Creative Anachronism or Language Lesson?

I have a question: I’m reading an ARC set in, I believe, the Regency or close to it, and I’m confused about linguistics.

When did the American English dialect and pronunciation remove itself from any similarity to British English such that Englishmen might complain about an American woman’s “grating accent?”

Wikipedia puts the split at about 1725 so it would make sense that a book set in the Regency or shortly before or thereafter could conceivably feature remarks to linguistic difference. Continued searches of the Wiki reveal that there’s plenty to say about the differences between Brit English and US English – and Australian, Canadian, New Zealand, Scottish, Asian, Caribbean, South African, Liberian, and Jamaican English, but not a great deal of detail that I found about WHY and WHEN these differences occured.

It’s been many years since I studied the history of the English language, so I’m rusty on my history – and I’m not even sure we covered the why of the split, so maybe it’s another linguistic unknown, like the direct cause of the Great Vowel Shift.

So I could be wrong in thinking the dialectical difference might not be so great, and that a character could realistically complain about the way an American sounds when in a ballroom in London. And I’m not one of the historical sticklers who is going to pitch a fit about such things; I’m just curious.

But on a related note, it does make me wonder – have there been any historical misfits in your fiction? Or, things that you thought were wrong that turned out to be correct?


Random Musings

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  1. Ann Aguirre says:

    I remember being really annoyed when, in a 19th century period romance, the heroine and hero were saying “okay” and “alright.” (Don’t even get me started on ‘alright’.)

  2. I remember the medieval where the heroine called the hero a “chauvinist”.  I still have the dent in my wall.

  3. Sallyacious says:

    There’s one reference that I occasionally read in historicals that pulls me out of the story with a jerk. When a character is ill, they are often cupped. Unfortunately, many authors haven’t done their research and just assume that cupping = bleeding. Not so. Two entirely different things. Cupping uses glass bowls suctioned onto the body to stimulate circulation. It’s an old folk remedy that is frequently used today by pracititioners of Chinese Medicine. Bleeding is removing blood from the body in order to stimulate a different reaction.

    Every time I read it, I know the author has assumed that previous authors got it right. That always makes me question every other historical aspect of the novel. How much else are they assuming that isn’t correct? I can’t just settle in and enjoy the world and the story anymore.

    **steps off soapbox**

  4. Don’t think I’ve posted before, but being a history geek more than a romance geek, I do feel I can comment on this one.

    I remember in one of Patrick O’Brien’s novels, set during the War of 1812, there’s a hilarious (to the reader) discussion of accents, from Stephen Maturin [the Irishman]‘s POV, wherein this New Englander with this “harsh metallic bray” of an accent is talking about how untainted his speech is. It never occurred to me to doubt it—but then, O’Brien never gave much reason to doubt any of his historic stuff.

    I do love the historic details that to a casual nitpicker seem wrong—like, in 1900 New York City, even the lower-class ragamuffins being literate—I do love to note how sophisticated previous generations were despite being “in olden times”.

    But these jarring details—they only work if you have faith in the author. They have to get the basics right, have their historical credibility established without a hitch, before they can throw in the real wacky details. And as someone above pointed out, when the author shows that they’ve been copying details from previous books without doing their own research, that’s a big turnoff.

  5. Jenny says:

    I can’t help it, I’m a sucker for a good Scottish historical (and/or time travel).  Now that I’m writing my own, and researching the history, I’m finding so many glaring errors in the history of books I read it’s almost making me unable to read them.

    So here’s my soapbox.

    Let’s get one thing straight: THERE WERE NO “CLAN TARTANS” UNTIL THE EARLY 1800s.  Nope.  Nada.  Maybe weavers in a certain area favored similar patterns, but there’s no proof.  Men of clans often wore several different setts of tartan (and by the way, “plaid” is the garment itself, “tartan” is the pattern) – often at the same time.  So you can’t have Scotsmen in the 1700s, much less the 1400s or, God help us, the 1200s being identified by the tartan they’re wearing.

