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Most North American speech is rhotic—why is that? Does it come from the early English settlers or perhaps from the Irish settlers?

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North American? Do you mean USAmericans from the north or everyone that lives on the continent? – MrHen Apr 2 '11 at 12:42
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Consider that English was rhotic until the 17th century, and that British colonization in America began in 1607. – kiamlaluno Apr 2 '11 at 12:49
    
@kiamlaluno: If you add a citation, that should be the answer. – Kosmonaut Apr 2 '11 at 12:51
    
@Kosmonaut That is the reason I didn't answer: I cannot find any citation for the fact English was rhotic until 17th century, except a question asked here. Is then this question on topic, for EL&U? – kiamlaluno Apr 2 '11 at 12:56
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@MrHen: "North American" is a standard term for people from North America. "Northern American" refers to people from the northern part of the US. – Kosmonaut Apr 2 '11 at 19:49
up vote 9 down vote accepted

As reported on Wikipedia (Rhotic and non-rhotic accents), English had become non-rhotic by the end of the 18th century; John Walker used the spelling ar for the pronunciation of aunt in 1775, and reported caad as pronunciation of card in 1791.

British colonization of the Americas began in 1607 in Virginia, even though there had been previous attempts in 1586 and 1587. United States of America declared its independence on July 4 1776, when the non-rhotic accent had started to spread on Southern England.

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Outscored by a later answer stealing my Wikipedia quote! I'll have to tolerate it, because the initial idea was yours :) – F'x Apr 2 '11 at 18:31

As kiamlaluno noted in his comment, it's a question of when predominant English dialects transitioned from rhotic to non-rhotic. While I don't have any definite (or academic) reference to supply, three comments on this:

  • One can read here: “In 1776, both American accents and British accents were largely rhotic. It was around this time that non-rhotic speech took off in southern England, especially among the upper class. This “prestige” non-rhotic speech was standardized, and has been spreading in Britain ever since.” The author offers as a reference The Cambridge History of the English Language: English in North America. I located the correct passage at page 75 and later.

  • This datation is backed by the following Wikipedia quote: “Loss of coda /r/ apparently became widespread in southern England during the 18th century; John Walker uses the spelling ar to indicate the broad A of aunt in his 1775 dictionary and reports that card is pronounced "caad" in 1791 (Labov, Ash, and Boberg 2006: 47).”

  • Even by 1950, large parts of England still had largely rhotic dialects (see maps here).

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To second F'x's answer, one can note that Australian, New Zealand and South African accents are non rhotic and that their colonisation took place later than that of New England. Furthermore there are little variation in American accent. In his study of the American English Melvyn Bragg has a nice description of American English unity: "American English was also developing its own sound. The first settlers had come from various parts of England, each with its own regional accent. [cont'] – Alain Pannetier Φ Apr 2 '11 at 18:13
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[cont'd] But no single accent dominated. As they talked to each other, the variety very quickly became a blend. To this day, there's only a tiny variation in accents across America compared to Britain, and the further west you go, the more true that becomes. By the middle of the 18th century, the absence of regional pronunciations and dialect words was being noted approvingly by upper-class British visitors, who regarded all such variations as vulgar. – Alain Pannetier Φ Apr 2 '11 at 18:14

Expanding a little on the info above: The perception that American English and British English somehow developed largely independently after North America was colonized is not correct. Non-rhoticity started around London, then gradually spread northward and westward around England, and then spread to North America. In North America it started on the East and Gulf coasts and then spread inward. By the early 20th century American culture was starting to really assert itself and Americans stopped looking to England for what was fashionable. As the Midwestern and Western states became economically more important, the Midwestern (rhotic) accent became established as the "standard" accent, especially with the advent of radio and television. The accent trend began to reverse and rhoticism re-asserted itself eastward in North America.

But it is important to note that, even today, New York and New England still have large numbers of non-rhotic speakers, as do New Orleans and some other parts of the South. Similarly southwestern England is still heavily rhotic as are Ireland and Scotland.

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