The Pronunciation of English in America


IN 1789, Noah Webster declared ‘the pure English pronunciation in Great Britain and New England’ to be ‘exactly the same in both.’ Ever since that time those who undertake the difficult task of preserving the purity of the English language have made statements of a similar nature. But the statements have been made even more inclusive. It has been said that the best pronunciation of America as a whole is identical with that of Great Britain. To many this seems no enlargement upon Webster’s remark, because the pronunciation of New England has always been regarded, especially by New Englanders themselves, as unquestionably the best pronunciation to be found on this side of the Atlantic. At any rate, many anxious guardians of our tongue have at various periods in the last century asserted that the pronunciation of the most cultured classes was identical in England and America. Even so general a statement is difficult of refutation, because of the possibility of limiting indefinitely the number of those whom one wishes to consider ‘the best speakers.’

There can be no doubt that the number of native-born Americans at the time of the Revolution whose pronunciation was exactly the same as that of Englishmen, was exceedingly small. To-day, if the number of ‘best speakers’ should be measured by this method, it would certainly be infinitesimal. Yet there are many people of culture who persist in the opinion that the ‘pure’ pronunciation of English is the same in both countries; and their assertions that it should be have become more violent and categorical with their growing conviction that it is not.

That Webster would never have agreed with this attitude is evident from the tenor of all his remarks on pronunciation. In fact, in the very book in which he expressed his opinion of the orthoëpic oneness of Old and New England, he candidly directed attention to certain words in which the usage of England and the United States in general even then differed, and he prophesied the linguistic separation of the two countries in most confident and unmistakable terms. And he did not deprecate this separation as a change whose consequences would injure and corrupt American English. On the contrary, he was an ardent advocate of our linguistic independence, and the greater part of his Dissertations on the English Language is taken up with arguments for maintaining an American standard, and abandoning the ‘absurd imitation’ of the English. Naturally, then, he prefers in most instances the American pronunciation as the more elegant or correct. American deef, for example, he preferred to English def, as the older and more analogical pronunciation. He considers the English use of lept as the past tense of leap an error which has fortunately not become prevalent in America.

We have evidence of still earlier differences from Benjamin Franklin, to whose ‘Excellency’ Webster had dedicated the little volume of essays just mentioned, because of his interest in linguistic questions. About twenty years before, Franklin had published a book on spelling reform, in which he proposed a system of thoroughly phonetic spelling devised by himself. The poetical passages and letters transcribed in this system are documents of inestimable value in determining the American pronunciation of the eighteenth century. Two examples will suffice to show that Franklin’s pronunciation differed somewhat from that which prevailed among his British contemporaries. In would, and should he retains the sound of l. Marlowe and Ben Jonson bear witness to the fact that the omission of l in these words had already begun in England in the Elizabethan period. This pronunciation, however, did not receive recognition from the majority of the seventeenth-century orthoëpists, although it had undoubtedly been spreading rapidly in popular speech. For after 1701 would is considered by all English authorities a homonym of wood, and Franklin’s pronunciation, if it still existed in England in the middle of the century, was certainly antiquated or rare, if not altogether vulgar. Another word in which Franklin’s pronunciation did not agree with the majority of his transatlantic contemporaries was get, which he pronounced unmistakably git. This, again, together with yis and yit, was a common pronunciation in seventeenth-century England. But by the middle of the next century it had apparently fallen to the vulgar level to which it was later to sink in America.

In these variations in the speech of Webster and Franklin from that of the mother country the remarkable fact is not so much their existence, as the character of the differences. The American pronunciations were not vulgar innovations or indiscreet perversions of good English sounds; rather were they conservative survivals of sounds which in the meantime had undergone modification and change in England itself. In all the remarks about the pronunciation at the time, it is evident that we were lagging behind our transatlantic brethren in those changes which inevitably accompany the development of a living language.

In the first part of the last century we find outcroppings of this conservative tendency. Americans felt obliged to pronounce the w in sword for some time after Englishmen had abandoned it. In 1839, the older professors at Yale still pronounced nature to rhyme with later, a pronunciation which flourished in the time of Addison and Pope.

It is doubtless disagreeable to those who would improve American English to contemplate among the British users of our tongue any precipitancy in furthering changes which every purist would consider corruptions.