    Oh, and speaking of dress through the centuries.  “Kilts” (here meaning the feilidh-mhor: “great kilt” or “belted plaid”) weren’t the standard of dress in the medieval period.  So for those authors who have their heroes in kilts any time before about the late 16th century, PLEASE do a quick fact check.

    All of this information is immediately apparent with a Wikipedia search or in the front of any book on clan tartans.

    And this isn’t even touching on the cultural attitudes/understandings, or language/vocabulary (hint for time-travel writers: only the wealthy and educated Highlanders knew English.  Any other characters, villagers and the like, will only speak Gaelic.) issues I’ve come across. 

    *Taking deep breath and stepping down off the box now*

  6. Carrie Lofty says:

    Much of American v. British accents had (have) to do with class.  The higher the class of American, the fewer differences with British counterparts. Think Kate Winslet in Titanic. Her accent in that film was intentional—a British actress subduing her Britishness in order to convey an old-family American.

    In a Regency, wouldn’t an upper class Brit would find low class accents from his own country more grating than an upper class accent from America? Also, a Brit would recognize British accents and immediately place them within a social hierarchy (ie Cockney accent = working & possibly poor, or Norfolk = rural), a process that would attach more stigma to them, beyond just their sounds.

  7. Oooh, I was just reminded of a book I loathed, and the anachronisms just added icing to the cake.  The heroine was a “Robin Hood” character in the middle ages who rode around at night robbing the taxman and giving the money back to the poor.  In this novel the downtrodden hovel dwelling English peasants were paying their taxes in gold, and the heroine went on her nightly forays dressed in black velvet.

  8. Becky says:

    OK first appeared in print in 1839, so depending on when in the 19th century the book was set, it’s possible that the term was in use. 

    On the opposite end of the spectrum, I read a contest entry a while back where a modern, twenty-something woman called the hero a cad.  Yeah, I use that one all the time, too.

  9. Rachel says:

    In the ONE Cassie Edwards I’ve read, her characters said “way” incessantly- in the “way too ill” or “way too far” sense, not in the “I’ll show you the way there” sense. 
    It drove me beyond bonkers. “far too…” just seems much more historically appropriate.

  10. Carrie Lofty says:

    Really, Becky? Coz I always call ‘em rakes.

  11. Maia says:

    Warning, longish post.

    I have two issues, one of which is only tangentially related to the question.

    Issue 1.  A well known author using the term ‘sadist’ in a novel set in 17th C. America.  Stopped reading the book and promptly gave it to the USB.  The Marquis de Sade wasn’t around til the second half of the 18th C. and the term was not coined until the late 19th C. (Thanks to the Britannica for the last part)

    Issue 2.  Use of foreign language.  Right now I volunteer to read any and all WIPs in which the author is using Spanish.  First of all, there are quite a few dialects of the language (Mexican spanish is not the same as Argentinean is not the same as Castilian is not the same as Cuban, etc).  Second, even if the author gets the (for example) Mexican dialect correct, there are variations between generations, if the character was born/raised in the US, etc. 

    I cannot tell you how many times I have picked a book, fervently hoping that the author/editors have managed to use correct spelling and grammar (I don’t even hope for the right Spanish anymore), only to be dissappointed.  It pulls me right out of the story and I don’t buy the author for a few years, enough to forget the pain. 

    Sorry.  Rant is (almost) over.

    It’s cojones people, not cajones.

    Off the soapbox now.

  12. DS says:

    I think that people in the US forget that regional accents were once stronger and more localized than they are now.  I remember reading the biography of Georgina, Duchess of Devonshire where they were talking about the Devonshire eccentricities of speech, yaller for yellow is the one I particularly remember and gel for girl.  I thought it fairly obvious that they were probably using some local dialet lower status dialect.  In fact read aloud it sounds a lot like the all but wiped out Appalachian dialect of my grand parents.

  13. Bron says:

    I was a textile historian for a while, so don’t get me started on silk chemises, and heroines of non-Regency periods not wearing corsets, and velvet everywhere.

