Which accent is more similar to that of the old English?

Yikuang   Tue Oct 10, 2006 5:53 am GMT
Hi everyone,

I'm from China. A question appears in my head from time to time, it isn't one that needs to be worried though. However, I'm interested in it. Since British and American accents are mainstreams of present-day English ones, I am concerned with these two for the moment.

I wonder which one is more similar to the old English? Does the British accent is nearer to the old English? Or the American one? Does the American accent originate from the British one and evolve over time into the present one? Or else, the American accent remains more or less the same as the old English accent, while the British accent has changed?

To make the quesiton specifit. In the course of evolution, do the American add the 'r' pronunciation in words like 'car'? or do the British omit the 'r' pronunciaiton? Why there is difference between the American pronunciation and the Briitsh one in pronoucing words such as past, bath, last, when an American person always pronouces the vowel like in 'cat'?

I would be grateful to anyone who gives me a brief talk about it.
Guest   Tue Oct 10, 2006 6:26 am GMT
<To make the quesiton specifit. In the course of evolution, do the American add the 'r' pronunciation in words like 'car'? or do the British omit the 'r' pronunciaiton? Why there is difference between the American pronunciation and the Briitsh one in pronoucing words such as past, bath, last, when an American person always pronouces the vowel like in 'cat'?>

I now this would surprise you as it did when I first heard of it - The Americans and their rhotic accent is actually more closer to early British accents spoken during the Old English period. I would say (correct me if I'm wrong) the American accent is a sort of timewarp as oppose to the shift from rhotic to nonrhotic the British exprienced. There are many words that existed from this period that survived in American English where it's unheard of in British English.

Sorry for my bad English.
Jim   Tue Oct 10, 2006 6:45 am GMT
You can't really talk of a "British" accent verses an "American" one. There are many different British accents and many different American ones.

Old English was rhotic as was Middle English. This means that /r/ could come before a consonant or at the end of a word. Non-rhoticity was a later development. There are a few non-rhotic accents in the US and a number of rhotic ones in Great Britian.

Also up until a couple of centuries or so ago "past", "bath", "last", etc. had the same vowel as "cat" for all of English speakers. It remains this way in Scotland and the North of England.

Do we therefore conclude that American English is closer to Old English? I think that this would be jumping the gun.

For many Americans "cot" and "caught" are homophones for others "bother" and "father" have the same first vowel. Many Americans have both mergers. American English is lacking a vowel that British English (at least in general) retains.

There are some in England who maintain the distinction between "tow" and "toe" and between "pain" and "pane" which existed in Middle English.

Yod-dropping is generally more prevalent in US English. This is the process that makes pairs like "new" and "gnu", "do" and "due", "tune" and "toon" sound the same. However there are dialects in England where yod-dropping is far more extensive than it generally is in American English.

This is merely scratching the surface but I hope it gives a feeling for the complexity of the subject. Of course, we're only talking about accent too, there is also such things as spelling, vocab, grammar, etc. to consider.
Brennus   Tue Oct 10, 2006 7:13 am GMT
Re: "Since British and American accents are mainstreams of present-day English ones, I am concerned with these two for the moment... I wonder which one is more similar to the old English? " --- Yikuang

Yikuang,

Overall, I agree with Guest and Jim above.

Old English sounded more like German, Dutch, Icelandic etc., so all of the modern English accents have diverged quite a bit from Old English pronunciation.

However, I would say that the English that has diverged the least from Old and Middle English is still the North American English of the northern Appalachian region and the Canadian Maritime provinces - roughly a region stretching from West Virginia in the United States to Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland in Canada. This is a rhotic English often with some older pronunciations like "dohg" for dog, "woh-muhn" for woman and "burr-ee" for bury (Standard American English "bair-ee."). In West Virginia, the Chaucerian 'a' is still often used as in "I'm a comin' (I 'm coming'), "I'm a runnin' (I'm running) and "We're goin' a huntin' (We're going hunting) etc.
Guest   Tue Oct 10, 2006 7:44 am GMT
<<Also up until a couple of centuries or so ago "past", "bath", "last", etc. had the same vowel as "cat" for all of English speakers. It remains this way in Scotland and the North of England. >>

Except that the vowel used in Scotland is different to the one of Northern England for those words. I hear the Scottish pronounce those as "pahth", "bahth", "lahst".
Guest   Tue Oct 10, 2006 7:45 am GMT
and "caht".
Robin   Tue Oct 10, 2006 9:49 am GMT
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tA2Eps1zOF8

On a less intellectual note, I found this video on How to Speak Pirate quite interesting. It reminded me of the West Country Accent.
Adam   Tue Oct 10, 2006 6:37 pm GMT
That's because the West Country is one of England's most important seafaring and maritime areas. England's greatest sailors - such as Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh - came from the West Country.

When people started writing books and making movies about pirates they gave the pirates accents similar to those spoken in the West Country. That's why nowadays many people always comment about how people in England West Country - Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Somerset, Avon, etc - sound like pirates.
Uriel   Tue Oct 10, 2006 7:46 pm GMT
Both modern American and modern British dialects are so far removed from Old English, which would have been completely unintelligible to all of us, that I doubt you can say that one is more like it than the other.
Derit Os M'i   Wed Oct 11, 2006 12:22 am GMT
Curse Sir Walter Raleigh, he was such a stupid git.
Yikuang   Thu Oct 12, 2006 5:06 am GMT
Thanks for all your descriptions. So it doesn't matter for a learner of English to follow either of the accents since they derived from the old English. However, some of the vowels in the North American pronunciation system are easier to pronounce while others in the British one are comfortable to utter. I wish they could have been mixed with the easy ones. -:) I appreciate the information from you all.
Jim   Thu Oct 12, 2006 8:12 am GMT
No, it doesn't matter which one you adopt. If an ESL student were to hop in his time machine and travel back to late first millenium England and spout modern English, he'd have no chance of being understood regardless of which dialect he'd chosen to adopt or how well he'd mastered it. What's easy and comfortable to pronounce really depends on the speaker.