It makes for a great story: when settlers moved from England to the Americas from the 17th Century, their speech patterns stuck in place. That was particularly true in more isolated parts of the US, such as on islands and in mountains. As a result, the theory goes, some Americans speak English with an accent more akin to Shakespeare’s than to modern-day Brits.
One feature of most American English is what linguists call ‘rhoticity’, or the pronunciation of ‘r’ in words like ‘card’ and ‘water’. It turns out that Brits in the 1600s, like modern-day Americans, largely pronounced all their Rs. Marisa Brook researches language variation at Canada’s University of Victoria. “Many of those immigrants came from parts of the British Isles where non-rhoticity hadn’t yet spread,” she says of the early colonists. “The change towards standard non-rhoticity in southern England was just beginning at the time the colonies became the United States.”
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