    The latest almost-throwing-book-at-the wall episode for me was when the heroine refuses the rich hero who loves her because she’s enjoying being a seamstress (much more than she enjoyed being a governess). And she goes home each afternoon to the room she rents that she has to herself.

    The reality? Female textile workers were one of the most exploited and under-paid groups. If I’d been a seamstress working in London in the early 1800s, I’d have married the devil himself to escape from 18-20 hour days every day working in bad conditions and sharing a room above the workshop with the other workers for very little (if anything) above ‘board’ and lodging.


  14. “It’s cojones people, not cajones.”

    I’d noticed this, but I thought maybe it was the polite version, like people sometimes say ‘sugar’. But yes, ‘cajones’ means drawers i.e. a piece of furniture.

  15. Suisan says:

    Supposedly there’s a dialect in Southern Massachusetts which is as close to the Shakespearean “accent” which modern linguists can find.

    And my old New England relatives had an accent which was NOT the Good Will Hunting Boston Accent at all. But it does sound mildly English. (For example, all “a” s are broad. Hahlf n Hahlf is poured in coffee, the back of your leg is a cahlf, the sister of your mother is your awnt. My great-grandmother as a child famoulsy used to shake envelopes when they pickled them up the mail. Her grandmother had said that the mailmen “sorted” the mail, and her grandaughter thought she had said “salted.” The pronounciation was somewhere between sawted and sauhted.)

    So I’m not totally sure that ALL American accents would grate to the ear. But I dunno. Might sound enough non-English to be noticeable, though perhaps not grating.

    As pointed out above, the English are much more aware than most of the social hierarchy of various accents, so maybe it’s an issue that just seems contrived for American readers?

  16. I suppose too, getting back to the ARC in question, that whether or not the American accent sounds “grating” would depend on one’s relationship with the speaker.  If you’re attracted to the American lady, you might find her accent charming or lilting.  If you don’t like her, you might find it grating.

  17. AnneD says:

    I have just finished up a book that had Lords and Ladies, horses and carriages, candles, inns…the whole historical nine yards. Yet half way through I went back to read the first few chapters again, to try figure out if this was an alternative universe, or if I had plain got it wrong and it was more contemporary than I thought.
    It got to the point I laughed out aloud at the glaring contemporary language.

    Pity, because it was a reasonable story otherwise.

    I am laughing over the pronunciation posts. Being a New Zealander, I get asked every day to repeat my name as everyone thinks I have the great and wonderful name of Dibee.
    D e b b i e…oh! d eahr bee!
    Wasn’t that just what I said? Now I just fake it, I’m getting pretty damn good at being a southern princess these days.

  18. Nathalie says:

    Okay, I got a soap box too. It’s only partly related to history, but it’s all about le language.

    Those French accents.

    The use of French words in general, for that matter. Argh!

    “Ma petite chérie”, and “mais, oui” and whatever else French people are supposed to say. We don’t.  No one will call a woman “ma petite chérie” m’kay? ‘Cause it ranks very high on the Eeeww Scale (that by which all is weighed and measured and spanked good). You say that to a little girl, a kid, not to the heroine who you’ll have sex with. So those Eurotrash vamps who keep calling their bee-stung lipped heroine (remember the list of tired-old-romance-words?) ma petite chérie, please, someone shoot them. Or drag them to a tanning salon and LET THEM FRYYYY!!

    Ok. Time for my meds.

  19. JulieT says:

    I’m a knitter and a history buff and I study botany. The combination can drive me insane when reading historic novels. In fact, I’ve quit reading historic novels set before about 1800 because I just can’t take it any more. Things making me bonkers include:

    Anyone other than the very rich wearing knitted socks before about 1500. Before that, wearing kilt hose was about as accurate as wearing the kilt itself. The idea of a knitted shirt has only been around since about the 1600s, and then first for the rich.

    Foods or plant-based drugs being eaten or used before they were introduced. I know, sounds really nit-picky, but it’s pretty obvious that New World plants were NOT around before the New World was discovered. (That includes potatos, tomatos, corn, tobacco, and quinine, thank you very much.) Even AFTER the New World was discovered, many of those products were only available to the very rich for a long time.

