How do we know what accents people spoke with before the invention of recorded sound?


Most movies and shows set in the past e.g. 1700s, 1600s etc will include some sort of accent. How do we know if people actually spoke in those accents?

Edit: this came up is because I was watching the CBS show Ghosts. In it, there are two ghosts from the American Revolution. The British Revolutionary and the American Revolutionary have distinctly different accents and it made me question how we actually know what they sounded like.

In: 8

We don’t. We have no idea. They just cast British actors because American audiences think British accents sound sophisticated

Although there is no way to know for sure, there are some clues that allow us to make educated guesses. Long before audio recordings there were attempts to document how words were pronounced, and researchers more recently have been able to use recordings to observe the ways pronunciation changes over time. Some kinds of changes are observed to happen frequently under some conditions, so we can assume similar changes probably happened in the past. By extrapolating backwards we can guess how things used to be said. And by reading what people in the past wrote about pronunciation, we can confirm or reject those guesses.

From letters bitching about pronunciation and from poems mostly.

There’s a wonderful YouTuber who studies linguistics and shows how Latin was pronounced coz some stuffy old philosopher wrote letters bitching like ‘those stupid Pompeii people keep pronouncing the a in tomato wrong, they say tomato like ‘day’ when clearly it’s tomato like ‘aah’ (ok weak example).

And poems, Shakespeare is a good example with his sonnets. Words that we now say in a modern way no longer rhyme.

[What Latin sounded like – and how we know](

We don’t! Movies just use whatever modern accent makes it sound better, and they’ll sprinkle on old vocabulary to make it more believable.

That isn’t to say we don’t know what they sounded like at all, we have clues, but most of entertaining is not accurate depiction of old accents.

Fun Fact: The British and American revolutionaries *should* sound basically the same, they should both sound basically American. The British didn’t develop the accent we think of as the standard British accent until after the American revolution. The modern American accent is much closer to how the British sounded at the time.