what did thomas jefferson sound like?

I'm a little bit obsessed with accents, perhaps in part because 85% of the time I meet someone, I have some version of this exchange:

"Where are you from?"

"Atlanta, originally."

"What happened to your accent?"

[Explanation that variously includes me pointing out that regional accents tend to be muted in large metro areas, that I've moved around a lot, that I work with people from all over the world, and that I'm married to a Canadian. Some of which may or may not even be explanatory, in fact.]

In historical movies about the American Revolutionary period, or in documentaries where actors read the words of various historical people "in character", Thomas Jefferson is frequently given the genteel, upper crust southern accent most people would associate with a wealthy Virginia farmer. George Washington, on the other hand--who fits the exact same demographic--almost never is. And I cannot think of an example in which John Adams or John Hancock are made to sound like they are from Boston.

Of course, we have no idea what any of these men really sounded like. In fact, we can really only make an educated guess about what anyone sounded like in 18th century America. But I'd be willing to bet that we would have a hard time recognizing their regional accents today. After all, if you listen to how people spoke in movies from the early 20th century--or even better, in "man on the street" type interviews from the early days of radio, it's pretty clear that Americans now don't even really sound like they did 70 years ago, much less 240.

Given the years he spent in the British military, I'd be willing to bet Washington sounded a lot more English than Jefferson did. But then again, there's really no reason to assume that English accents in the 18th century sound like they do now, either.


Mr. D said...

Cool post.

My kids are fans of the PBS show “Liberty’s Kids,” which aired for a few years on PBS and is still out there in syndication. It is an animated series and they used a bunch of celebrities for voices. They had Ben Stiller doing Thomas Jefferson, Sylvester Stallone doing Paul Revere and Walter Cronkite doing Ben Franklin, among others. That’s probably not helpful, but I find it amusing.

Brian said...


RW said...

HL Mencken made a good case for the connection between the "southern drawl" and 16th century British English, pointing out that by and large the families that settled south of Maryland were generally that. Think Jamestown and similar. In "The American Language" he then listed 30 or more words that, when isolated, sounded exactly the same in both and yet when we hear them in dialect we would never make that connection. He explained a connection between the southern US with New England lubstuh-men that normally escapes attention.

I was interested to find out something about conversational Polish, which my family spoke, that illustrates a point about language.

My direct ancestors - both sides of the family - came from Eastern Europe in the original flow. 1890=1905 era, which was largely composes of peasants and rural folk. They spoke Polish in the home, told their children to be American - speak English, go play baseball - and they danced polkas and made a certain dish called gwomki with 100% beef. This sounds funny but its important... The modern wave of immigrants from Poland are college-educated, entrepreneurs, fiercely Catholic, who think that President Reagan and Pope John Paul II were gifts from God Almighty. However, they can't understand why people in the streets here don't speak Polish, they want to make a lot of money and then go back to Poland, they are not much interested in being fully assimilated so they don't care how well their children learn English, they think baseball is stupid. They never heard of this thing called a polka and their gwomkis are half beef and half pork.

I point this out because of an incident that happened to a 94 year old uncle of mine, born and raised here in America as a son of the first wave of immigrants, who attended a dinner at a famous Chicago area Polish-American restaurant and social club here, who overheard two young recent-arrivals in the men's room. He came back and told me about it and said "I couldn't understand a word they were saying."

I brought this incident up to a young man I worked with who came from the second wave and he affirmed it. "Oh yes," he told me. "When we listen to the old school Polish-Americans talk to one another, it would be the same for you, as an English speaker, as if you just walked into a conversation between two people speaking like Shakespeare." Point being that when cultures transplant themselves into a new environment, as immigrants do here in the US, they tend to "freeze" what they bring to the table. They are no longer influenced by the evolution of their native country, language or society. In the meantime the homeland moves on. So when the second wave meets the first wave they are seeing their culture from a frozen point of reference. Conversely the first wave watching the second wave is mystified about what they're hearing and seeing.

As you can tell it's a fascinating subject that I spend an inordinate, even nerdy, amount of time on.

Don't get me started.

Brian said...

I think I did. Carry on if you like!

Brian said...

[Mencken] explained a connection between the southern US with New England lubstuh-men that normally escapes attention.

Possibly related: my wife lived in Halifax, NS for a few years before we met. To her, people in the American south sound a lot like Newfoundlanders. I can't hear it.

Gino said...

RW said everything i was going to add to the topic, and then a whole lot more.

keep going, RW. I LOVE stuff like this too.

but i can add: much of the italian american slang you hear in the east (none of it here in Cali...) derive from words no modern italian would know or use.
these words are from the southern italian dialects that were brought over and usually the language of choice in casual/social settings.

these dialects are all but forgotten in today's italy. only the elders speak in them.

(what is now known as 'Italian' was the Tuscano language/dialect imposed nationally by the king (a Tuscan,duh...) upon unification)

my dad spoke Calabrese all day long, around town and at home, switched to Italian during school hours, and back to Calabrese when school was over.