Ben Miller

Early American Accents

In Colonial (American) Period, Edwardian Era, Everyday Life, Victorian Era on January 21, 2010 at 6:12 am

By Ben Miller

I’ve always wondered if, grammar and vocabulary aside, Americans spoke much differently in centuries past than they do today; in short, if the American accent has evolved significantly.

Recently, I decided to find out.

The answer is a resounding “yes.”

I started by looking for the earliest sound recordings (from the 1880s and 1890s) of some of the older living Americans of the period.

A good example is President William Howard Taft. Early recordings of Taft’s voice evince a distinct Irish-Scottish lilt…he sounded to me about like what I imagine a person from Belfast would sound like after moving to the U.S. as a teenager and spending a few decades here. But if you look at Taft’s biography, you’ll notice he was born in Ohio, in 1857, to American parents who had roots stretching back to colonial Massachusetts. So it’s a native American accent. Go ahead and listen:

http://www.historicalvoices.org/earliest_voices/taft_s1.html

Thomas Edison, also born in Ohio in 1847, exhibits a similar lilt. He also pronounces the word “measure” like “may-sure” and the word “again” like “a-gayne.” This same pronunciation was evinced by FDR in the recording of his famous Pearl Harbor speech, when he said that “this form of treachery shall never a-gayne endanger us.” This seems to be a common pronunciation of the period; American poems from the 1700s and 1800s often rhyme the word “again” with words such as “main.” For instance, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807 – 1882) wrote:

“Quick! for I see his face again
Glaring in at the window-pane”

and

“And when I ask, with throbs of pain,
‘Ah! when shall they all meet again?'”

Now listen to Edison’s speech about the knowledge of electricity here:

http://www.historicalvoices.org/earliest_voices/edison_s2.html

President William McKinley was also born in Ohio, but even earlier, in the 1840s. He sounds slightly British, and notably trills his R’s, so that “America” becomes “Amedica,” also, “prosperity” becomes “prospedi-tay”:

http://www.historicalvoices.org/earliest_voices/mckinley_s1.html

http://vvl.lib.msu.edu/showfindingaid.cfm?findaidid=McKinleyW

Teddy Roosevelt was born in New York City in 1858…his voice was not at all what I was expecting. I had thought that he might sound something like Daniel Day Lewis from “Gangs of New York.” But his voice doesn’t sound anything like a modern New York accent…not a trace. Perhaps it is an extinct upper class New York accent. Notice how he drops his Rs when they come at the end of a word; thus, “farm” becomes “fomm,” and “severe” becomes “seveeah”:

http://archive.lib.msu.edu/VVL/dbnumbers/DB514.mp3

http://archive.lib.msu.edu/VVL/dbnumbers/DB512.mp3

http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/collections/troosevelt_film/trfsnd.html

The excellent book Presidential Voices by Allan Metcalf has this to say about Roosevelt’s accent:

“Born and raised in a then-fashionable part of Lower Manhattan, and educated at Harvard, Roosevelt had the cultivated New Yorker’s r-less accent: ouah for our, pahties for parties, quatah for quarter, and watah for water, for example. As he reached the climax of his speeches, he rolled the r a little: sneering indifference, never ending. His speech also betrays traces of what we nowadays would call Brooklynese: foist for first, woid for word, woith for worth, toin for turn, soivice for service, consoins for concerns–at least some of the time. And he pronounced government in two syllables: govment.”

Samuel Gompers has a very similar accent to Roosevelt’s. Gompers was born in London in 1850 but moved to Manhattan’s Lower East Side in 1863, and remained there throughout much of his adult life. He trills his Rs, and his vowels sound quite similar to Roosevelt’s; the word “substitute” becomes “sob-stitute”:

http://www.historicalvoices.org/earliest_voices/gompers_s1.html

The socialist Eugene Debs was born in 1855 in Indiana. He also trills his Rs and sometimes sounds like a Dubliner; “satisfied” almost becomes “satis-foyed,” “poverty” becomes “pah-var-ty,” and “society” becomes “socie-tay”:

http://www.historicalvoices.org/earliest_voices/debs_s1.html

Interestingly, Abraham Lincoln was to known to have spoken with a highly rustic accent, as described by those who knew him. A reporter from the New York Tribune who witnessed his Cooper Union address remarked:

“He began in a low tone of voice—-as if he were used to speaking out-doors, and was afraid of speaking too loud. He said, ‘Mr. Cheerman,’ instead of ‘Mr. Chairman,’ and employed many other words with an old-fashioned pronunciation. I said to myself: ‘Old fellow, you won’t do; it ‘s all very well for the wild West, but this will never go down in New York.’”

