The first English words spoken in Virginia were pronounced with a 17th-century London accent. Linguistics professor Anne Charity-Hudley explains the evolution of the American sound.
Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast, I’m Harmony Hunter.
The first English words spoken in Virginia were pronounced with a 1607 London accent. Seventeenth-century English is called “early modern English,” and it’s the accent that would have been shared by Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth’s court.
The English we speak today, American English, is descended from those first English words spoken at Jamestown more than 400 years ago. So why don’t Americans speak with an English accent today? I’ve asked William and Mary professor of English and Linguistics Anne Charity-Hudley to join us today to help answer that question. Anne, thank you for coming today.
Anne Charity-Hudley: Thanks for having me.
Harmony: Well, let’s start at the beginning. What English is the first English that really is spoken in Virginia?
Anne: So really when you think about the early settlers, they are bringing the language of their local communities in England with them. So a lot of early settlers came in from the Southeast of England – the area around London. That would have brought that dialect, that language of Shakespeare, the more cosmopolitan variety.
But people who came who weren’t from that area would have brought a lot of different varieties with them. We know even today there’s a lot of language variation in Britain. So if you travel maybe even 10, 15, 20 miles from one place to another, the language variety changes. So that variation is reflected still in England today. Some of that then came with people who came to the United States.
Harmony: So the first people that come to America – I should say the first people who come to Virginia from England, the group we want to talk about – would have shared a handful of very different regional dialects. When they came together, how does that speech, how does that dialect or that accent begin to kind of glom together?
Anne: What we find is that it only takes speakers who’ve been in contact with each other for even less than a year, or a year or more, to kind of adapt to different factors within that group. So one thing that would happen right away, we know happens even now, is that the people who are in charge, the leadership, the language that they use when they’re speaking, when they’re writing, kind of becomes a localized standard.
So you might imagine that people would come in from different areas. Some would very much keep their local varieties, but some would start to sound like those that they aspire to. Others may just start speaking to people that they haven’t spoken to before, and their language would start to accommodate to that variety.
Then as soon as you’ve got children entering the situation – contact with a new generation of speakers, language can change in one generation so much that that new Virginia sound would start to be born with that first group of children.
Harmony: Can we make any guesses about what that first English accent might have sounded like? What hints do we have about what they might have really sounded like?
Anne: Well, the hardest thing with having no recordings, you kind of have to go with the written varieties that are left over. We’ve got some great early documentation. I know John Smith himself wanted some of the local lexicon, the words documented that were used in the area.
So we’ve got a small collection of words from them, and also the letters. The store records – anything we have that was written down. So you can kind of start looking to see what the sounds may have sounded like based on how they were written down. There are a lot of challenges with that, because until probably 100 years or so after the first people came to Virginia from England, written conventions weren’t so solidified.
So really, people wrote down words the way they pronounced them, which could really vary – which is good, it gives us some idea of that variation – but it’s hard to accurately know if that written form matches up to the spoken form. So it’s a little bit of a challenge to go just on the writing that we have, but it’s the best hint that we have so far.
Harmony: I want to talk about the “r.”
Harmony: We know a little bit about how the “r” was pronounced in 17th-century England and how that influenced how the “r” was pronounced when those Englanders came to Virginia. We still have kind of a historical echo of that pronunciation on the East coast. Where do we see that?
Anne: We see that around this area. We’ve got what we think about is some people who have a really pronounced “r” as in the word “car” and then we’ve got other speakers who don’t really have that final “r” sound that same way. The one that we think of stereotypically is “Pahk your cah in Havahd Yahd.”
But local Virginians also know that in words such as “mother,” “father,” they may be pronounced “mother, father,” or they may sound much more as a kind, Southern, “my motha, my fatha.” Speakers in this area may pronounce “r” sometimes, and then other times they don’t have it.
We think about that just in the history of contact of people along the coast of Virginia. So you see this “r”, r-less as we kind of think of it, people who don’t pronounce the “r” varieties, in Massachusetts, in Virginia, in Charleston – along these coastal areas.
As we get into the more inland groups, we see this “r” being pronounced more fully in some areas. But Virginia kind of being in the middle, and on the coast: that variability has happened over time and we still trace it today.
Harmony: One of the things that’s so interesting to me is that the Jamestown colony is founded in 1607. Thirteen years later you have the Massachusetts Bay Colony. That accent is so remarkably different.
Anne: Absolutely. Because we really think about who came from where in England influencing that. Then the distance between Massachusetts and Virginia, which is still great today, is even greater without the types of transportation that we have.
But what we also know about language is that people use language to really mark their own local identity and culture. So, people really want to sound like where they’re from. It’s something that we still see even today. So that marked difference is going to be a result of that. The migration patterns: who was there, who was talking to whom, but also a way to kind of maintain that identity, that local identity and culture.