Most purifiers of our language have strangely imagined that all corruption of English must necessarily have its origin in America. They have failed to observe that the history of our treatment of the language seems to point plainly to the fact that, in the past, America often clung to the old while England was introducing the new. And this condition is not at all anomalous. The present descendants of those Norsemen who settled Iceland in the ninth and tenth centuries have left the Old Norse language comparatively unchanged, while the inhabitants of the Scandinavian peninsula, though unaffected by invasions or race-mixture, have so much modified this same inheritance as to split it into two distinct and mutually unintelligible languages, Norwegian and Swedish. Similarly the Irish pronunciation of English, so far from having suffered a sea-change by its transference to the Emerald Isle, is nearer to that of the age of Elizabeth than the best pronunciation of Southern England to-day. In fact, colonists from any country whatever tend to preserve their language in a much more primitive state than those who remain at home.


Whether the speech of educated Americans even to-day possesses more of antiquity than that of educated Englishmen, is perhaps a more uncertain question. Several circumstances have combined in opposing a complete conservation of seventeenth-century English in this country. The territory over which the colonists spread was so extraordinarily large, that, even making the untenable assumption that they all originally spoke the same English dialect, it was naturally impossible to maintain a uniform tradition. Moreover, the lack of isolation and the continual and increasing intercourse with the mother country have prevented the speech of Americans and Englishmen from diverging very widely, particularly as there have already existed in this country persons so deluded as to waste much time and energy in the endeavor to approximate as closely as possible every innovation in the British mode of speech.

The fact that the United States has absorbed great numbers of foreigners may also have had some slight effect upon American English. But this influence is easily exaggerated, and it is unlikely that either Irish or German has caused more modification in our speech, — except in certain localities, — than has Italian or Russian. Indeed, all these circumstances have hardly been sufficient to neutralize our tendency to adhere to older forms of speech.

One can adduce almost as many particular words in proof of conservatism in England as in America. But in the more general changes which are alone worthy of citation as proof, America can be said to have a certain advantage. The dropping of the r, which is one of the chief characteristics of the socalled standard dialect of England, is obviously a later development than the retention of the letter in the speech of most Americans. The almost complete disappearance of the secondary accent in difficulty and laboratory is another important change to which we have not yet succumbed in any perceptible degree. At any rate we have treated our inheritance in quite as respectful and exemplary a manner as the English. To ask us to anglicize our pronunciation in order to preserve it pure and undefiled would be altogether ridiculous.

Before considering what other reasons may exist for the regulation of our pronunciation by that of cultured Englishmen, it may be well to enumerate some of the points upon which the two countries obviously differ. Several have already been mentioned. The majority of educated Englishmen certainly do not pronounce the r before a consonant. Just as certainly the majority of educated Americans pronounce it distinctly. Another important deviation of English from American pronunciation is the amount of stress given to the third syllable of polysyllabic words. The English say what to American ears sounds like litrrrry, as opposed to our distinct literary, holidy as opposed to holiday. It is evident that our so-called secondary accent is in many cases almost as important as the primary. In England a secondary accent in such words as temporary and necessary has practically ceased to exist. Which mode is the better is a question both unprofitable to discuss and perhaps impossible to decide. But be it remarked that if the secondary accent had first suffered this desuetude in America, the loss would have been stigmatized as a monstrous corruption which only the linguistically unfit could perpetrate.

Again, the flat a in such words as blast and command, although condemned by all orthoëpists, seems to have many more adherents in this country than the English ah. Here, it is said, we are inferior in elegance. The contrary may be affirmed in a fourth point of difference. In England such words as fertile and hostile are pronounced with the i long as in tile. This change cannot be out of any respect for Latin quantity, which happens to be short in the one case and long in the other. It appears to be one of those ‘spelling-pronunciations’ which have influenced the speech of both countries to a great extent.

Besides these general differences, many particular words at once distinguish an Englishman from an American. In trait the English have thought it proper to keep the French pronunciation. In schedule the tremendous influence of Webster has made us conform to what he deemed to be consistent with its Greek origin, while the very unclassical shedule prevails in England. All these differences are not so important as to make Englishmen and Americans mutually unintelligible; yet they are not so negligible that they remain unnoticed and undisputed by those who long for that linguistic Utopia in which the English language shall be at once elegant and uniform.


Both the possibility and the desirability of attaining this state of affairs seem to be taken for granted by most orthoëpic reformers. Generally they deem it unwise or perhaps unnecessary to obliterate all distinctions at once. They content themselves with the task of suppressing our most flagrant violations of purity of speech. But they never seem disturbed by the thought that language in general, and pronunciation in particular, have never been changed in this artificial way.