(This quote from Noah Brooks’ famous Lincoln book)

Another source notes that Lincoln said “kin” for “can,” “sot” for “sat,” “airth” for “earth,” “heered” for “heard,” etc.. (see April 1865: The Month That Saved America by Jay Winik) Many of Lincoln’s pronunciations echo the aforementioned American “brogue,” and the use of “sot” for “sat” indicates a derivation from the British. And yet Lincoln is clearly noted as speaking with a rustic (midwestern) American accent.

Now let’s take a step back one more century. Although we obviously don’t have recordings of people from the 1700s, the following certificate, written by half-literate men from Dutchess County, New York, in June of 1785, gives us an idea. Notice the phonetic spelling of “certain” and “certificate,” and how it jibes with the previous 19th century recordings:

“We the subscribers officers and solgers what marched with me Joseph Dykman to Westpoynt in June the 26 day 1780 on a sartane towr of duty Do acknolledge that we have received our full pay for said tower of duty by Joseph Dyckman our captain by a sartificat we Say Received in full as witness our hands.”

Given at how much American speech patterns and pronunciations have changed since the mid-1800s, it seems reasonable to assume that, were it possible to hear recordings of Americans from the 1600s and 1700s, we would find their accents even more changed and removed from our own.

Many more links to various recordings can be found here:

http://uptownsavannah.tripod.com/american.html

UPDATE 4/11/2011:

Over the last two years I have been spending a lot of time in rural Northeast Pennsylvania–specifically, in Wyoming and Luzerne counties. There I have noticed that the elderly residents of the country speak with a trace of the old American “brogue.” For instance, they say “farm” instead of “form,” “toyme” instead of “time”–much as Eugene Debs evinces in his recording. Perhaps I shall post a recording of this accent in the future. In the meantime, if you would like to visit the area and hear such accents, contact me at benmillerny [{at symbol}] aol [{dot}] com

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  1. It’s hard to find knowledgeable folks on this niche, and you sound like you know very well what you’re speaking about! Appreciate it

  2. I’m doing research on an Old West humorous adventure I’m in the process of editing now. My gambling con-artist hero Alec hails from New York City so I am trying to get his speech down. Thanks for the resources! I followed your blog as I’m a history afficianado (sp!).

  3. […] I think, would be of no help. Therefore I’m *sort of* WILDCARD!ing this one, to give you this link , which details the accents of the time period, and how they hadn’t truly diverted from a […]

  4. lol native american…

  5. This is fascinating to me. My mother and father grew up in the Ozark Mountains in Arkansas. My mother had an unusual accent. Only 4 generations removed from the Revolutionary War, and living in a rural area, she sounded strange in the Pacific Northwest. Some of her words were worsh/Wash, mirrow/mirror, dwaddle/dawdle, Hi-wah-yuh/ Hawaii, All swan was an expression that I think meant I’ll Swoon. I would love to understand where these words came from.

  6. I’ve always wondered how the “English accent” developed into an “American accent” [knowing there are dozens in each case] – specifically, how and when did the southern/hillbilly accent develop?

    • Hi Jack, good question, and I’m not exactly sure as to the answer, but what we think of as the “Southern” accent seems to have been in place very early, by say, the 18th century. I have a audio recording of one of Thomas Jefferson’s former slaves (as a very old man), and his accent is 100% pure deep south. I suspect the southern accent to be a combination of English, Ulster-Scots, and Scottish accents (with possible French influence), which then developed organically on its own. Certainly the dropping or softening of the “Rs” suggests English origins, and much of 18th century Virginia society hailed from the London area (as opposed to the Carolinas which were Scotch-Irish).

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  11. I have been researching (part time) English spoken accents for a number of years. Certainly William McKinley’s accent has a very strong Lowland Scots influence, but as stated earlier accents continue to evolve. I think Americans sometime fail to appreciate the huge variation of accents in Britain. In England alone, even today and particularly in the north of England, accents change from one side of even a medium sized town to the other.

    Bearing in mind that when the British emigrated there particularly in the 18th & 19th centuries, the accents then were not were not only different to the way they were pronounced today, but even more diverse, meaning that early American English was not only dependent on the predominance of the mix of the British in a particular community, ie Yorkshire or Devon, but was a melting pot hundreds of dialects.

