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September 19, 2018

Dialect Dissection: Founding Fathers

"What did the Founding Fathers sound like?" Plenty of Americans have Googled this question, and there have been more than a few attempts to explain what they sounded like to a general audience. However, these articles are usually of limited scope, pointing out only a handful of features, such as that Colonial English pronounced all its "r"s and therefore it sounded more like American English than British English. I can't blame them for not going more into detail. After all, Colonial English is more than two-hundred years old, and it's hard to document all of that when you have a strict deadline and word count. Listening to "Hamilton" and "1776," I found myself wondering - what did the Founding Fathers sound like?

Much to my surprise, it's very difficult to find anything on the English of the 18th century! Perhaps it's because all the dramatic changes already happened around two centuries earlier and the modern dialectal changes only really become traceable a century afterward (Beal 2002). Due to my difficulty finding a straightforward explanation of Colonial American English, I conducted some research and gathered it all together here for your reading pleasure. As far as I am aware, this is the only non-paywalled article that discusses Colonial American English in depth and with a general audience in mind.

Sources Used

The way this article is organized is as follows: I will describe a difference between Colonial American English (CE) and Modern General American English (GA). I will then either show you an example (if available) or give you a citation. The examples come from Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and (in exactly one instance) John Jay - these men are commonly considered to be "The Founding Fathers" of the United States. An example from the poet Phyllis Wheatley is also used as a supplement. All the citations in parentheses can be found in full at the bottom of the article; links to the texts have been provided where possible.

Benjamin Franklin's phonetic alphabet is one of the most important sources used here. Dissatisfied with the discrepancy between English spelling and pronunciation, he came up with a spelling - or orthography - that purported to represent speech as accurately as possible. There are no silent letters. New symbols were added for sounds. The values of old letters were changed. Some letters were removed altogether! His orthography is thus more predictable compared to our orthography. In his writings, he both described the value of each letter and gave samples of writing in the alphabet; this includes poetry and a letter exchange between him and a pupil of his. There are some minor inconsistencies between the poems and the letter exchange, but for the most part the alphabet is consistent. His alphabet was not used outside of his own writings. When quoting Franklin's writings in the phonetic alphabet, I will put his phonetic alphabet on the left and the modern orthography on the right.

Note that I did not describe every possible difference here. English in the 1700s was very diverse, and I am presenting a simplified picture here when the truth is that there were likely multiple competing forms at a time! Moreover, there are so many differences between Colonial American English and modern General American that this could easily become a fifteen page document if I described each and every one. This is not intended to be the most comprehensive source on Colonial American English - such a project would be beyond the scope of this blog and would require years of research, and this post has already been more than a year in the making! Instead, consider this a sampler, strongly influenced by Benjamin Franklin, of what a speaker of English might have sounded like had they lived in Colonial America from 1700 to 1750.

Table of Contents

Sounds (Phonetics and Phonology)


Colonial English Consonants
Labial Dental Alveolar Post-alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal m n ŋ
Stop/Plosive p b t d k g
Affricate tʃ dʒ
Fricative f v θ ð s z ʃ ʒ h
Approximant l j ʍ w
Trill r

Let's start with something simple - consonants. One of the remarkable traits about English is that the consonant inventory does not seem to have changed radically over time. Words may change, and vowels certainly will, but the actual list of consonants is not dramatically different between dialects, or even over time. Overall, the consonant inventory of Colonial American English is not too different from the consonant inventory of modern American English. Some of the more notable differences are elaborated on below.

Wine-Whine distinction

Words spelled with used to be pronounced differently in English from words spelled with . For example, "whine" was pronounced with a sort of 'h' sound at the beginning, resulting in /hwaɪn/. This means it was different from "wine," which was just /waɪn/. This distinction has been disappearing over the last hundred years, with only a few English dialects preserving it today. Most English speakers pronounce "wine" and "whine" as /waɪn/. In Colonial English, the distinction was robust, as evidenced by Franklin's spelling:

B. Franklin's Phonetic Alphabet Transcribed to modern English
So huen sɥm Endիel, bɥi divիin kcɩmand,
So when some angel, by divine command
Uiⱨ rɥiziŋ tempests իeeks e gilti Land; With rising tempests shakes a guilty land

Notice that Benjamin Franklin's Phonetic Alphabet gives different transcriptions for "when" and "with". "When" is "hwen", which suggests that 'wh' was still preserved.

