Posted by: ushistoryfiles | April 2, 2014

Where are your accents?

For some reason I have been asked about colonial accents a bunch lately.  The last couple of times were by fellows with a prominent English accent (yes, think John Cleese – and if you don’t know who John Cleese is shame on you).  Always being on the alert for the opportunity to dispel historical stereotypes and the myth that all English colonists were carbon copy Englishmen who talked alike, I sprang into action.

I start by jokingly asking, “To which accent are you referring?”  Next I quickly (before they can answer my mostly rhetorical question) point out that the colonists who came to what would eventually become the United States were not a homogenous group.  Looking at Great Britain alone you have England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales each with a wide variety of their own way of speaking.  (As an elementary example I mention that the people of London speak differently than the people in Glasgow).  I also mention that it was the Dutch who originally settled the area around today’s New York and the Swedish settlers in the “middle” colonies.  By the time I mention that German colonists started arriving in the mid-1600s the diversity point is well made.

Moving to the colonies, I ask again “which accent” since the people of New York speak differently than the people of Boston or Raleigh.  Needless to say I rather enjoy dispelling the historical myth.



  1. An interesting subject and one I had to address in my recent book, “The Wealth of Jamestown,” about Virginia in the 1690’s. Accents reflect not only the place of origin of the speaker, but his/her way of life. Great planters personally had to inspect tobacco before shipment; they had a vigorous outdoor lifestyle in a hot climate. They also lived on spread out plantations and developed a courtesy for speaking with their peers– the other planters. This led not only to dialects, but to euphemisms. In the Southern style, a phrase like “Bless your heart,….” actually meant “You must be an idiot, but I don’t want to say that out loud.”

    In my book I tried to keep the speech understandable, but Virginia speech in colonial times was full of “honey,” “sweetie,” and “darlin”.

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