    In those days because people generally travelled less, working people in Britain would have difficulty in clearly understanding someone from only 50 miles away in many parts of the country, but because communities in America had to mix, the speech patterns were to a larger extent neutralised. Australia is a better example of this, as unlike America, Australia received roughly the same proportion in percentage terms of British & Irish immigrants throughout the country. Even today, the Australian accent varies only very slightly over 3,000 miles from Brisbane to Perth.

    Many older words in English now lost to the British are still spoken in America today, ie the fall instead of autumn. Indeed where I originate from in West Yorkshire, we still use the American pants and buffets (which have been used for at least 200 years) where as the rest of the British say trousers and stools.

    Hope this helped

    Paul Metcalfe

  12. Very interesting. I’ve been doing some research also. One of the most interesting things about American life up until around 1910/1915 is the popularity of cricket. In fact, America produced some of the world’s best players of the era – like the great Bart King. It was immensely popular at the time of the Civil War which suggests that American citizens of the day were certainly connected with Britain and identified with the British long after the War of Independence.

    In my country, Australia, British colonization began almost immediately after America won independence. Britain after all, had to find a new territory to create wealth after bungling their number one colony, Having learned their lesson about how not to deal with colonies, the British didn’t impose such stringent taxes on the citizens of Australia. Subsequently, it held on to the new colony, British migration was encouraged throughout the 19th and 20th centuries and the accent remained in tact for a long period of time in Australia although it is safe to say it has now completely disappeared from modern local speech. (well at least to our ears)

  13. Thank you, Mr Miller, for this piece.

    As a native British RP speaker (and former BBC radio broadcaster) with Scottish roots, I found the audio fascinating. While not an expert by any stretch, I developed a keen interest and ear for accent – particularly with respect to comprehendability and editing.

    Mr Taft sounds just plain American to me, no Scottish lilt to my ear but with the merest touch of Irish. Mr McKinley sounds remarkably ‘high Scottish’ or Genteel Edinburgh (think; Miss Jean Brodie!) to me. Were his parents native Scots?

    Mr Roosevelt delivers, to my ear, ‘educated American’ and I notice that there’s a hint of the trilled ‘r’ struggling to break through in places.

    Mr Gompers is just plain RP English of its era as far as my ear can deduce!

    I found the ‘stage English’ delivery of all these speakers bizarre and caricaturish to my modern ear. It occurs to me that their steady rise and fall phrasing is almost hypnotic. I wonder how any listener could stay alert through, say, an hour’s speechifying. Perhaps the soothing cadences unwittingly evolved in order to instill calm and confidence, thus lulling the listener into hypnotically parting with their precious vote!

    Incidentally, as you’ve given a couple of Ohio illustrations, I’ll mention my own Ohio moments. About 15years ago I was stopped at Dayton airport and questioned inconsequentially for 20 mins or so. The questions were so banal that I politely asked if there was a problem. “Oh no, not at all, we just love your accent!”

    A few weeks later, still in Ohio at the hotel restaurant I’d been frequenting after work, a deeply surreal incident. The waitress with whom I’d been conversing daily about the weather (hey! I’m British!) and kids and the price of fish etc, handed me a menu because, this time, I fancied something a little different from the usual point-to-select fare on display.
    Most sincerely and kindly she inquired, “Can you read this honey? Do you need any help?”. I can tell you that my whole little universe was knocked sideways into next week! All I could think of in that moment was the long, hard 7 years I’d spent at British universities acquiring degrees in English/communications, law and psychology. And this waitress had simply identified me (and my pukkah English) as some language-challenged, mittel European refugee who obviously couldn’t really understand, still less read, Merkun!

    Accents are fascinating to all of us, I suspect. I wonder to what degree we each hear others in our own particular ways.

  14. It’s important to remember that the trained public speakers Mr. Miller uses as examples are not representative of the common American speech of their day, or of any day. There was a standard “public-speaking” accent taught by elocution teachers and used by politicians, actors, professors, and educated preachers. It was based on the English stage accent, and was calculated to make a speaker heard and understood by large assemblies in the days before microphones and amplification. It was used by Eugene V. Debs, a self-educated railroad worker from Indiana, as you can hear at http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/vodebs.htm. It still survived in the 1960s among elite African-American preachers, as you can hear in the speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who rolls the “R” in “Europe”, for example. The samples Mr. Miller gives us are very interesting and valuable, but they tell us essentially nothing about how ordinary Americans spoke in the 19th C., or even how the American elite spoke when they were not on the podium.

