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I have heard a theory that the modern British pronunciation (as compared, for example, to American pronunciation) started when somebody in the monarchy had a speech impediment (perhaps rhotacism) and, rather than humiliate the person, aristocrats adopted the same affectation, and it developed and persisted from there.

Is there any truth or substance to this theory? Or is there evidence to debunk it?

closed as unclear what you're asking by user66974, anongoodnurse, FumbleFingers, Margana, Misti Aug 5 '15 at 13:04

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    What are you thuggethting, thir? – Sven Yargs Aug 1 '15 at 20:23
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    @chaslyfromUK: I don't remember where or when I heard that. The only evidence I have is that received pronunciation sounds to Americans like an affectation to conceal speech impediments ;) – feetwet Aug 1 '15 at 20:27
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    The close-voter doth protest too much, methinks. – feetwet Aug 1 '15 at 20:32
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    Sounds like as much of an urban legend as the idea that Spaniards have a "lisp" because of imitating some king with a speech impediment. (BTW, Castillian Spanish actually distinguishes between the "th" and "s" sounds, so a person with a lisp still wouldn't be able to pronounce some words correctly). – sumelic Aug 1 '15 at 20:38
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    I believe I once heard this, maybe 30-40 years ago. It's plausible, except that one would have to believe there would be a significant historical record -- not the type of thing one could bury for centuries. (Makes a good myth, though.) – Hot Licks Aug 1 '15 at 20:46
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The king who is known to have had a speech impediment was King George VI, father to the present Queen, who reigned from 1936 to 1952. The matter of his speech impediment was dramatised in the film The King's Speech (2010) written by David Seidler, in which Colin Firth plays the part of the King. This clearly has nothing to do with the formation of the Received Pronunciation which was already long established before George VI was born.

I have heard it said, but have never read anything about the matter, that one of the earlier Georges, possibly George II (reigned 1727 - 1760), who had difficulty with English (he had been born a German, and German was his first language) had rather quaint ways of saying things. Some of his more idiosyncratic expressions were affected by courtiers and other sycophants - which may explain a few surviving odd-sounding British expressions such as What ho and Hey what.

But it would be ridiculous to suppose that the entire system of Received Pronunciation could have become established in that way.

Note on rhotacism

Rhotacism is a speech impediment involving difficulty in pronouncing the letter r. It probably has nothing whatever to do with the rhotic r sound.

Most regional dialects in Britain do not sound the rhotic r. It is however a feature of the various West Country accents, from Cornwall in the south-west to Hampshire and Berkshire in the east. One theory holds that it is the origin of the North American rhotic r.

  • Both George I and George II are known to have spoken very bad English, if at all, much prefering German (and Germany, for that matter). In the 18th century, the rhotic r was still common in the entire south of England, not just the West Country, if memory serves. – Joost Kiefte Aug 1 '15 at 22:07
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    We do know that the /r/ was originally present historically: see Rhoticity in English. Its loss did not become posh and widespread until (shortly) after the severing of ties. – tchrist Aug 1 '15 at 23:05
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    All English was originally rhotic. Some regions have lost that. Others have preserved it. The OP posits a somewhat silly old wives' tale to explain how this came to be lost. It's more of "Just So" story than anything. – tchrist Aug 1 '15 at 23:50
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    Chaucer will do. Middle English orthography was phonetic, just as Old English's was. They did not write letters they did not say; that came later. – tchrist Aug 2 '15 at 0:03
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    @tchrist, WS2: This is nifty, 115 ff. De-rhoticization is a very long and complex process. Most authorities seem to agree that non-rhotic coda r didn't percolate into the prestige dialect until the end of the 18th century. The US nonrhotic dialects are precisely those which were major seaports and exposed to British prestige English in the first half of the 19th century: Boston, New York, and the Tidewater. – StoneyB Aug 2 '15 at 0:11
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It strikes me as quite unlikely. American and British sounded much alike until and after 1783, from then on they may have branched away from each other. George III, on the throne between 1760 and 1820, suffered from a progressive mental condition but is not known to have had a speech impediment. The two sons that followed him on he throne, George IV and William IV, were embarrassments in various ways, but not voice-wise. Their respective reigns may not have lasted long enough to influence a whole nation's speech. Victoria, who ascended the throne after William IV, had a German accent. The king most people might have felt vicariously ashamed for would have been George VI, the famous stammerer and subject of the film The King's Speech. I have as yet to come across people who would affect a stammer so as not to upstage his majesty.

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    Your answer begins with the ridiculous and ends with the undiplomatic. It is rare that I exercise a down vote but on this occasion I feel moved to do so. It is quite absurd to say that "British and American sounded much the same until after 1783". You may know that Britain is a country of hugely divergent regional accents. The idea that Americans and all these regional British once spoke in the same way is patently ridiculous. There are, however, similarities between American English and some West Country and Irish accents. (continued) – WS2 Aug 1 '15 at 21:14
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    Then, surely, you must also find the question ridiculous because there is no British accent. As it is, my answer is as generalising as the question and as such fits the bill. – Joost Kiefte Aug 1 '15 at 21:22
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    I think it's safe to assume that early colonists in North America will have spoken with the same accents from whence they came. Perhaps that is what Joost meant. – Avon Aug 1 '15 at 21:22
  • I have never met anyone who felt "vicariously ashamed" of George VI. Most people were sympathetic toward him, and admired the way that he persevered with his speech. A modest man, he remains a revered monarch who reigned throughout the course of the second world war. He and his family stayed in London throughout the course of the blitz, during which time Buckingham Palace was hit by German bombs. He and the Queen refused to go to Canada, are said to have eaten the same food rations available to the public, and indicated that he intended to live and, if necessary, die in London. – WS2 Aug 1 '15 at 21:23
  • ...but then that was long before the late 18th century. I would expect new accents to be evolving in the melting pot of cultures in North America well before 1783. – Avon Aug 1 '15 at 21:28

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