T-flapping hadn't occurred

T-flapping (pronouncing the "t" in words like "kitty" as a flap sound, [ɾ]), does not appear to have started yet. This one is more proof by absence of evidence, as none of the contemporary sources of the 18th century I found described t-flapping. By the early 20th century we already have t-flapping in American English, so it must have been present during the 19th century, but I have not found any evidence that t-flapping happened in Colonial American English. Wells implies that t-flapping is a post-1750 phenomenon, saying that up until 1750, American and British English were more or less similar, and that after that point began the now-distinctive differences between the two to develop. He lists “Tapping and T Voicing” under “Some American innovations” and after “The Great Divide” (1982).

Value of /r/ sound

The 'r' sound is contentious. Benjamin Franklin describes the 'r' as alveolar and “vibrating”. Unlike New York English and most Southern England varieties, Colonial American English was generally rhotic - 'r's after vowels were pronounced (though see the “Regional Variations” section below to see how non-rhotic varieties existed even then). However, we don't know what this post-vocalic 'r' sounded like. In General American today, 'r' after a vowel is an r-colored vowel, but in Scottish English, it's a flap or a trill. It's possible the sound was in transition so that you would have heard both.

Per Beal, the trilled version of /r/ still existed in the 18th century, but already a weakening had begun to a continuant in the preconsonantal and final positions. (Beal 2002 p163-164)


Words like 'due' (/dju/), 'Tuesday' (/tjuzdeɪ/), and 'new' (/nju/) used to be pronounced with a 'y' sound, or "yod." Most American dialects nowadays pronounce these words without the yod, resulting in "do" /du/, "toosday" /tuzdeɪ/, and "noo" /nu/ (Krapp 155). Curiously, Benjamin Franklin's transcription of 'new' would be pronounced "noo" [nu], showing that the loss of this 'y' sound was already beginning.

B. Franklin's Phonetic Alphabet Transcribed to modern English
And e nu hev’n in its feer Bɥzɥm իoz. And a new heaven in its fair bosom shows.


Colonial English Vowels
Front Central Back
Lax Tense Lax Tense
Close ɪ i ʊ u
Close-mid e ə o
Open-mid ɛ ʌ ɔ
Open æ ɒ
Diphthongs əɪ əʊ

Now it's getting interesting. Whereas the consonants remained mostly similar, the vowels changed quite a bit compared to General American. Vowels have been prone to mutation throughout the history of the English language, and it's no surprise to see that modern American vowels have gone through a lot of change from their colonial forebears. A lot of the differences between vowels aren't just a matter of substitution - some vowels are simply missing compared to General American, and some words had different vowels in them that Americans don't really distinguish today.

Here are some further comparisons of Colonial English (CE) vowels with British Received Pronunciation (RP) and General American (GA). The word on the left is an example word, and the sounds say the vowel that will be used in the word depending on the dialect.

Full Monophthongs
Lexical Set RP GA CA
BATH ɑː æ æ
LOT ɒ ɒ
CLOTH ɔ,ɑ ɔ? ɒ?
DRESS e ɛ ɛ

Potential Diphthongs
Lexical Set RP GA CA
GOAT əʊ o
FLEECE i: i i
GOOSE u: u u

Full dipthongs
Lexical Set RP GA CA

Pre-R Vowels
Lexical Set RP GA CA
NURSE ɜː(r) ɜr ɜr?
START ɑː(r) ɑr ær
NORTH ɔː(r) ɔr ɔr
NEAR ɪə(r) ɪr ɪr
SQUARE eə(r) ɛr er
CURE ʊə(r),ɔː(r) ʊr,ɔr ʊr

Reduced Vowels
Lexical Set RP GA CA
LETTER ə(r) ər ər

All information here is supplemented by the evolution of English vowels throughout English language history.