    Chocolate. New World plant. Not made into solid chocolate as we think of it until the 1800s, and not affordable to the masses until the 1900s. Until then it was consumed as hot chocolate, and THAT’S ALL. Don’t get me started on chocolate chip cookies.

    I’ll stop now. But you get the idea.

  20. Rosina Lippi says:

    I write about this kind of thing all the time on my weblog. What I find really sad and strange is that people who otherwise write a good story don’t spend even a minimal amount of time on researching the language(s) of the people they are writing about. They just plow ahead and turn up turds.

    Julie Ann Long writes Regencies which are quite well put together, but the language stuff? terrible.

  21. Kat says:

    There are some expressions that make me cringe, such as “could care less” or “off off”. I don’t know if these were part of everyday speech in the past but they’re definitely not part of mine (Australian English) now (we say “couldn’t care less” and just one “off”). I also get annoyed when Regency characters use sexual terminology that weren’t used in that context during the time period. It makes me feel like I’m reading porn because all of a sudden, the words are out of context.

    I’m sure I miss a lot of other details, though (including ones that have been mentioned by other commenters). I usually gloss over descriptions anyway, so even if I *knew* they were wrong, I might miss them in the reading (unless I’m editing and then I tend to get a bit compulsive). A friend of mine was turned off one of my favourite novels because there was a story about a tiger drowing and she knows that tigers can swim. We all have our buttons.

    I don’t always blame the author, though. It depends how egregious the error is, and how easy it would have been to look it up in the first place. I appreciate author’s notes where deliberate errors are discussed, so at least I know that they were done on purpose and for a reason.

  22. SB Sarah says:

    Darlene – grating or endearing? I think it could go either way. He could be attracted to her and hate that he is, thus she grates on him.

    And I am going to find a vacant bar and found myself Ye Olde Chauviniste Clubbe.

  23. DS says:

    Something I thought was wrong but it turned out not to be.  Dreadful 1980’s Warner Regency.  A dinner contained tomatoes.  Ah, ha, I have you.  Tomatoes were commently thought to be poisonous until the Victorian era.

    Checked Wikipedia and found out that I was wrong.  Tomatoes were being eaten in Britain from mid 1700’s on.  I slink off.

  24. Sphinx says:

    There’s actually quite a good theory stating that the Shakespearean English accent might have sounded quite a lot like the modern American accent.  Granted, Shakespearean England probably isn’t as attractive as it could be to writers of time-travel romances, possibly because of all the plague.

  25. Madd says:

    Hands off my cajones!

    Recently I read a book where the hero was a Cuban American and his Spanish drove me bugnuts! He would say things meant to sound sexy and the words, while technically correct, weren’t right. It was as if someone ran it through Babel Fish or something, you know? Close, but not quite right. It came off stilted.

  26. Saam says:

    There’s an interesting American history text called ‘The Americans: The Colonial Experience’ by Daniel J Boorstin. In this there are 3 chapters devoted to ‘Language & the Printed Word’.

    He mentions that 1) most of the original settlers came from the same areas; London, the Midlands & southern England, 2) there was a whole lot of exploring & moving around, which meant not as much regional variation.

    Several 18th century travellers remarked on the uniformity of American speech & were impressed by its proper grammatical use as well. There’s a quote from a Scottish Lord who travelled through the colonies during the mid 18th century saying, “the propriety of Language here suprized me much, the English tongue being spoken by all ranks, in a degree of purity and perfection, surpassing any, but the polite part of London”

    So, I think the Englishman would only be surprised by her ‘grating accent’ if he actually came from Northern England or somewhere else where there’s a strong regional accent.

    Sorry for the lecture, I’m especially interested in linguistics & historical changes in language usage. 🙂

    Also a question for Nathalie: Is petit chou in general use still? I always have a giggle when a character says that!