Harmony: We’ve talked about pronunciation clues that come from the written record. There are also mythological pocket communities that are said to be still so isolated in rural Appalachia and Tangier Island, groups like that that have stayed so insular that they’ve preserved some remnants of that Elizabethan dialect. What do we know about those kind of communities and how their sound might resemble the very first English spoken here?
Anne: So the same idea kind of comes into play with these communities. They are very isolated in that the people that are on Tangier Island, Ocracoke Island, some of these islands that are more isolated really don’t necessarily sound like people in the main parts of Virginia, North Carolina. So that you get this idea that it may be preserved from a time that no longer exists, but we’ll also find things that have kind of also stayed in use in England that are not used here in this area today.
Harmony: We have a clip of speakers from Tangier Island that we'll listen to now.
Tangierman: Jackie Ham came in here one night. That kid drove his mom out. He said, “I had to get out of the house — Mom’s been hollerin’ and cussin’ at me all day.” She wa behind the counter; she said, “It’s a lie, Jack!” He said, “Who’s that, Mom?”
Old man: First permanent settlement, white settlement on the island was in 1686. There have been people living here ever since. Nearly about all of us that were born here on this island we can say that our parents were born here and our grandparents and our great-grandparents and our great-great-grandparents and right on down.
Harmony: When you listen to that dialect, what do you hear in the pronunciation? What is jumping out for your ear?
Anne: One of the biggest things that jumps out in my ear is the difference in these vowels. And how fast our vowel sounds can change in one generation, two generations. So the sound that we hear there in words such as “time,” that we say as “time” you’re hearing it much more as “toime.” It's one that you will hear along different coastal areas in the mid-Atlantic. You’ll also hear it up in Canada.
But as you go further inland, you don’t hear that sound as much. So that’s one that’s really noticeable there that kind of either stands out at people or causes them to not be able to understand as quickly what’s going on in the clips. Other things we’ll hear there is just the melody, the rhythm of the voice sounds different as well.
Harmony: We’ve talked about sort of organic changes to language. In Revolutionary Virginia, there were some very conscious, purposeful changes that happened to the language as Virginia colonists tried to separate themselves from England.
Anne: Absolutely. As I mentioned earlier, language is such an important part of culture that early colonists realized that one way to make this country unique is to really highlight the differences in language between British English and American English. So we see local writers start to kind of get this kind of Virginia culture in the stories that they told; poetry, writing.
You also see people across the United States, the new United States, or the colonies, trying to document what was different in the language. This corresponded really with a movement in England to start to standardize and document the way that language was spoken.
So you see this going on on both sides of the ocean. So that you start to have a British English dictionary system grammar, and you have an American system that kind of lines up as well. So people like Ben Franklin, Noah Webster, they were really interested in documenting what was unique about the language spoken in the former colonies of the United States.
Harmony: British English speakers aren’t the only people that are in the Virginia colony or any of the 13 colonies. We have immigrant populations from Africa, from Scots-Irish population, Germans, Dutch people, the Indian culture that’s already here. How does all that become a part of American language?
Anne: So that contact with all the different cultural social groups – people who are speaking different languages is a critical, another reason why American English doesn’t sound like British English. As you mentioned, the Native American groups were here influencing the vocabulary, influencing the sounds even, if you think about once people start to either speak a modified mix of Native American languages and English. That would have happened just by the course of having to do business or politics with people.
Place names as we see have been greatly influenced in that kind of influences the way we think about how things and how people should be named here. 1619 brought the first Africans to America, speaking a whole host of different languages. You get a mix of vocabulary, you’ll get a mix of that culture, but you’ll also get a mix that’s much more subtle of our pronunciation. When people are pronouncing words, and you have what we think of traditionally as an accent come together, that accent can go in two ways.
So if I’m talking to you, a little bit of how I pronounce things will rub off on you, and a little bit of the way you pronounce things may rub off on me. Over time, that will start to change the whole landscape of that area. So we’ll see that influence continuing even today with the rise of Spanish spoken in the United States. We can see in different areas how that’s changing how English is pronounced and produced.
Harmony: I’d like to end our chat circling back around to where we started. If British English and American English were at the same point 400 years ago, why do we sound so different today? Why don't I have an English accent?
Anne: I think the best thing to think about is that we are solidly American. We are solidly American in our cultural traits, which is a great mix of language and culture from people now all over the globe that come even into Williamsburg to tour the area that we’re in now.
And to think about the fact that our language changes not just from 400 years ago, but from generation to generation. So you probably don’t sound just like your mother, and you wouldn’t sound like children or people the next generation after this.
Harmony: Thanks so much for being here.
Anne: Thank you so much for having me.