Why are the British and American accents different? The question is quite often framed as, “When did the Americans stop speaking with a British accent?” But surprisingly, linguists suggest that it was the other way around: British people gradually ceased to speak like Americans.

There were no sound recorders back in the 1700s (the oldest known recording of a human voice was made in 1860). But one can imagine American patriots in 1776 sounded much like their modern-day descendants when they said things like “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. They would have pronounced all the ‘r’s, for instance (linguists call this a rhotic accent). And the patriots’ British contemporaries probably spoke in a very similar way – only in the 19th century did non-rhotic accents become more common in England, with the ‘r’ going silent in words like “liberty” and “pursuit”.

What is widely thought of today as the standard British accent evolved quite recently, as languages go. It developed in the 1800s among the upper class in Southern England, and was first called “public school pronunciation”. This distinctive accent was often heard among students from the privileged and ruling classes, who were educated at exclusive boarding schools such as Winchester, Eton, Harrow and Rugby and at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Through these students, this manner of speech grew to be used by the southern upper classes in general, and soon became associated with wealth and prestige, particularly among the middle classes in London.

“It is the business of educated people to speak so that no-one may be able to tell in what county their childhood was passed,” wrote A. Burrell (citation) in his Handbook for Teachers in Public Elementary School, 1891. And indeed, the public school accent was only loosely based on the speech of the south-east Midlands, and conveyed no clues about the speaker’s region of origin. It did however indicate the speaker’s social status and educational background, in Victorian England.

At this time, many people of low birth rank were growing wealthier as a result of the industrial revolution, and they wished to be accepted into the higher social circles frequented by the ruling classes. In this situation, the posh “public school” accent quickly became a highly desirable and fashionable status marker. A new stock of specialists in elocution and accent training appeared, offering to train the socially ambitious in this lofty manner of speech for a substantial fee. It was also during this time that the first pronunciation dictionaries were printed, and a standardised English accent (“Received Pronunciation”) began to be established.

Due to the economic and political power of southern England (particularly London), this accent spread across the country and British colonies abroad, through the armed forces, the civil services, and later the radio, as the voice (quite literally) of authority, social prestige and economic power.

Meanwhile, in the newly independent United States – especially in the port cities like Boston, Richmond and Charleston which had close trading ties with England – many people imitated the Received Pronunciation to flaunt their high social status. This accent spread among wealthy Americans through the plantation culture of the South.

Towards the mid-20th century, industrialisation led to the rise of a newly wealthy elite class in the manufacturing centres of the American Midwest. The changes in British English had less influence here than in the coastal cities, and people in the Midwest still spoke with a rhotic accent influenced by settlers from Northern England and Ireland. As these cities became the new centres of political and economic power, a sound similar to the Midwestern accent became increasingly prevalent throughout America.

What is today called the General American (GenAm) accent is a generalised sound closely related to the Midwestern way of speaking, which does not specifically belong to any region. It has an interesting connection to the Received Pronunciation (RP) in England.

The General American accent, too, gives the hearer no clue about the speaker’s geographical origin, while creating a favourable impression about their social class and level of education. Often seen as a culturally and regionally “neutral” accent (or even as “no accent”) in the U.S., this is the manner of speaking taught in “accent reduction” classes across the country, and English language classes around the world.

In the 1920s, a change occurred on both sides of the Atlantic that brought both the British RP and the GenAm accent into hugely widespread circulation: the new technologies of radio and television broadcasting.

Because of their association with class and prestige and their lack of regional particularity, both accents were the perfect choice for mass media broadcasts. Lord Reith, General Manager of the BBC, adopted the RP in 1922 as a standard accent for all BBC broadcasting. He believed that using an accent evocative of any particular region could alienate many listeners, whereas the RP would be widely understandable in England and overseas, not to mention its social prestige. For similar reasons, American newscasters too adopted the GenAm accent: famous television journalist Linda Ellerbee, whose Texan origin hardly shows in her speech, is often quoted as saying, “In television you are not supposed to sound like you’re from anywhere”.

The strange fact is that only a very small percentage of the British population actually speak in the RP accent: Peter Trudgill’s 1974 estimate was that only about 3% of people in Britain were RP speakers. Similarly, the exact GenAm accent is considered hard to find in the U.S., outside a small region in the Midwest.

Today, because the RP represents only a small and affluent sector of the population of southern England, it has become increasingly associated with non-democratic privilege and cultural domination. In Northern Britain, many people see the RP as a southern accent rather than a non-regional one, and as a mark of the political power of the south-east in the country. And you can hear an increasing diversity of regional accents in mass media broadcasting. Wryly laying the pompous RP to rest, here’s Chumbawumba’s “R.I.P RP”, telling us to “let our words go free”.

— The PaperTrue Team