When a certain sound is obsolescent, or when it has already arisen in one section of the country, it may be possible, by excessive ‘school-mastering’ of the young and much heroic endeavor on the part of the old, to revive it and prevent its extinction in the one case, or to hasten its spread in the other. In the pronunciation of particular words, especially, it is possible by persistent assertion of authority to effect a change. But a general innovation involving numerous words or sets of words, such as the substitution of a broad a for a flat one, cannot be brought about by mere voluntary endeavor. Phonetic changes have always occurred, not because of any desire on the part of speakers to effect them, but simply because of the workings of a natural law of which they were unconscious or which they were at least powerless to check. Even the failure after long years of effort to pronounce naturally and consistently blahst and commahnd has not convinced the Anglomaniacs of the uselessness of their attempts. Some, in fact, with the true spirit of martyrs, seem to imagine that the struggle is the more glorious because the object is impossible of accomplishment. We have heard of the man who votes for a presidential candidate merely because he is certain to win. But the man who would vote for a presidential candidate merely because he is certain to lose possesses a mental equipment even more peculiar.

Although people still refuse to recognize the futility of their labors, and persist in the opinion that our speech should conform to that of England, one might presume that they must have the best of reasons for asserting the desirability of accomplishing this change. It may be well to mention that many imitators of the English are inspired only by that love of the exotic which admires everything indiscriminately from China to Peru. They imitate English pronunciation merely because it is not American. On the other hand, there appear to be people who honestly believe that they are benefiting their fellow countrymen and the language by practicing themselves and imposing upon others what they regard as the only true pronunciation of English. But even these more serious-minded mortals are strangely reluctant to advance any reasons for their position; and the arguments they do propound are generally not very convincing. It has been necessary at the outset to dispose of the belief which underlies many of the pronouncements on the subject, — the mistaken notion that existing differences in pronunciation are corruptions introduced by America. In enumerating these differences we have seen that, though comparatively few, they are not of such a nature as to be affected by individual effort. It now remains to examine what few reasons have impelled many intelligent people to attempt this impossible task.

At least two arguments can be discovered which are either definitely stated or unmistakably implied. The first may be given in the words of Richard Grant White: ‘For English is the language spoken by the English people, and while the most import ant and most cultivated part of the English race, that which is the direct continuation of the original state, remains in England, where it was first planted and grew to maturity, it is manifestly to England that we are to go if we would find that which is emphatically and unquestionably English.’

To some people this declaration may not appear so obvious and irrefutable as it evidently did to the propounder. The statement that ‘English is the language spoken by the English people,’ is naturally true as a mere assertion; but as a definition it is entirely inadequate. Its use as an argument is nothing but sophistry and confusion of names. English is just as truly the language spoken by the American people. Therefore, we might say by this method of reasoning, to America we must turn for the purest English. Again, one must be extremely humble, if not altogether sycophantic, to admit unconditionally that in England is ‘the most important and most cultivated part of the English race.’

The whole question, it may be remarked, is bound up with our right to independence in other linguistic matters. No one can have read Professor Lounsbury’s recent articles on Americanisms without realizing the necessity of differences in vocabulary. In this respect, indeed, it is now generally recognized that a dual standard not only was inevitable, but is actually salutary. Many Americanisms have become valuable additions to the English vocabulary, and our ‘joint-ownership ’ of the language — as Mr. Brander Matthews calls it — is, in this particular, being gradually conceded by England herself. Differences in the living language are naturally greater and more noticeable; it is perhaps for this reason that attempts to efface them utterly are still being made. None the less, they are even more inevitable, and the fact that no perceptible benefit arises from their existence, and several distinct disadvantages seem to attend it, cannot prevent their continuance.

The second reason for our adoption of the pronunciation of Southern England seems to be that Englishmen of culture are not subject to the same linguistic lapses and hideous errors which beset the speech of Americans. Two pronunciations in particular have been repeatedly and violently condemned by Americans as American traits. The insertion of an r before a vowel, as in the expressions ‘the lawr of the land,’ ‘the idear of it,’ has been described as an American fault. The teachers of the New York schools have found this ‘unhistoric r’ flourishing among the rising generation; there has been frequent notice and complaint of it in the metropolitan newspapers; and the outcry has become general. But, as is often the case in matters of language, the outcry is loudest among those who are totally ignorant of the reasons for the origin and spread of this sound, and consequently most incompetent to suggest any means of eradicating it.

