I watched a couple of interesting YouTube videos last night: this one, dem­on­stra­ting how London accents have evolved from the 1300s to today(external link) and this one by the same guy, on northeast American accents from the 1700s on(external link). He had this nifty conceit whereby each successive “speaker” was the grandson of the one before, so each accent was 60 years apart. Some of the intervals had more major changes than others – the ones around the Great Vowel Shift were a doozy 🤣

From an Australian perspective, it was interesting to me how the London accent got more and more easily intelligible over time, up until 1826 (the closest to an Australian accent, because this is around when Australian English separated from the “motherland”), and then after that it started drifting away again, introducing new features we don’t share in Australia, like the glottalisation of T in certain positions and the labialisation of “th” to “f/v”. I mean don’t get me wrong, a modern London accent is still very very easy to understand 🤣 My point is more that it’s cool to see how this past era of the accent really marked a “fork in the road”, where Australian English went one way, and London English went another.

From the comments, I got the impression that many Americans had a similar sensation with the 1706 accent. But this is also where the comments started to annoy me, with some of those Americans starting a crusade about how American English is the “authentic” English, because it’s “closer” to the “original” English (which was described as Elizabethan for some reason). I know I shouldn’t let ill-informed YouTube comments piss me off like this 😂 But the truth of it is, the 1706 accent also marked a “fork in the road” – yes there were some features that modern American English retains (like rhoticity and the lack of trap-bath split) but also some features closer to modern southeast English, like no cot-caught merger, no backing of the cot/caught vowels to /ɑ/ and no /æ/-tensing. Mostly I just think it’s dumb for internet randos to get into fights over whether General American or Received Pronunciation is the more “authentic” accent of English when they’re more like cousins. You wouldn’t say one cousin is more closely related to their grandparent than another, would you…? That and I don’t think an accent being more conservative makes it more “authentic” anyway – seems silly to put a value judgement on something arbitrary like that.

The impression I had long had is that some of the most conservative English accents were the traditional West Country ones, although admittedly my main source of exposure to them is the TV show Doc Martin 😂 Like, taking something like this video where they reconstructed the original pronunciation of Shakespeare(external link), to me (not an expert) that just sounds like a West Country accent.1 But one thing that the comment sections on these videos did teach me is that there is, in fact, a similarly conservative accent in the US, which the comments called a “Hoi Toider” accent, spoken by an ever-shrinking number of people on remote islands along the mid-At­lan­tic coast (like Virginia and North Carolina). I watched a couple of videos about that and while the quality of the videos wasn’t great (this one(external link) had too much of some boring General American speaker talking, and this one(external link) had poor/muddled audio quality) I could still tell it clearly was a highly conservative accent that sounds a lot like West Country and reconstructed Shakespearean accents. I mean, there were some “American” features in there,2 but I assume West Country accents (even the most traditional ones) have some “southern English” innovations too and I just don’t notice because those are innovations my accent also shares. Overall they sound closer to each other than either does to the prestige accent of its own country.

Of course, the comments on these videos had some howlers too. Like the number of people claiming the Hoi Toider accent “sounds Australian”. Like yeah, I guess if you’ve never heard an Australian accent in your life, I can see how you could make that mistake… 🤦🏻‍♀️

Overall, though: hit-and-miss YouTube comments aside, I found all this pretty interesting, and enlightening. It’s cool that we can reconstruct historical eras in our language like this, and hear the way people used to speak (plus the way small numbers of people speak even today, I guess). But maybe I’m just a language geek 🙂

  1. So, obviously it should be noted that this whole part of the discussion is relative to southern England English – Midlands, Northern, Scottish Englishes and so on are their own thing, having been evolving separately since before this very time period we colonists are trying to measure “divergence” from. ↩︎

  2. Not even counting that person who seemed to have more of a hybrid accent between Hoi Toider and a more conventional US accent, I mean. ↩︎