By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

Over the last couple of weeks I have been slowly watching, and greatly enjoying, the HBO miniseries John Adams.  HBO always does  historical dramas well.  The Pacific, Band of Brothers and Rome are all worth your time, if you can take the violence and heartbreak.  Though not as violent, or heartbreaking, John Adams is also well worth a viewing.

As someone who teaches history, I am always looking for realism when it comes to film/television drama.  I have written about this on the Turtle before, so I won’t go into it too much, but suffice to say, the thing that independence-03-1024concerns me about verisimilitude in drama is not historical minutiae. I can get over an anachronistic hairstyle, or an incorrectly used musket.   What  I can’t forgive is when filmmakers/TV producers create anachronistic mentalities for their historical characters.  An out of place, or out of time, character’s worldview can ruin the reality of a piece.  Anachronistically transporting our ideals onto the past may make audiences like characters more, but it muddies up historical reality.

John Adams does quite well in it’s portrayal of early American mentalities.  For instance, the first and second episodes of the series vividly portray how the Revolutionary generation, and Adams in particular, struggled with the decision to break with England.  Though not usually taught in our schools, most men and women of 1776 loved England and the King. They generally saw themselves as children of the mother country.  In fact, it is not too far fetched to state that many of the arguments for revolution sprang from the notion that America and Americans were the true heirs of what it meant to be English. The revolutionaries viewed the English Parliament, and the King’s advisors, as attempting to take away the freedoms inherent to being an Englishman. The colonists believed they were being enslaved (yes, they used this word with no irony). As Englishmen, the revolutionaries believed it was fully just to rebel. Rebellion against oppression was a natural right of being English, and Adams and Jefferson and Washington thought of themselves as such.

This seemingly odd, but very much true, mentality is front and center in John Adams.  The love of Albion is obvious for these men and women, as displayed by their actions and their words.  And not just the words they speak, but how they speak those words.  The newly minted Americans in John Adams often have a tinge of an English accent, and though we can’t know how the Founders sounded, it seems ‘realistic’ that the men and women of the Revolutionary generation had a definable and recognizable English ‘twang’. Watch the short clip below for an illustration.

My question, which may be unanswerable, is when did Americans lose this accent?   At which point did Americans living in what used to be British territory stop sounding British themselves?  And, perhaps even more interestingly, why did this occur?

There may be no one to answer  for the first question.  Perhaps we could closely read the extant writings of men and women who were not well educated during the early years of the Republic in order to see how they spelled phonetically, and hence, catch a glimpse of a fading English speech, but that seems questionable at best.   I just don’t know. Maybe some linguist already has theorized an answer I am not aware of?  If that is the case, and you, Turtle readers, know the answer or source, feel free to clue me in and enlighten my dark ignorance.

One thing is clear however, and that is the fact that in today’s America we don’t sound much like Brits any longer.  Why this change occurred seems obvious.  The history of immigration to America must be the key to our American accent/accents. The years and years of immigrant groups bringing their languages, their accents and their dialects into this nation has caused our language to become the hodgepodge that we now know as American English.   It seems to me this makes sense.  And, as I did a little research on this subject, I came upon this fascinating CBS News story about a small fishing/tourist community on the Outer Banks of North Carolina that strengthened my notion.

The ‘brogue’ these island natives speak obviously has a bit of Irish-ness to it.  This must be the shadows of their ancestors’ speech. With few newcomers flooding the islands, and a roughly homogeneous ethnic poplulation, it seems this little island kept an ‘old-world’ sounding accent. As more and more outsiders come to the island, the accent disappears.

But, I have one last question on this topic?  If the brogue can still exist on that island, can we still see the remnants of the ‘old English’ accent at play somewhere in the nation?  Let’s look: The New York/New Jersey/Pennsylvania corridor?  No, I don’t think so.  The Midwest seems to be a no.  You can throw the Southwest out as well. But, what about the South?  Perhaps we can still hear the English accent in some southern twangs?   I have always thought so, and this quick two minute video seems to provide the proof.

Just a little something to add even more romance to the old Southland.

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Comments
  1. Ajb says:

    My interests follow the same pursuit. As a 13th generation American, I wonder what dialects my ancestors had. Seventh generation NH stock were represented well in the series: an emphatic yes, succeed at the beginning of the 2nd C. Congress; they did not see themselves as English. More importantly Congregationalists made that distinction with the first generation as religious beliefs and intellect carried their identity, a legacy from post-Elizabethan Mother England which ultimately set us Americans free. So what you say about loyalty to England might be true in port towns with fresh generations, but not the old stock; there were very few conscientious objectors and they were ostracized.
    This brings me to the conundrum of the dialects portrayed in this excellent series. The linguists comments which I’ve read concur that non-rhotic English or received English evolved post-revolution. So why in the world would John Adams possess a classic Massachusetts non-rhotic accent? I believe that it is at best a permissive error. The variation of dialect might be an attempt to illustrate the varied flux and flow of the colonies if you will. And it’s very likely deliberate as dialect coaches are employed for such series. King George’s accent seems to be the most authentic based on linguistic studies I’ve read. And that of Jefferson might be the most authentic American accent of the time.
    Locked in lands, away from ports have presumably the least English influence. If that’s so, I believe western New Hampshire were most Elizabethan in dialect for a longer period prior to western push from port territories, as the non-rhotic fad evolved in England, leaving the non-rhotic southern drawl as vestigial from southern port aristocrats. And so, the offshore island dialects of NC are indeed a fascinating puzzle.
    I very much enjoyed your post and share your enthusiasm for authentic history authentically fleshed-out!

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