/e/ and /o/ monophthongs

The vowels in "day" ([deɪ]) and "doe" ([doʊ]) are diphthongs in General American - they are composed of two sounds, gliding smoothly from the first to the second. This was not so in Colonial English, where these were "pure" vowels, or monophthongs (Beal 2002:97). To get the impression, imagine that the final element of the diphthongs in "day" and "doe" were chopped off. This would give us [de] and [do]. .

B. Franklin's Phonetic Alphabet Transcribed to modern English
So ˇⱨi piur limpid striim, huen fcɩul uiⱨ steens So the pure and limpid stream, when foul with stains
[...] Riflekts iitի flcɩur ˇⱨat cɩn its bcɩrdɥr groz, [...] Reflects each flower that on its border grows

Benjamin Franklin places and with the rest of the monophthongs. His description of these vowels does not mention any change in the tongue position while making the vowels, and his diphthongs are made with two different vowel letters. (Note that the use of "long/double vowels" is inconsistent in Franklin's orthography.)

o – the first vowel naturally, and deepest sound; requires only to open the mouth, and breathe through it.
cɩ - the next requiring the mouth opened a little, or hollower
a – the next, a little more.
e – The next requires the Tongue to be a little more elevated.


In modern American English, words like "lot," "cot," "odd," "Ron," "bother," etc. have the same vowel as words like "spa," "palm," and "father:" /ɑ/ . This was not the case in Colonial American English, where words like "lot," "cot," "odd," etc. had a vowel that was made with rounded lips: /ɒ/. To try making it yourself, keep your lips round while saying 'spa'.

Words in the second set, such as "spa," "palm," "father", etc. had a different vowel entirely. This means 'father' and 'bother' wouldn't have rhymed! Most dialects of England still preserve this distinction, while old Boston and very old New York dialects are the only American dialects that pronounce them differently.

Krapp (141:144) suggests that turning /ɒ/ into /ɑ/, a process called LOT-unrounding, had already begun by the 18th century, though it was not common and was prescribed against.

We can see an example of this in Franklin's text. Franklin has his vowels in “short/long” pairs. “John” and “folly” have the “short” version of “awl” and “ball.”

Webster says “a in fall has its short sound in folly."

/ɑ/ sound

So what sound did they use in the second set of words above? The broad 'ah' /ɑ/ sound in words like "spa," "palm," "father", etc. does not appear to have existed yet (Grandgent 1899)! Franklin does not dedicate a sound to it in his alphabet, and uses the same symbol for "arm" that he does for "hat." This suggests that all these words had /æ/. This means "arm" would have sounded like [ærm] or [arm] (Krapp :50). Krapp notes that the broad 'ah' /ɑ/ sound was coming into existence and possibly existed as a variant at the time. This means that 'palm' and 'Pam' would have sounded the same in Colonial American English. By the mid 1700s, the /ɑ/ vowels appears to have finally appeared (Grandgent 1899, Wells 1982).

B. Franklin's Phonetic Alphabet Transcribed to modern English
Kalm and siriin hi drɥivs ˇⱨi feuriիs blast; Calm and serene he drives the furious blast.

Notice how Franklin uses same vowel for "calm" and "blast."

Unrounded /wa/

Consonants sometimes influence vowels. For example, in modern English, 'war' sounds like 'wore' [wɔr] . Historically, it wasn't always that way - 'war' used to sound like 'wahr' [war] (Beal 2002:127). Over time, the 'w' before the 'a' made people start to pronounce the 'a' lower and back in the mouth, which turned it into [wɔr]. You can see an example of this in Hamilton's poetry, where he rhymes 'arms' with 'warms'. We know this is supposed to be a rhyme because his poem uses AABB rhyme scheme:

If present love [unlegible] face
Deny you to my fond embrace
No joy unmixed my bosom warms
But when my angel’s in my arms.
- Alexander Hamilton

Similarly, the poet Phyllis Wheatley uses AABB rhyme scheme, rhymes "war" with "air". (More information on the pronunciation of "air" can be seen in the "Regional Differences" section below.)