  27. Octavia says:

    In one of the Bedwyn books, the hero, who is bilingual due to having an English father and a French mother, was born and raised in England, then exiled to France sometime after his majority.  Balogh thinks that this background somehow means he should have a French accent when he speaks English.  That is simply incorrect; he should speak English with an English accent, because 1) children get their accents from their peers, not their parents; 2) his governess would make sure that he has a proper upper-class accent anyway; and 3) when living in France, he would no doubt speak French with the French and English with the English, thereby avoiding somehow magically picking up a French accent when speaking English.  Sorry, monsieur, no charming French accent for you.  Drove me crazy throughout the entire book, which wasn’t half bad otherwise.

  28. dl says:

    My pet peeve works for historical as well as contemporary.  As already noted above, most writers have little or no knowledge of fabrics. I get cranky trying to visualize these mucked-up scenes. Among other mistakes, most use silk and satin as interchangable terms…so not true. 

    LKH frequently writes about sliding off slippery silk sheets.  Silly rabbit, silk sheets are not slippery. She probably means satin sheets (which are usually woven from nylon which is slippery, and feel like sleeping in saran wrap).  SILK IS A FIBER, SATIN IS A WEAVE. 

    Silk, cotton, rayon, polyester, nylon, wool, spandex, acetate, tencel, etc. are “fibers”. Corduroy, satin, jacquard, twill, denim, knits, velvet, etc. are “weaves”…the method used to turn the fibers into fabric.  For example, silk can be woven into regular fabric, knits, velvet, or even satin (most is nylon or acetate).

    In it’s most common weave, silk looks alot like cotton.  In the last few years, silk knits are available commercially (if your favorite man doesn’t own a silk knit shirt, Christmas is just around the corner).  Silk satin and velvets are difficult to find, but beautiful.

    In a historical setting, silk would be expensive and rare enough to be worn exclusively by the upper classes.  Shiny satin (as we know it today) did not exist until the invention of man made fibers.

    Getting off my soapbox now…don’t throw the poison tomatoes at me.

  29. Rosina Lippi says:

    I’m going to point out a couple things doing my best not to sound like a know-it-all, but I’ll probably fail. So let me explain first: I taught linguistics at the university level for twelve years, and my primary research area was variation and change. This does not mean that I know everything about this subject, but I can provide some perspective.

    The most difficult thing about historical linguistics is the near impossibility of reconstructing (with any degree of certitude) how things were pronounced. It’s been hundreds of years since there was anything even approaching a sound=letter equivalency. Spelling wasn’t fully standardized until the 19th century. You probably have heard that Shakespeare signed his name five or seven or ten different ways.

    If nobody agrees on how to spell things, and if there are dozens of different varieties of English being spoken, you can see the difficulty in really knowing how Shakespeare spoke. What we do know comes from painstaking analysis of rhyme schemes and current day dialects. And even there, scholars argue.

    The other big thing to remember is that people are notoriously unreliable when it comes to passing on information about language spoken around them. To say ‘I was surprised at how well the Americans spoke when I visited there’ could mean a hundred different things. And on top of that, the term ‘grammatical’ is used in very different ways by different people.

    So when you read little snippets in the paper ‘academics claim small town in lower Spodunk county still speaking Shakespearean English!’ you should remember this is a lot like the ads that claim ‘three out of four doctors agree’.

    All this stuff got a lot easier once the technology for recording voice came along. We can pretty much reconstruct Victorian English in all its varieties over space because people who spoke those versions of English lived into the 1940s and 50s, and linguists did try to get some data down for posterity.

    Otherwise when I taught historical linguistics, the advice I give is this: come up with a scheme for the way you’re going to use language and dialect and variation, base it as far as you are able in documented studies, and be consistent.

    That’s the most you can hope for.

  30. kate r says:

    Things I got all Uppity about and then . .. .

    okay turns out to have been used much earlier than I expected. I can’t recall when. I could look it up but I’m too lazy to pull out the huge old OED for it. Rosina?

    I frequently get all hot under the collar about a word, pull out the OED and find out the word was first IN PRINT about the time of the book’s setting.

