cover Photo by Hello I'm Nik on Unsplash
Often people seem to believe that there is a right way to speak a language. If you’re from North America, you might find the English spoken in the US Midwest to be more or less “neutral”. If you’re from the UK, you may believe that the most polished form is what’s commonly referred to as RP, the Queen’s English or the BBC English. Or perhaps you’re one of the majority who speaks neither, in which case you either believe you should, or you’re totally resistant to the idea of a “standard” dialect or accent.
Let’s take one view of the whole picture: the English spoke in the United Kingdom is the purest form of the language – we’ll assume we’re talking about RP (received pronunciation). To support this view, you might claim that England the fatherland (or motherland if you prefer) of Shakespeare, Chaucer, Bronte, and of course the language itself. As the origin of the language, it must essentially have the purest form, just as the purest form of Catholicism is that practiced in the Vatican, the most authentic Tango is to be found in Argentina, and the best pizza invariably Italian.
Is that really how things work? In language, actually, it’s the periphery that preserves the language, and holds on longest to old-fashioned and in some cases archaic sounds, vocabulary and even grammar. This would put either Australia, New Zealand or North America (including the Caribbean) as the most likely places to find a “pure” and “original” form of English. In fact, as England continued to change, and Australia was settled more recently than North America, it’s fairly safe to say that the general dialects of North America are older in a fashion than the dialects of the UK. The English of the Old World has undergone numerous changes in pronunciation, whereas there are significant references to various pronunciations in the New World. A great example would be rhoticity. The loss of the pronunciation of “r” in the land of the Royal Family is a modern change. Put in another way: England lost the “r”, North America didn’t gain it. We can also safely assume that this happened sometime before the mass settlement of Australia, as it had clearly already happened at that point.
Wait, is that the only explanation? No. Not necessarily. The settlers that came to North America could well have come from a place where the “r” had not yet been lost. Many did in fact come from Ireland, but not enough to preserve the other characteristics of Irish speech, except perhaps in the southern shore of Newfoundland, Canada. That would be too easy an explanation. Fortunately history lends credit to the first reason, and if you search you’ll find plenty of testaments to the fact that English (in England) became non-rhotic after the settlement of North America, specifically in the late 17th and then 18th century (necessarily over the course of a few generations) and before the colonization of Australia. The loss of rhoticity first took off among the upper class of southern England (which may also explain why Irish is still rhotic and also why large parts of England remained so even as late as the 1950s).
But then, why are some areas of New England also non-rhotic?
Another question that begs an answer: is North American English more authentic? If by authentic we choose to mean “pure” then the answer is no. The settlers that arrived from English may have mainly (but not all) spoken rhotic dialects of English, but their individual numbers from most parts of the Old World were too few and far between to solidify one accent and one way of speech, thus preserving it. There are possible exceptions to this of course, and if you travel to the southern shore of Newfoundland Canada, mainly settled by the Irish, you would find there preserved a particularly strong variety of Irish that resembles the language spoken in very small communities in Ireland. In any case, in most of the New World, settlers from various backgrounds converged together, and thus began the development of what we call today General American Speech and all it’s sub-dialects, as well as the English spoken in modern-day Canada. The mixing and blending that developed from so many converging backgrounds, resulted in no one accent dominating, and also the general homogeneity of the North American dialect. While there is variance, even to this day it does not compare to the variance of dialects present in European English.
So where does that leave us? If the UK standard is not the “correct” form, and neither is the North American, then what is? The simple fact of the matter is, languages change and evolve over time, and there’s very little we can do to change that. The advent of writing, and further down the road, mass literacy, drastically slowed the process of linguistic change, but the simple fact that we have three or four large subsets of dialects and accents (the Old World accents, the New World Accents and those in Oceania) tells us that even literacy didn’t stop the flow of progress. Yet, without too much effort, people from all of these different linguistic communities are able to understand each other. The inevitable variety even adds a bit of spice to the language.
In the end, the “right” way is the one that is most intelligible, but in this day and age, what’s wrong with having several “right” ways of speaking a language and celebrating their differences as well? We could also go a step further and recognize that sometimes unique ways of saying things add functionality to the language. What would English be today if puritans had told Shakespeare to stick to words sanctioned by a dictionary? Quite boring, I think.