounding accent, and not the posh, “Queen of England”-esque one!