You can find multiple sources for this, but in 1776 at the time of the Revolutionary War in America, most Americans spoke English the same as the English in England. However, it was not the Americans who changed their accent – it was the British! Yes, we stayed Rhotic and they went non-Rhotic. It is the same reason that when the British sing songs, they lose most of “their” accent while Americans do not. Weird to think in Colonial times we all talked more like a person from say, Nebraska, than one from London.
Why Do Americans and Brits Have Different Accents?
|President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama are greeted by Britain’s Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace in London, April 1, 2009.
Credit: The White House | Pete Souza
In 1776, whether you were declaring America independent from the crown or swearing your loyalty to King George III, your pronunciation would have been much the same. At that time, American and British accents hadn’t yet diverged. What’s surprising, though, is that Hollywood costume dramas get it all wrong: The Patriots and the Redcoats spoke with accents that were much closer to the contemporary American accent than to the Queen’s English.
It is the standard British accent that has drastically changed in the past two centuries, while the typical American accent has changed only subtly.
Traditional English, whether spoken in the British Isles or the American colonies, was largely “rhotic.” Rhotic speakers pronounce the “R” sound in such words as “hard” and “winter,” while non-rhotic speakers do not. Today, however, non-rhotic speech is common throughout most of Britain. For example, most modern Brits would tell you it’s been a “hahd wintuh.” [Why Do Brits and Americans Spell Words Differently?]
It was around the time of the American Revolution that non-rhotic speech came into use among the upper class in southern England, in and around London. According to John Algeo in “The Cambridge History of the English Language” (Cambridge University Press, 2001), this shift occurred because people of low birth rank who had become wealthy during the Industrial Revolution were seeking ways to distinguish themselves from other commoners; they cultivated the prestigious non-rhotic pronunciation in order to demonstrate their new upper-class status.
“London pronunciation became the prerogative of a new breed of specialists — orthoepists and teachers of elocution. The orthoepists decided upon correct pronunciations, compiled pronouncing dictionaries and, in private and expensive tutoring sessions, drilled enterprising citizens in fashionable articulation,” Algeo wrote.
The lofty manner of speech developed by these specialists gradually became standardized — it is officially called “Received Pronunciation” — and it spread across Britain. However, people in the north of England, Scotland and Ireland have largely maintained their traditional rhotic accents. [In Photos: A Treasure Trove of Britain’s Old Newspapers]
Most American accents have also remained rhotic, with some exceptions: New York and Boston accents have become non-rhotic. According to Algeo, after the Revolutionary War, these cities were “under the strongest influence by the British elite.”
Why British Singers Lose Their Accents When Singing
Mick Jagger, Elton John, Rod Stewart, Ed Sheeran, Phil Collins and George Michael all grew up in or near London and have very recognizably British accents. Once on stage, they sing like someone who grew up in New England rather than old. Yet another example is Adele, who has a lovely speaking voice, a very heavy cockney accent, yet her singing pipes do not indicate her dialect. One might argue that Adele’s speaking and singing voices were two different people if listening without visuals. Going beyond the British, we see the same thing with other non-American musicians, such as the Swedish band ABBA, and many others singing in English, yet from various places around the world. It seems like no matter where you’re from, if you’re singing in English, you’re probably singing with an American accent, unless you’re actively trying to retain your native accent, which some groups do.
There are several reasons we notice accents ‘disappearing’ in song, and why those singing accents seem to default to “American”. In a nutshell, it has a lot to do with phonetics, the pace at which they sing and speak, and the air pressure from one’s vocal chords. As far as why “American” and not some other accent, it’s simply because the generic “American” accent is fairly neutral. Even American singers, if they have, for instance, a strong “New Yorker” or perhaps a “Hillbilly” accent, will also tend to lose their specific accent, gravitating more towards neutral English, unless they are actively trying not to, as many Country singers might.
For the specific details, we’ll turn to linguist and author, David Crystal, from Northern Ireland. According to Crystal, a song’s melody cancels out the intonations of speech, followed by the beat of the music cancelling out the rhythm of speech. Once this takes place, singers are forced to stress syllables as they are accented in the music, which forces singers to elongate their vowels. Singers who speak with an accent, but sing it without, aren’t trying to throw their voice to be deceptive or to appeal to a different market; they are simply singing in a way that naturally comes easiest, which happens to be a more neutral way of speaking, which also just so happens to be the core of what many people consider an “American” accent.
To put it in another way, it’s the pace of the music that affects the pace of the singer’s delivery. A person’s accent is easily detectable when they are speaking at normal speed. When singing, the pace is often slower. Words are drawn out and more powerfully pronounced and the accent becomes more neutral.
Another factor is that the air pressure we use to make sounds is much greater when we sing. Those who sing have to learn to breathe correctly to sustain notes for the right amount of time, and singing requires the air passages to expand and become larger. This changes the quality of the sound. As a result, regional accents can disappear because syllables are stretched out and stresses fall differently than in normal speech. So, once again, this all adds up to singing accents becoming more neutral.
So at this point, you might be wondering if the musicians actually know they are losing their accents when they sing. Working in radio, I’ve contemplated how accents seem to disappear over my 20-year career. Keith Urban isn’t British, though fans of the Aussie singer swoon over his speaking voice (many women could listen to him read the dictionary) and have noticed that he sounds more American when he sings. I have spoken to Keith a few times and decided the good-natured Keith wouldn’t mind me posing the question: How is it you sing differently than you talk? (Certainly not wanting to offend Keith, I began with a few genuine compliments admiring his genius guitar skills.) He took it all in stride, laughed, then responded, ‘I don’t know.’ (More like kneh-owww) ‘Good question,’ he said. Though I don’t think I have an accent. I think you do!’ It’s quite reasonable to believe that a Hoosier like me sounds a bit hillbilly to a guy from down under. Keith could not really explain the mystery behind it, and instead went on to explain why he was wearing black toenail polish the last time I chatted him up in person. (His wife, Nicole, has since been his inspiration to stop, he says.) So it would seem, that at least with this sample size of one, the artist in question is not aware of any accent change when he sings. So what about others?
Andy Gibson, a New Zealand researcher at AUT’s University Institute of Culture, Discourse & Communication also believes the change in accent between speaking and singing is not a deliberate one, nor are artists even aware of the change. A 2010 study he conducted of singers with speaking accents showed indeed that they were not aware that they sounded any different; they felt they were singing naturally. Crystal says it is unusual for a singer to hold a regional accent through an entire song, resulting in what he calls ‘mixed accents’ for most.
And then there’s Kate Nash, the anti-norm. The English-singing sensation was an unknown until Lily Allen mentioned her on a MySpace page and now she boasts more than 100,000 followers on twitter. She didn’t know she had talent until she picked up her first guitar two years ago, and the rest is history. Nash has garnered success on the music charts, accent and all, and flat out refuses to even attempt to sing with an American accent. She makes no apologies for her background and even themes her lyrics toward an English audience. She is as English as tea in the afternoon and proud of bucking the trend that so many British artists seem to follow, whether intentionally, or more likely in most cases, not.