Believe It Or Not, What You Know as the ‘British Accent’ Is Only About 200 Years Old
Last night on RuPaul’s Drag Race, Monet X Change (the show’s resident sponge-lover) got into an argument with Monique Heart and a few other queens about the origin of the British accent. (Weird, we know.)
Monet said British accents used to sound like American accents, and the British only developed their particular accent after colonizing America. This may sound bonkers — no one else in the work room seemed to believer her either — but here’s the thing: She’s actually right, even if she didn’t do the best job of explaining it.
Snobby, rich Brits basically invented what we consider the “British accent” 200 years ago
Science writer Natalie Wolchover actually tackled the history of what we call the British accent a while back. Basically, when American colonists asserted their independence from “mother England” back in 1776, Americans and Brits sounded very much alike. That’s not too surprising considering the Brits only landed in America in 1607 and were very much isolated from other speakers for the following 169 years.
Wolchover says the modern British accent is really only about 200 years old, initiated by nouveau riche South Londoners who, having become wealthy during the Industrial Revolution, wanted a linguistic way to distinguish themselves from commoners. (How terribly aristocratic?)
So a group of pronunciation and elocution experts began developing a posh way of speaking, which largely dropped the hard ‘R’ sound common in American English. For example, Wolchover says, Americans might call this season a “hard winter” but Brits would call it a “hahd wintuh.” This ‘hard R’ pronunciation of English is called “rhotic,” while dropping the Rs in British English is called “non-rhotic.”
Anyway, this new non-rhotic style of English pronunciation became all the rage for elocution experts who “compiled pronouncing dictionaries and, in private and expensive tutoring sessions, drilled enterprising citizens in fashionable articulation,” according to English language historian John Algeo.
Over time, non-rhotic English caught on amongst Brits and spread across the country. But Wolchover points out you can still hear ‘hard Rs’ in the United Kingdom amongst Scottish and Irish English speakers, cultures that have long-resisted England’s homogenizing cultural influence.
Interestingly, you also hear non-rhotic English amongst Boston and New York residents, as both areas stayed under the influence of the (former-)British elite long after the Revolutionary War ended in 1786.
Here is the 1993 song “The Queen’s English” by ballroom musicians Jose & Luis:
Of course, drag queens, ballroom culture and Drag Race itself have helped spread a different sort of “queen’s English” — a gay black vernacular form of English that uses female pronouns for men; gives different slang meanings to words like “shade,” “tea,” “reading” and “serve”; and that values camp, style and wit over (ahem) “speaking properly.”