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Thursday’s posts look at sociolinguistics or child language acquisition: accents, stereotypes and how children learn to speak.

American English and British English are fundamentally different in one main point: accents.

I’m not talking about differences between accents, I’m talking about the sheer numbers of them, and differentiation between them.

Allow me to explain.

Language variation occurs much more frequently in British English than in American English.

Compare, for instance, a Scouse accent, a Geordie accent, a Glaswegian accent, an Essex accent, a Northern Irish accent and Received Pronunciation.

(WARNING: Some of these videos have swearing. A lot of swearing.)Selected Languages and Accents of British Isles

There is a lot more difference between these accents – especially given the size of the UK.

Why is this?

English accents developed not as accents but as dialects.

The four main dialects were Northumbrian, Mercian, Kentish and West Saxon. These dialects were allowed to develop in different directions, and within each dialect there were distinct variations between different areas. With no standard English, and with transport being slow, these developments continued until accents from towns a few miles from one another would have many differences, and dialects from different ends of the country were virtually unrecognisable.

This all ended when the printing press was introduced into the UK, creating, in time, a standard written English. Other technological developments, such as faster means of transport and the publication of the King James Bible, had a hand in this too.

While many attributes of the different accents and dialects died after these developments, not all of them did. The result is a country still rife with different accents and dialects – something which makes the British Isles beautiful, in my opinion.

American English developed in a completely different manner.

People from all over the British Isles emigrated to North America. The Highland clearances meant a lot were Scottish, and the potato famine meant a lot were Irish, but there were people from all over the UK with a wide variety of accents.

What happened when they got there was that they discovered they couldn’t understand one another. The point of language is, after all communication, so it’s understandable that people started to drop their regional distinctions.

With a lot of Scots and Irish, the accents that developed maintained some of the attributes of these accents: raised vowels, for instance.

One generation down the line, children are picking up accents in school. They try to sound like one another, trying to be easily understood, and so more and more of what we call accent levelling occurred. This is when regional variations are dropped and distinctions between different accents minimised.

The fact that transport was a lot better than it had been when British accents were developing meant the effect of accent levelling spread much further afield. People miles apart had an effect on one another’s accents.

The result at this point was a large country all talking very similarly. Obviously there were – and still are – distinctions, coming from, for instance, what the prevailing accent was in the area. How many settlers with a certain accent there were in an area of USA made a big difference, but also which accents were prestigious out of the settlers’ accents. If wealthy people settled from Liverpool while poorer people settled from Ireland, the Scouse accent was likely to “win”.

Once accents had been largely levelled, they began to develop in their own directions. A couple of generations on from the original settlers arriving in New England, these accents were few and far between. The only people who still spoke with British English influences were very old, and there’s a vast ocean cutting off anyone else.

And so the accents began to develop on its own. Certain attributes were accentuated, and some picked up from elsewhere, from other languages such as Dutch or native languages.

By the time American accents began to filter back to the UK – in TV channels or on the radio, for example – the accents were unrecognisable from when they left the UK.