Or thick as leaves in Autumn’s golden reign.
Such, and so many, moves the warrior’s train.
In bright array they seek the work of war,
Where high unfurl’d the ensign waves in air.
- Phillis Wheatley

/əi/ vowel

The "i" /aɪ/ sound as in "kite" had a lower starting vowel; Franklin equates it with the vowel in "about." It likely sounded like [əi]. Krapp suggests that there may have been some variability, so that there were some people saying [ai], some saying [ʌi], and some [ɑi] (p189). The last part of the diphthong was also higher than it is today. The colonial realization of this sound was closer to the sound that Shakespeare would have used.

Benjamin Franklin describes that the sound of “i” is actually a diphthong made of the sound he dedicates to ‘uh’ and ‘ee’, so ‘uh-ee’.

B. Franklin's Phonetic Alphabet Transcribed to modern English
So huen sɥm Endիel, bɥi divիin kcɩmand, So when some angel, by divine command
Uiⱨ rɥiziŋ tempests իeeks e gilti Land; With rising tempests shakes a guilty land

Notice the same symbol used for "some" and "rising."

/aʊ/ as /ɔu/

The 'au' /aʊ/ sound in 'bout' was formed further back in the mouth compared to today. Franklin uses the symbol that represents either /ɒ/ or /ɔ/ for it, meaning it may have sounded like /ɔu/. This means that 'bout' would have sounded a lot like General American 'boat'.

B. Franklin's Phonetic Alphabet Transcribed to modern English
So ˇⱨi piur limpid striim, huen fcɩul uiⱨ steens So the pure and limpid stream, when foul with stains
[...] Riflekts iitի flcɩur ˇⱨat cɩn its bcɩrdɥr groz, [...] Reflects each flower that on its border grows
[...] fcɩr it cɩluaz cɩkɥrz hwen eni refcɩrmeիɥn iz propozed; [...] for it always occurs when any reformation is proposed

The /ɔ/ vowel is used for "foul," "flour," "border," and "always."

LINE-LOIN merger?

Krapp (p197) suggests that the /ɔɪ/ vowel of "choice" was not yet its own distinct category, and would have sounded the same as the vowel of "price," /əi/ . This means "line" and "loin" would both be something like [ləin]. Franklin does not mention the diphthong that today is /ɔɪ/ in his sounds.

SQUARE vowel

Many of the examples shown above give the impression that colonial English was straightforward, but Eighteenth century English was wildly diverse. This can be seen in the fact that I did not assign a single value for the vowel in words like SQUARE /skwɛr/. What is now the modern SQUARE /ɛr/ vowel seems to have been in quite a bit of flux, and could have had a higher realization as /er/ (Krapp:106-107). Franklin does not describe this vowel, although he does provide a transcription for the word "fair" below.

B. Franklin's Phonetic Alphabet Transcribed to modern English
And e nu hev’n in its feer Bɥzɥm իoz. And a new heav'n in its fair bosom shows.

Franklin uses in his phonetic spelling, the same value he uses for the vowel of “stains”. This would suggest [er].

B. Franklin's Phonetic Alphabet Transcribed to modern English
So ˇⱨi piur limpid striim, huen fcɩul uiⱨ steens So the pure and limpid stream, when foul with stains

This is backed by Wells’s suggestion that the SQUARE vowel of English in both America and Britain was /er/ in 1750 (1982:212).

Note, however, that we have "air" and "war" rhyming in Phyllis Whealey's poem. "tears" and "cares" can be found rhyming in Thomas Jefferson's poem. More information on this pronunciation of SQUARE set words can be found in "Regional Variations."

Or thick as leaves in Autumn’s golden reign.
Such, and so many, moves the warrior’s train.
In bright array they seek the work of war, [wær]
Where high unfurl’d the ensign waves in air [ær].
- Phillis Wheatley
Life's visions are vanished, it's dreams are no more.
Dear friends of my bosom, why bathed in tears? [tærz]
I go to my fathers; I welcome the shore,
which crowns all my hopes, or which buries my cares [kærz]
- Thomas Jefferson


Most dialects of General American pronounce words such as "marry," "carrot," and "carriage" with the same vowel sound as in "merry" and "Kerry" - /ɛr/. In Colonial English, "marry," "carrot," "carriage" etc. would have had a different sound: the 'aa' vowel of 'cat'. Observe how Franklin uses the <a> for "carriages [kærɪdɪʒ].

