By Sarah Pridgeon
I once heard a reassuring theory that I am not the one talking funny after all – actually, you are. But while it’s comforting not to be the oddity for once, is it really true that you are speaking with my voice?
I first heard this theory put forward by one of my favorite writers: Bill Bryson, an American by birth who lived in the UK for many years and found fame penning similar cultural comparisons to the ones right here in this column, only much better and the other way around.
He posited in his book “Mother Tongue” that the East Coast of America actually speaks in the same accent the Brits were using back when we began trickling across the pond. It’s not the New World that evolved to speak differently from Britain, it’s the other way around. In other words, you kept our accent – but we didn’t.
The difference between the two is the “r” sounds in our words. You guys pronounce the “r”, whereas I do not; thus, I pronounce the word you say as “hard” more like “hahd” and I would say “splinter” more like “splintuh”.
My version is known as “non-rhotic”, to be technical about it. These days, it’s how the majority of your transatlantic cousins speak, but it wasn’t always that way.
Around the same time that your ancestors were throwing our tea into the harbor, our accents started to diverge. All of us at that moment were speaking with rhotic pronunciations – in other words, we all liked the letter “r” and none of us were giving it the cold shoulder.
But back in London, the Industrial Revolution was underway and a whole new class of rich people was emerging. The industrialists were not part of the traditional elite, but they did want a way to set themselves apart from the riff-raff working in their factories.
Thus the non-rhotic pronunciation began to appear as a way to display one’s snobbery for all to see. A book helpfully titled, “The Cambridge History of the English Language” explains that a new type of specialist began to pop up across the capital: orthoepists, who tutored the new elite in how to articulate fashionably and were essentially responsible for deciding what those pronunciations should be. That’s an ingenious power grab if ever I saw one.
This way of speaking eventually became the norm and was given the lofty title of “Received Pronunciation”. Many of us plebs refer to it these days as the “BBC voice” – the clear enunciation you will hear on a news reel from our beloved national broadcaster.
There are, of course, exceptions – aren’t there always? The north of England, Scotland and Ireland thought it was all a bit silly and hung on to their rhotic way of speaking, while cities such as Boston and New York were still heavily connected to the homeland and switched to a more non-rhotic way of talking.
All of which is a complicated way of saying that you speak the way I ought to. This came as quite a surprise to me, but it also makes me smile. I seldom turn down the chance to appreciate proof of the ties between my two worlds.
The whole thing strikes me as much akin to the work of Mr. Webster, of dictionary fame, who had a similar opinion on the need to be different. In his case, though, it was all about the spellings.
Back in the mother country, we’d always been slapdash about the correct combinations of letters. We used both “humor” and “humour”, for instance, because the word was introduced through both Latin and French and we hadn’t decided which one we preferred.
Mr. Webster had it in his head that, if America was to stand apart as its own nation, it should also have a distinct language. He chose “z” over “s” and left out the letter “u” and, quite of his own volition, set the standard.
I suppose the Brits must have shrugged and accepted his pronouncement, much as their American cousins did, because we gradually moved towards using the opposite options in most cases – presumably, just to be helpful.
The accent change was less purposeful, but had the same effect: two branches from the same tree, separated by choices made along their way. And as heartwarming as I find this, it’s going to take a little getting used to. After all, it turns out that you are more qualified to read Shakespearean sonnets out loud than I am.