    • Dear Mr. Crutchfield,

      Thanks very much for your comment, and your interest in the site. I feel that such discussion always adds to the discourse.

      I do not doubt that some, even many, public speakers of the 19th century spoke differently on the podium than they did off it. That may well be, as the same holds true today.

      That said, numerous pieces of evidence contradict your (blanket) statement that the examples cited in the article “tell us essentially nothing about how ordinary Americans spoke in the 19th C., or even how the American elite spoke when they were not on the podium.”

      You state that there was a “standard public-speaking accent” which was based on the “English stage accent,” used by American “politicians, actors, professors, and educated preachers.”

      Really? American politicians had to affect an English accent in order to get themselves elected in America, during a time when Americans were still resentful of England due to two prior wars? Frankly, I wonder if this is yet another oft-repeated but erroneous history myth, such as the “blood-grooves in the sword” theory.

      Although you do not state it explicitly, I can only assume that you devalue the above recordings because you think they all contain voices speaking with this “English stage accent.”

      Mr. Crutchfield, this is downright impossible, for the principal reason that the above recordings evince several different accents, and many of them–such as Edison, Debs, and Taft–evince more of an Irish-Scottish lilt than an English accent.

      The assumption that all American politicians spoke with a “standard public speaking accent” is completely wrong, as attested to by a wealth of evidence.

      For instance, Abraham Lincoln spoke with a highly rustic accent, as described by those who knew him. A reporter from the New York Tribune who witnessed his Cooper Union address remarked:

      “He began in a low tone of voice—-as if he were used to speaking out-doors, and was afraid of speaking too loud. He said, ‘Mr. Cheerman,’ instead of ‘Mr. Chairman,’ and employed many other words with an old-fashioned pronunciation. I said to myself: ‘Old fellow, you won’t do; it ‘s all very well for the wild West, but this will never go down in New York.'” (This quote from Noah Brooks’ famous Lincoln book)

      Another source notes that Lincoln said “kin” for “can,” “sot” for “sat,” “airth” for “earth,” “heered” for “heard,” etc.. (see “April 1865: The Month That Saved America” by Jay Winik) Many of Lincoln’s pronunciations echo the aforementioned American “brogue,” and the use of “sot” for “sat” indicates a derivation from the British. And yet Lincoln is clearly noted as speaking with a rustic (midwestern) American accent.

      Taft evinces a similar brogue, and he was from Ohio. McKinley, on the other hand, was also from Ohio; he drops his “Rs” and sounds more like a New Englander. Perhaps he is affecting the “public speaking” accent of which you speak. However, Virginians and New Englanders were well known to drop their Rs. I am more inclined to believe that this “public speaking accent” was simply the formal, high-brow American English of the time, rather than an English stage accent.

      However, if you can provide evidence of American politicians adopting this “English stage accent,” I am most interested to hear of it.

      Regarding Theodore Roosevelt, I can do no better than to quote the excellent book “Presidential Voices” by Allan Metcalf:

      “Born and raised in a then-fashionable part of Lower Manhattan, and educated at Harvard, Roosevelt had the cultivated New Yorker’s r-less accent: ouah for our, pahties for parties, quatah for quarter, and watah for water, for example. As he reached the climax of his speeches, he rolled the r a little: sneering indifference, never ending. His speech also betrays traces of what we nowadays would call Brooklynese: foist for first, woid for word, woith for worth, toin for turn, soivice for service, consoins for concerns–at least some of the time. And he pronounced government in two syllables: govment.”

      Dr. Matt Pius, who also posted a comment on this page, noted that his grandparents–not elitists or trained public speakers, but humble residents of Brooklyn–spoke with an accent similar to Teddy’s.

      Mr. Crutchfield, if you will re-read the last quote provided in the above article, you will see that it was issued by rural, half-literate soldiers hailing from Dutchess County, New York–definitely not trained public speakers. Their accent (shown by phonetic spelling) evinces the same American brogue that can be heard in the recordings.

      My own recent personal experience has confirmed that the above sound clips are relevant to the “common” Americans of the day. I currently spend a lot of time in rural Northeast Pennsylvania–specifically, in Wyoming and Luzerne counties. There I have noticed that the elder residents of the country speak with a trace of the old American brogue. For instance, they say “farm” instead of “form,” “toyme” instead of “time”–much as Eugene Debs evinces in his recording. Unfortunately I do not have a recording of these rural folk on hand, but if you doubt me, I invite you to visit the Farm Museum at the annual Wyoming County Fair, where I assure you that you will hear such an accent.