B. Franklin's Phonetic Alphabet Transcribed to modern English
and iven dcɩun az lo az rods and huil karidիiz. And even down as low as roads and wheel carriages

CURE vowels

'ur' words like 'you're' and 'pure' consistently had the short 'u' /ʊr/, as in look, /jʊr/ and /pjʊr/. American English is in a process of pronouncing these words with /ɔr/

B. Franklin's Phonetic Alphabet Transcribed to modern English
So ˇⱨi piur limpid striim, huen fcɩul uiⱨ steens So the pure and limpid stream, when foul with stains

"pure" spelled 'ur'. Compare with "perform", spelled differently:

B. Franklin's Phonetic Alphabet Transcribed to modern English
And, pliiz’d ˇⱨ’ cɩlmɥitis cɩrdɥrs tu pɥrfcɩrm, And, pleas'd th'almighty's orders to perform

HORSE-HOARSE distinction

Words like 'horse' and 'hoarse' were distinct. 'horse' had a /ɔr/ sound, while 'hoarse' would have had a /or/ sound like in "oh" (Wells 1982:212). Nowadays this distinction is almost extinct in General American.

B. Franklin's Phonetic Alphabet Transcribed to modern English
Uɥrds in ˇⱨi kors cɩv tɥim Words in the course of time
And, pliiz’d ˇⱨ’ cɩlmɥitis cɩrdɥrs tu pɥrfcɩrm, And, pleas'd th'almighty's orders to perform

"course" with the mid-height vowel , "perform" with low height .

Lax HAPPY vowel

Nowadays, the final vowel in words like 'happy', 'baby', 'coffee,' etc. is pronounced with the same vowel as in fleece: [i]. In Colonial English, the final vowel in words like 'happy', 'baby', 'coffee', etc. is pronounced with the same vowel as in kit: [ɪ] (Wells 1982:165). Conservative varieties of Received Pronunciation and Southern American English still use this latter pronunciation. This phenomenon is also discussed in my article Oh Babih, Babay.

Example Audio

When you put all these changes together, the end result sounds a lot like how Shakespearean English does when pronounced! It also bears some resemblance to modern Irish English. As an example, I've prepared the following reading of a quote from the Declaration of Independence in Colonial English.

Text IPA
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

wi hold ðiz truθs tu bi sɛlf ɛvɪdɛnt, ðæt ɔl mɛn ær krietɪd ikwəl, ðæt ðe er ɪndɔud bʌi ðer krietər wɪθ sərten ʌnelienəbl rəits, ðæt əməŋ ðiz er lʌif, libərtɪ, ænd ðə pərsut ɔv hæpɪnɛs.

For a little bit of fun, I've also covered the song "My Shot" from the musical "Hamilton," also done in Colonial English. I had originally also planned to do a Colonial English version of a song from the musical "1776," but I could not settle on a song. Perhaps it can be added in a future revision of the article...

I've also added the explicit version as a lyric video on YouTube. The IPA is included here!

Regional Variations

Although British visitors to the colonies noted its "purity" of speech and "lack of idiom or tone", it seems unlikely that everyone in the colonies spoke the same variety. We know that certain parts of the colonies were settled by certain groups. It makes sense that those groups would bring the features of their particular region of Britain to America. Wells (1982) estimates that British English and American English had shared developments until 1750, when both varieties started to develop apart from one another. It also makes sense that, since travel between the colonies was rather difficult and the distance between them rather large, that they would begin to develop separately from each other.

There is some evidence for dialectal division when you look at runaway slave advertisements, which often described slaves on the basis of their accents. We have instances of slaves being identified as being "from Maryland or Virginia," having a "New England accent," and a "West Indies" accent, which suggests that these were distinct and recognizable varieties. Due to the paucity of information on other Colonial English dialectal regions, we're going to be looking at New England and the South.