The first references to this rhotacism consist of attacks upon the extension of the practice in England in the early part of the last century. Its rise was contemporaneous with that of the weakening of r before a consonant, and though at first regarded as a vulgarism, it generally became so wide-spread that in 1891 a well-known phonetician wrote: ‘As far as I can observe among educated Southerners [in England, of course], about nine tenths of the men and half of the women introduce this r.’ The most defamatory of critics could not bring the same accusation against the United States. It may well be remarked that ‘drawering’ and ‘I sawr it’ are rarely, if ever, used by persons who do not at the same time rhyme ‘morn’ with ‘dawn.’ The phenomenon is precisely similar to that by which the h is inserted promiscuously in cockney English after the correct sense of it has been lost by omitting it where it rightfully belongs. Whether this intruder will remain a permanent visitor and spread to more than one section of the country, depends entirely on our ability to distinguish between ah and r, and to avoid the confusion which has followed upon its banishment from its rightful domain. And if we succeed in this in America, it will be only because the appearance of this r is much later, and its prevalence much less general, in this country than in England.

Even more cacophonous to some ears than this insertion of r is the omission of h in such words as when, where, and while. One severe critic classes wen along with gal and bilin’, as Americanisms having a ‘distinct odor of tobacco-chewing about them.’ Doubtless each one of us can think of respectable persons of both sexes who consistently omit the h in when and are nevertheless far from using the ‘vile weed’ as a means of maxillary exercise. Whether it be regarded as an odious vulgarism or as a natural phonetic development, it cannot properly be designated an American fault. Even in the late eighteenth century the h was generally silent in England. To-day the pronunciations hwen and hwere are so uncommon among educated Englishmen as to be often considered harsh or dialectal. If Englishmen are to be held up as models because of their freedom from laxity of speech, it is certainly strange that the very errors which have been ignorantly condemned as peculiarly American should happen to be those in which England herself is the worst offender.


When one reads Henry James on The Question of Our Speech, one despairs of our American pronunciation. The novelist appears to have exhausted his vocabulary of uncomplimentary epithets (and it is a very large one) in describing it. One imagines that the American people treat the English language with as much pernicious unconcern as the English treat it with circumspection. It is therefore surprising and somewhat comforting to find in a treatise On the Present State of EnglishPronunciation by the newly appointed poet-laureate a severe criticism of the growing slovenliness in pronunciation and the general decadence of pure speaking in England. If the influx of vast hordes of foreigners is wholly accountable for the corruption of the language in this country, it is remarkable that a condition of affairs quite as disturbing has arisen in England without their assistance. Now, it would be unwise to assert that we speak the English tongue with as much perfection as we might or ought to speak it. But the remedy surely does not lie in endeavoring to anglicize our pronunciation, because the faults as well as the merits of the two countries are different.

Still another argument might be brought forward for adopting such British pronunciations as differ from our own. If any one language should ever become universally used as a medium of intercourse, none seems more likely to attain that position than that which we possess in common. No other language has had so extraordinary a growth. From a scant five million in 1500 it has become the language of over one hundred and twenty-five million people. Unquestionably one of the greatest dangers to a further extension of English would be a lack of uniformity in the two powerful nations speaking it. But when reformers of pronunciation urge us to embrace unnatural pronunciations because they believe the present differences sufficient to develop into a hindrance to the universality of English, they forget two things. One, which they never remember, is the utter impossibility of making such revolutionary changes at will. The other is the very important fact that, after all, the greatest difference between English and American speech is not a matter of pronunciation but of intonation. It is a difference much more difficult to define, but it is nevertheless that which contributes most of all to the strangeness of the English ‘accent,’ as it is popularly called. Unfortunately for the seekers after linguistic unity and concord, it is almost impossible for an individual to imitate these speech-tones. No one has, as yet, made so absurd a proposal as that of forcing them upon a nation. It is unlikely that any one will. But in view of the possibility, it may be well to suggest that it would be somewhat less absurd, though more heretical, for the English to conform to our mode of speech than for the larger nation to conform to that of the smaller.

The most fervent of Anglomaniacs have scarcely demanded that we accept in every particular the pronunciations which prevail in England. On the contrary, the method of most has been so eclectic that they might be suspected of sheltering behind the bugbear of an English standard the pronunciations approved by their own caprice. If English bean seems to them more richly euphonious than the simple American bin, nothing will vindicate their position more than the declaration that the speech of England is necessarily the standard of America. The time will come when such dogmatic assertions will no longer be received with reverent submission. Of course the majority of educated Americans have never, and will never, consciously imitate the English. They have nevertheless been taught that in not doing so they are violating the purity of the language.

Perhaps there will always be people so uninformed as to desire to adopt a foreign standard of pronunciation. But those of us who prefer not to make so complete a change in our mode of speech may at least have the satisfaction of knowing that we have an unquestionable right to the pronunciation natural to ourselves.