      For all of these reasons, I must dispute your assertion that the examples provided in the above article “tell us essentially nothing about how ordinary Americans spoke in the 19th C., or even how the American elite spoke when they were not on the podium.”

      However, I am grateful for your posting of an additional recording by Eugene V. Debs.

      Many thanks for adding to this discourse, and I look forward to your future contributions.

      Best of luck,

      Ben Miller

      • The American public-speaking accent was /derived from/ the English stage accent. It wasn’t the same thing. The Eastern elite accents (including Teddy Roosevelt’s) had a lot in common with it, as they had with the upper-class English accent. People who took elocution lessons were taught the same accent, though there probably were regional variations. People who often heard trained speakers, and who aspired to a public life, learned to imitate them, as I imagine Debs and Gompers did. Middle-class people and immigrants who wanted to “talk proper” imitated the speech of the social elite, which in the East was very similar to the stage accent, but without the exaggerated vowels and trilled “R”s. I doubt Abraham Lincoln, who was largely self-educated, ever studied elocution, or, growing up in the backwoods of Kentucky and Indiana, heard many trained speakers or Eastern Brahmins before his manner of speaking was fixed. (It is very difficult for most people to learn a new accent after they reach adulthood.)

        I had not actually listened to the selections linked to when I wrote my first comment. The recording of McKinley clearly reflects the stage accent, with its trilled “R” and elongated vowels, and sounds very similar to that of Debs. The recordings of Taft and Edison do not–they sound Ohioan. (Compare Dave Thomas’s Ohio accent in the old Wendy’s commercials, if you can find one.) Taft and Edison manifestly did not speak with the same accent as Franklin Roosevelt. Most obviously, they pronounce “R” as an alveolar approximant, as most Americans now do, whereas Roosevelt, like all other upper-class Northeasterners of his generation, elided most terminal “R”s, and often pronounced intermediate “R”s as a soft alveolar tap, just as his cousin Theodore did. FDR probably also said /ba:θ/ for “bath”, as a Londoner does, whereas Taft and Edison most likely said something closer to /bæθ/.

        The excerpt from Duchess County, NY, reflects a pronunciation of “er” as “ar” (“sartayne”, “sartificat”), which was common until recently in New England. One of Melville’s Nantucket sea captains refers to the “marchant sarvice”. Duchess County is just across the border from Connecticut, and was peopled from the same stock. It is nothing like a brogue, if that is taken to mean an Irish accent.

      • Mr. Crutchfield,

        Again, thanks for your addition to this discourse.

        “American brogue” is my own informal term for the early American accent which bears many similarities to the lilt, cadence and (certain) pronunciations of the Northern Irish and Scottish. I understand that this early American accent is “not the same thing” as an Irish accent (there are many types of these as well), and would never state that. However, having spent time in Northern Ireland, and still having many friends from there, I definitely detect a resemblance.

        I am very curious about this similarity. To find such an accent in the colonial American South would be understandable, as many from that region hailed from Ulster and the Scottish Lowlands. And I think it is possible this filtered into Ohio. However, the substitution of “ar” for “er” by early New Yorkers and Massachusetts folk is striking, especially in the case of the latter, who were descended from colonists from lower England. (I myself am directly descended from the Dutchess County colonists on my mother’s side, and am aware that they were mostly squatters from Cape Cod). As I said, this pronunciation can also still be heard (albeit slightly) in the voices of residents of rural northeast PA. The substitution of “ar” for “er” is something that can be detected in the accent of most of the Celtic descendants still inhabiting the British Isles, such as the Irish, Scottish, and Welsh. I am wondering if it is possible that in parts of 17th century lower England, the Norman-Saxon influence had not yet completely obliterated the accent of the Celtic Britons. I admit that this last theory is pure speculation. This is something that will undoubtedly merit further research on my part.

        I am still most interested in the public speaking accent, derived from the British stage accent, that you mention. Would you be so kind as to mention any period (or even modern) sources which refer to this? I am very curious to read more.

        All the best,

        Ben

  15. This is really fascinating. The recording of T. Roosevelt actually reminds me a lot of how my grandparents sounded. They were born and raised in Brooklyn, around the turn of the century, but to Eastern-European immigrant parents. So, I don’t think this is an extinct “upper class” dialect, unless perhaps it’s something that filtered down through society over the course of 50 years.

    • Mat,

      That is really fascinating to know! Thanks for sharing. I’ll search around to see if I can find any more recordings of early New York accents.

      – Ben

  16. This is also a comment! Ello!!!

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