New England

New England is the best-documented region of the early colonial period with regards to early dialectal variation. There were a lot of documents written by semi-literate people, and their naive spellings show some divergent features (Bailey 2015:29). Such a tradition was not strong in the Middle or Southern colonies, where documents were written in the standard English of the time, so it's harder to determine dialectal variation there (Krapp 1925).

There's evidence for non-rhoticity. It seemed to have existed alongside rhotic pronunciations, with some variation: "horse" was often written "hoss," and "George" was sometimes written "Geoge" (Bailey 2015:40). Bostonian Benjamin Franklin seemed to have used a rhotic pronunciation; his description of the 'r' sound in English in particular suggests a trilled 'r', and he does not drop the 'r' in his transcriptions.

Franklin's transcription does not include a way to represent the sound we now have in "father"; words like "father" rhymed with "gather" and "rather" for him. However, there were signs of what is called TRAP-BATH split in Boston. This means that words like "trap" were pronounced with /æ/ and words like "bath" were pronounced with /ɑ/. It's possible that the broad 'ah' sound was in circulation, but it had not been established as a separate phoneme in all varieties of English (Krapp 1925).

The South

First of all, Southern American accents as we know them did not exist. Many of the features we associate with the South are actually rather recent. For example, pronouncing 'ride' like 'rad' was not something that happened in the 1700s - it probably began in the mid to late 1800s (Bailey 1997,Source 1,Source 2, Labov, 2016). Some other features, like rhyming "pen" and "pin," may have started in the early twentieth century (Brown, 1991). This means an eighteenth century Southern accent would not sound like a twenty-first century Southern accent.

Don't take this to mean that there weren't nascent difference between the South and the rest of the country, though! Many of these differences have simply disappeared since. For example, a lot of words that are pronounced -eer /ir/ in modern English were historically pronounced /ɛr/ or /ær/ (Primer, 1887:90). For example, Thomas Jefferson seemed to rhyme "tear" (salt water from our eyes) with "care," meaning "tear" was likely pronounced something like [tɛr].

Life's visions are vanished, it's dreams are no more.
Dear friends of my bosom, why bathed in tears? [tærz]
I go to my fathers; I welcome the shore,
which crowns all my hopes, or which buries my cares [kærz]
- Thomas Jefferson

It's possible that this feature was also present in some other regions of the colonies. The poet Phyllis Wheatley was born in Africa in 1753, and sold as a slave to Boston merchants. Although her variety of English was probably influenced by Boston, note how she rhymes "war" and "air" in the poem below. Knowing that "war" would have been /wær/ at the time, this means it's likely she pronounced "air" as /ær/.

Or thick as leaves in Autumn’s golden reign.
Such, and so many, moves the warrior’s train.
In bright array they seek the work of war, [wær]
Where high unfurl’d the ensign waves in air [ær].
- Phillis Wheatley

There's another phenomenon that is typical of very conservative Southern speech - palatal stops in words like "garden" and "cart" [kɑrt] so that they sound like "gyarden" and "cyart" [cart]. We may not have direct evidence for it in the 1700s, but it seems to have already existed by the 1800s, and is in decline by the 1900s.

We know at some point, big hub cities (most famously Charleston in South Carolina) in the south tended towards non-rhoticity (Mencken). Bailey (2015) reports that Virginians spoke non-rhotically. This feature later became emblematic of coastal Southern speech, and is moribund nowadays.

Words: Morphology, Lexicon, Spelling

Now let's look at everything other than pronunciation. For the most part the morphology, lexicon, and spelling of Colonial English should still be recognizable to the modern American. However, that doesn't mean that you won't find notable differences here! The differences here are a lot less systematic than the sound ones. Some of these differences are mostly used by a single Founding Father, while others are more varied. This simply reflects the fact that Colonial American English was fluctuating and, moreover, not yet standardized.

Negation without Do-Support

Most verbs in English need a "do" if you want to form a negative: "I do not/don't care," "I do not/don't know," "I did not/didn't need..." etc. Only a handful of verbs can form negatives without "do" such as "to be" ("I am not") and, in some varieties of English, "to have" ("I had not"). Making negatives without "do-support" is much more common in the past. "I know not" is still in common use, though now in variation with "I don't know." Occasionally other verbs are also negated with "not" directly.

