There are many accents in the USA and there are many accents in Britain, but what did the American founding fathers sound like? Some presume they spoke like English people do today, while others think they must have sounded more like modern Americans. In fact neither is correct because both accents have changed a lot over the last 200 years.
Even over the past 60 years, England’s accent-diversity has decreased steeply due to population displacement and the mass media. If you pronounce the ‘r’ in the word arm then you have a rhotic accent. The map above shows that the rhotic “r” sound, represented in orange, was far more common in England in the 1950’s than it is today. The two dominant modern English accents are Received Pronunciation (RP) and Estuary English, both of which are non-rhotic. While English rhotic accents are now restricted mainly to Somerset, Devon and Cornwall, they were once common across the South of England. Modern American accents are largely rhotic (exceptions exist in the south and northeastern states, which might be attributed to more recent British immigrants bringing in non-rhotic accents) and this is because the original founding fathers spoke with rhotic accents like those spoken in Devon and Somerset today.
Huge waves of immigrants left England for America back in the 1600’s to 1700’s. Whichever part of England they came from, we can be sure they did not speak RP. Even going back to Shakespeare’s time (16th-17th century), the main accent of London was rhotic and, as demonstrated in the video below, sounded like a West Country accent (think Bristol, Somerset, Devon etc).
While some accents in the Eastern USA, such as Bostonian, were influenced by later waves of immigration from Ireland, others were preserved due to the the original English immigrants moving into remote mountain areas. You can hear an example of one of the most archaic American accents preserved in a recording (see below) from 1972. The speaker is an old woman named Maggie Hammons Parker – her accent bears some resemblance to the Elizabethan English of the video above.
Not only is her accent archaic, but she also uses antiquated words such as ‘neery and erry’ for ‘never and ever’. She also used “thee” and “thou” in her speech, which is unusual on both sides of the Atlantic but still common among English people from West Lancashire and parts of Yorkshire.
The American founding fathers would have sounded like a mix between Maggie Hammons Parker and the Shakespearean actor in the video above. The closest living accent to that of the American founding fathers can be found among older people in the rural populations of the West Country of England.