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What did the original colonists sound like? Did they have a British accent? Did they sound like present-day Americans? Did George Washington sound like the guy from Hamilton? (spoiler alert: not really).

A weekly show where we endeavor to answer one of your big questions. This week, Jacob Mitchell asks, "What did the original colonists sound like? Did they have a modern British accent?"
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Hi, I'm Craig, and I'm an OC --Original Colonist-- and this is Mental Floss on YouTube. Today I'm going to answer Jacob Mitchell's big question: What did the original colonists sound like? Did they have a modern British accent? Let's get started!

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Every time I attempt a British accent the commentors get angry. Don't get angry. So, it turns out that accents are pretty complicated things. Like when Jacob says, "modern British accent," he probably means what linguists call the Received Pronunciation, or R.P., or rp.

There are a ton of different accents in the UK, but the Oxford English Dictionary defines the R.P. as "the standard accent of English as spoken in the south of England." And that's what Americans typically mean when they say "British accent" (but let's be honest, Americans never talk about other countries at all). There's a flip side to that too: Americans have tons of different accents, but the general "American" accent is what a British person would call an "American accent." They might not do this (air quotes) though.

At that time both accents were rhotic like an American accent. Rhotacism means the letter R is pronounced in words like hard and park. In Received Pronunciation, that R sound isn't pronounced. Should it be "Eceived Ponunciation", then? Of course there aren't any recordings from the seventeenth century, so we can't know for sure what British and American people sounded like, but linguists are pretty sure both are rhotic because the R exists in those words, so it's probably supposed to be ponounced. 

Experts have also observed that it wasn't until the late eighteenth century that British people started to write words like hard or park while omitting the R for time in shorthand notes. It takes time to write that R with all those curves.

So, where did the modern British accent come from? According to the Cambridge History of the English Language, the Received Pronunciation emerged in southern England during the Industrial Revolution. People were born into lower classes and then became wealthy developed a way of speaking so they could set themselves apart from the social class they had surpassed.

The book states "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."

So, if you ever see a movie or play that takes place in Britain before the eighteenth century, those characters should be speaking in American accents! Mind Blown!

Thanks for watching Mental Floss on YouTube. Made with the help of all these nice orthoepists. If you have any question of your own that you'd like answered, leave it below in the comments. See you next week!