“The rival you mentioned I know not whether to think formidable or not as there has been so great an opening for him during my absence.” - Thomas Jefferson
I cared not what I did if I could but get away from school, and confess to my shame that I sometimes play’d truant.” - John Adams
“What will be the consequence, I know not.” - John Adams “Yet I had not the same confidence…” - John Adams
"I think we need not fear geting a good price for his Mules when he arrives." - Alexander Hamilton

Non-standard Verb Forms

Standard verb forms are not set in stone (Krapp 261). You'll see the founding fathers use forms that nowadays would be considered non-standard. This is dialectal variation, not an "incorrect" form.

“The rats that had eat” – Thomas Jefferson
“Who told you that I reported you was courting Miss Dandridge and Miss Dangerfeild?” – Thomas Jefferson
“The language in which he sung” – Thomas Jefferson
"In a little more than a Year Mr. Marsh pronounced me fitted for Colledge"- John Adams
"About 10 the sun brake out." - John Adams
"I receiv’d your favour of Decr. 29.2 about 3 or 4 Days after it was wrote." - John Adams
"We cleaned ourselves (to get Rid of the Game we had catched the Night before)" - George Washington

V2 Word Order

V2 word order is a type of word order where the verb must come after the first constituent in a sentence. Modern English does not have V2 word order and instead has Subject-Verb-Object word order, meaning the verb must come after the subject. However, Old and Middle English had V2 word order, which began to disappear over time. There are remnants of this in Early Modern English and Colonial American English.

"At Colledge, a Clowdy morning, and in the afternoon, Came up a Clowd of thunder and lightning." - John Adams
"Whatever deficiencies there may be in them as to that matter, will I hope be supplied by the extract now enclosed." - John Jay

The Modern English versions would be "In the afternoon, a cloud came up of thunder and lightning" and "Whatever deficiencies there may be in them as to that matter, I hope will be supplied by the extract now enclosed."

Passive Ditransitive

A ditransitive verb is a verb that accepts a direct object and an indirect object. For example, in "She sent me a horse" the direct object is "horse," because that is the thing being sent, and the indirect object is "me," because it is the direction of the thing being sent. If we wanted to turn this into a passive construction, we would have to say "A horse was sent to me." However, this "to" does not seem necessary in 1700s English, as shown by John Adams's quote below.

"About three Weeks after commencement in 1755, when I was not yet twenty Years of Age, a horse was sent me from Worcester and a Man to attend me." - John Adams

Subject-to-Object Raising

In a sentence like "John wanted her to leave," it is interesting to note that "her" is not actually the semantic object of "wanted." What John wanted was not "her." What John wanted was her leaving. "Her" is actually the subject of "to leave." Some verbs in English allow for this sort of construction. Nowadays we don't really see this with the verb "to wish," but it seems to have existed in colonial American times.

He wished me to address the assembly” - Thomas Jefferson


One of the more interesting verb differences is that you can find examples of things like "I am come" instead of "I have come." This is preserving a distinction that used to exist in English - the difference between unergative and unaccusative verbs. Unergative verbs are verbs which describe actions that the speaker voluntarily started, like "I ran," "I jumped." Unaccusative verbs are verbs where the subject did not start the action themselves. These are verbs like "John died," "the vase broke," "Mary arrived." These are more like things that happen to the subject. In 1700s English, unaccusative verbs are marked by using "to be" as an auxiliary verb instead of "to have." This means you have examples like "I am fallen," "I am arrived" in the Founding Fathers' texts. This distinction still exists in French: je suis tombe vs j'ai travaille (I fell vs I worked). Nowadays most English speakers will only encounter this construction in the King James Version of the Bible with "Jesus is risen."

“Walker is just arrived.” - Thomas Jefferson
“I am become desirous” - Thomas Jefferson
are now become numerous” -John Adams


The subjunctive form was used a lot more often, especially by Thomas Jefferson. It's worth noting that the founding fathers were learned men, and their writing likely was not an exact reflection of their speech.