    I think once a word hits print, the words has been kicking around in the language for at least a few years—particularly in previous centuries. (Rosina, again?)

    I’m guessing language changed more gradually in the days of slower travel. Oh, and obviously I’m talking about words other than examples like Mrs. Malaprop(ism) or Rev Spooner(ism).

  31. Janetm says:

    I’m guessing that English accents were far more regional, even among the aristocracy and gentry, than we think in historic times. Walter Raleigh kept his west country accent all his life, apparently. Or at least, the aristos might speak one way among themselves but lapse into their own dialect back home on the estate. The idea of “proper” English is one that was encouraged by the BBC, altho the posh and aristocratic do have their own strange accent—the Queen, for instance, pronounces “off” as “aawf.”
    It’s a fascinating topic. That Wikipedia page is awesome—voiced velars! voiceless fricatives!

  32. kate r says:

    I’ve been trying to figure out how to work “voiceless fricatives” into an insult.

    Yah, you’re nothing but a unholy voiceless fractive.

    Maybe it works best as a muttered curse. “flippin fricative”

  33. Rosina Lippi says:

    kate r—

    that’s an excellent point, and you’re exactly right.

    The OED is a fantastic resource but you have to remember one crucial thing: the farther back in time you go, the fewer written and/or printed documents exist, and they become primarily (1) religious or (2) legal in nature. So maybe the OED tells us that the word XXX was first recorded in written language in the year 1400, but what does that mean? It was formal enough to make its way into a sermon. The OED can’t tell us about the words that were being used by women when they got to talking in front of the hearth, or the conversations between father and child, or fishmonger and butcher, or field worker and overseer.

    So that means the farther back in time you go, the less representative the OED becomes.

    When I was studying Old High German in grad school, all the texts were religious (sermons, bible translations) but there was a smattering of other stuff. Incantations, recipes, travel notes. My very favorite thing was a short list some merchant had put together for himself, phrases in (what was then) French. Things like, ‘how much does that cost’ and ‘this is my horse’ and my favorite: ‘is that your woman?’

    That one small document gave me a sense of the time and place as nothing else could.

    I guess the bottom line is, you can’t assume very much about the languages spoken in the past. You can make informed guesses, and that’s about it.

  34. Rosina Lippi says:

    In case you were wondering:

    Das ist min ross. (That is my horse)

    Ist das din wib? (Is that your woman?)

    Which gives you a total of six (6!) voiceless fricatives.

  35. Sisuile says:


    I think I just finished the same one, and if she was working as a designer…There was (and still is!) a major difference in the payscale between designers who work with the customers and the seamstresses in the back, and esp. the seamstresses things are sent out to. And some people probably did prefer being general, my experience says those that make it are an independant lot, and love it even with the enormous time commitment.

  36. So maybe the OED tells us that the word XXX was first recorded in written language in the year 1400, but what does that mean? It was formal enough to make its way into a sermon.

    Oh no, no, no! Middle English lit comprises much more than only sermons! Think of Chaucer! And he even used naughty words. 🙂

    When I was studying Old High German in grad school, all the texts were religious (sermons, bible translations) but there was a smattering of other stuff. Incantations, recipes, travel notes.

    Then they definitely left out the good bits like the Hildebrandslied. Fie on them!

  37. Rosina Lippi says:

    I stand corrected, I should have gone earlier. Pre-Chaucer, at any rate.

  38. Oh, Rosina, I’ve just found out you’re Sara Donati—how exciting! *major lightbulb moment here* 🙂

  39. Rosina Lippi says:

    Yup, that’s me.

  40. Wry Hag says:

    “Granted, Shakespearean England probably isn’t as attractive as it could be to writers of time-travel romances, possibly because of all the plague.”

    Just finished writing a partially time-travel erotic (yes, erotic) romance in which the Great Mortality of the mid-fourteenth century figures prominently.  I absolutely lost myself in the research—didn’t want it to end—because the period was so fascinating.  Why writers keep gravitating toward the Regency and Victorian periods is beyond me.  What’s the big freakin’ deal?

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