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Take it from Snee: No, Tumblr, American accents aren’t old British accents

tumblr-accentThere are many sub-categories and somewhat self-enclosed communities on the Internet. Each has their own particular set of users. Redditors seem to trade memes back and forth; 4chaners are best left to their own devices; and Twitter … ers? Twitters? Twits? Are mostly frustrated comedians stealing each others’ jokes and waiting for celebrities and businesses to screw up in real time. And then there’s Tumblr.

Tumblr is a bizzare niche. It’s like blogging, only everyone’s blogs look like they were designed on Blogger 10 years ago. For the most part, it’s used to promote artsy pornography and document every instance of sexism or racism in history. But, every so often, Tumblr-ers try their hand at actual fields of study. It goes about as well as you’d expect: a lot of misinformation spread quickly because “somebody got told.”

Case in point: the difference between English and American accents in the image above. It’s complete hogwash, of course, but that didn’t stop it from spreading to other communities over time (which is how I found it). 

How’d they do it?

"Get in there, ye urchin, and don't come back until ye speak fit enough for dining with the Queen."
“Get in there, ye urchin, and don’t come back until ye speak fit enough for dinin’ with the Queen.”

The biggest clue that this is bullsh*t comes from the claim itself: that the British didn’t used to sound all prim and proper — it’s just something they started doing in the 19th century.

What’s the motive behind a national decision to suddenly speak differently and roll those changes out in less than a hundred years? We have recordings of British speech going back to the early 20th century, and somehow, every single one of them speaks with a British accent — an accent that was allegedly only invented the previous century? That’s the kind of government action that could bring about world peace, and yet it was wasted on making everyone ask for Grey Poupon as snootily as possible?

The timing is wrong

The British didn’t arrive in America all at once. They arrived in waves, starting in 1585 and continuing through today. (What, you thought Ricky Gervais arrived in the 19th Century?)

Assuming that the British accent wasn’t born in 18-something, wouldn’t they have brought English accents with them in different stages of development? How is it that, every time the British founded a new colony, that colony magically sounds anything but British?

And what the hell happened with pirate voices?
And what the hell happened with pirate voices?

And what about other contemporary colonies? British people settled Australia, Canada, Bermuda, the Caribbean, New Zealand, South Africa and more at roughly the same time, and yet none of those colonies sound like Americans. In fact, most of them don’t even sound like each other. So, it’s pretty likely that, while the British accent might have sounded different back then, it didn’t necessarily sound like us.

Which accent?

We’ve established that the “America is a time capsule of Olde Englifhe Speeche” theory isn’t very feasible. But, is it even practical?

There are many English accents and many American accents. So, which one came over here? And how is it that accents can shift and change in England (since the 19th century even!), yet every American accent is how the British used to speak? Both Southern and Connecticut Yankee? Even mid-Atlantic and midwestern? And why would Americans be unaffected by changes over time while the British were busy classing it up across the pond?

"It's settled, then: no metric system, no poofy accents and everyone gets to keep their slaves long after it's fashionable in the rest of the world!"
“It’s settled, then: no metric system, no poofy accents and everyone gets to keep their slaves long after it’s fashionable in the rest of the world!”

The answer is that we didn’t, and neither did they.

There’s no definitive line between the English spoke like us and then they didn’t. Each generation born in America picked up speech mannerisms from those around them, no matter how British their folks were on arrival.

Chances are that our own American accents were born from a little bit of British and interaction with several other cultures around us, like Native Americans, Spanish, French, African slaves and later immigrants from other parts of the world. Plus, we tend to just pick up new ways of speaking just because they sound cool. Case in point? Vocal fry. Our parents didn’t speak that way, and it drives them nuts that we do.

So, calm down, Tumblr. You do some great things for combating transphobia, but let’s leave linguistics to the pros.

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