Posts Tagged ‘William Labov’

Why Americans talk like pirates

Sunday, September 11th, 2011

But how would he have said it?

Way back in the 1980s, I was exploring Assisi with an Italian friend.  Many Italians couldn’t distinguish my accent from a British one, but he said it was easy to tell the difference.

“Americans go rarrr-rarrr-rarrr-rarrr,” he said.

The linguists call it “rhotic speech” – the pronounced “r’s” of American English, as opposed to the “pahking the cah” English of Londoners.

Nick Patrick takes on our rhotic r’s when tackling that timeless question:  What kind of accent did George Washington have?

In 1776, both American accents and British accents were largely rhotic. It was around this time that non-rhotic speech took off in southern England, especially among the upper class. This “prestige” non-rhotic speech was standardized, and has been spreading in Britain ever since.

Most American accents, however, remained rhotic.

There are a few fascinating exceptions: New York and Boston accents became non-rhotic. Irish and Scottish accents are still rhotic.

Prototype of American English

He seems rather surprised by this discovery.  But anyone who has plotted out the rhymes in John Donne could have told him so.

Years ago, there was a PBS program, “The Story of English,” that explained how the American regional accents came from regional British migrations.  The reason for the rhotic r’s was simply that many English immigrants came from the West Country, with the talk-like-a-pirate accents.  The Bostonian “pahking the cah” comes from the flatter accents of the East Anglian immigrants.

But it’s all leveling out now, right?

I bet you thought TV and movies were homogenizing accents across the nation.


According to NBC:

In fact, regional accents are becoming stronger and more different from each other, says William Labov, a professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, although it’s not entirely clear why.

I’ve heard this before, too, on NPR years ago (you can listen to Labov speaking with Stanford’s Penelope Eckert in 1999 here), and it is certainly counterintuitive.

According to the NBC article, linguists say there are about ten major regional accents in the U.S., including New England, mid-Atlantic, Inland North, for the cities surrounding the Great Lakes, and the West, the country’s newest dialect.

Meanwhile, if you want to hear how William Shakespeare sounded onstage, as best as we can reconstruct it, I refer you to the youtube clip on our post last year:  “The archaeology of sound: ‘This reclaims Shakespeare for us.'”

Postscript on 9/12:  Hat tip to Dave Lull for this link on “Original Pronunciation” – don’t forget to check out this link that addresses the question, “How do we know?”