12/03/2014

Early American Accents

I’ve always wondered if, grammar and vocabulary aside, Americans spoke much differently in centuries past than they do today; in short, if the American accent has evolved significantly.

Recently, I decided to find out.

The answer is a resounding “yes.”

I started by looking for the earliest sound recordings (from the 1880s and 1890s) of some of the older living Americans of the period.

A good example is President William Howard Taft. Early recordings of Taft’s voice evince a distinct Irish-Scottish lilt…he sounded to me about like what I imagine a person from Belfast would sound like after moving to the U.S. as a teenager and spending a few decades here. But if you look at Taft’s biography, you’ll notice he was born in Ohio, in 1857, to American parents who had roots stretching back to colonial Massachusetts. So it’s a native American accent.

Thomas Edison, also born in Ohio in 1847, exhibits a similar lilt. He also pronounces the word “measure” like “may-sure” and the word “again” like “a-gayne.” This same pronunciation was evinced by FDR in the recording of his famous Pearl Harbor speech, when he said that “this form of treachery shall never a-gayne endanger us.” This seems to be a common pronunciation of the period; American poems from the 1700s and 1800s often rhyme the word “again” with words such as “main.” For instance, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807 – 1882) wrote:

“Quick! for I see his face again
Glaring in at the window-pane”

and

“And when I ask, with throbs of pain,
‘Ah! when shall they all meet again?'”

President William McKinley was also born in Ohio, but even earlier, in the 1840s. He sounds slightly British, and notably trills his R’s, so that “America” becomes “Amedica,” also, “prosperity” becomes “prospedi-tay”:

Teddy Roosevelt was born in New York City in 1858…his voice was not at all what I was expecting. I had thought that he might sound something like Daniel Day Lewis from “Gangs of New York.” But his voice doesn’t sound anything like a modern New York accent…not a trace. Perhaps it is an extinct upper class New York accent. Notice how he drops his Rs when they come at the end of a word; thus, “farm” becomes “fomm,” and “severe” becomes “seveeah”:

The excellent book Presidential Voices by Allan Metcalf has this to say about Roosevelt’s accent:

“Born and raised in a then-fashionable part of Lower Manhattan, and educated at Harvard, Roosevelt had the cultivated New Yorker’s r-less accent: ouah for our, pahties for parties, quatah for quarter, and watah for water, for example. As he reached the climax of his speeches, he rolled the r a little: sneering indifference, never ending. His speech also betrays traces of what we nowadays would call Brooklynese: foist for first, woid for word, woith for worth, toin for turn, soivice for service, consoins for concerns–at least some of the time. And he pronounced government in two syllables: govment.”..more