“whether the story we read be truth” - Thomas Jefferson
“if the painting be lively” - Thomas Jefferson
“or whether the whole be not fiction” - Thomas Jefferson

Lexical Items

Some words that aren't in currency anymore are still being used at the time, such as methinks.

"It requiring methinks a steady continued Consideration for some Time to become a Master of your Doctrine in all its Parts." - Benjamin Franklin


Spelling was also in flux. Honor vs honour, college vs colledge, public vs publick. This is clearest in the Constitution, where Pennsylvania is spelled "Pensylvania" (one n at the beginning). This isn't Hamilton making a typo - the spelling had not yet been settled. This is especially bad with commas and punctuation. Thomas Jefferson is fond of using commas where nowadays we would prefer a semi-colon or even just a period.

"Well I will shew you what it is to be a Farmer." - John Adams (pronounced ‘shoo’)
"in my own class at Collidge, there were several others," - John Adams
"His inattention to his Schollars was such as gave me a disgust to Schools, to books and to study and I spent my time as idle Children do in making and sailing boats and Ships upon the Ponds and Brooks, in making and flying Kites, in driving hoops, playing marbles, playing Quoits, Wrestling, Swimming, Skaiting and above all in shooting" - John Adams
"At Colledge, a Clowdy morning, and in the afternoon, Came up a Clowd of thunder and lightning." - John Adams


As was noted in the introduction, Colonial American English and eighteenth century English are woefully understudied. There were further points I was interested in researching, but was unable to find sufficient writings for. One was the extent to which dialectal differences from British English dialects affected the formation of Colonial American English. A paper I am unfortunately no longer able to locate suggested that almost all the settlers must have been from Southern England, since all American dialects have the PUT-STRUT split and most Northern English dialects do not. I wanted to include more comparisons to eighteenth century English English, but had to scrap this due to time concerns. A more in-depth study would mention that there were far too many lexical differences to include, and perhaps go more into detail about aspects beyond phonology. Finally, this article focused on just the first half of the 1700s. However, there is evidence that a distinct Colonial American English was already emerging in the 1600s. In other words, anyone interested in expanding on this field has plenty of room to look in.

Colonial American English represents a fascinating point in between Elizabethan English and our modern varieties of English. Although the primary point of this article is to note how American English has changed from colonial times to modern times, there are also many points of comparison with varieties of British English. Some of the distinctions that no longer exist in American English are still being made in Received Pronunciation, and some of the distinctions made in Colonial American English aren't being made at all anywhere! It's a wonderful example of how language is constantly changing. The change is not always radical, but over centuries it adds up so that we don't have an accurate understanding of what the American Founding Fathers would have sounded like in the popular imagination.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to see more long-form articles like this in the future, you can support me by buying me a coffee at Ko-Fi! ☕️

Works Cited

  • Bailey, Guy. 1997. When Did Southern American English Begin? In Englishes around the World: Vol.1: General Studies,British Isles,North America: Studies in Honour of Manfred Görlach, edited by Edgar W. Schneider. Amsterdam:John Benjamins.
  • Bailey, Richard W. 2015. Speaking American: a History of English in the United States. Oxford Univ. Press.
  • Beal, Joan C. English Pronunciation in the Eighteenth Century: Thomas Spences Grand Repository of the English Language. Oxford University Press, 2002.
  • Brown, Vivian R. 1991. "Evolution of the Merger of /I/ and /ε/ before Nasals in Tennessee" in American Speech Vol. 66, No. 3 (Autumn, 1991), pp. 303-315.
  • Labov, William. 2016. "The Beginnings of the Southern Shift" in Linguistic Variation: Confronting Fact and Theory edited by Rena Torres Cacoullos, Nathalie Dion, André Lapierre.
  • Franklin, Benjamin. 1907. The writings of Benjamin Franklin. New York: The Macmillan company.
  • Grandgent, Charles Hall. 1899. "From Franklin to Lowell. A Century of New England Pronunciation." PMLA. Vol. 14, No. 2 (1899), pp. 207-239
  • Krapp, George Philip. 1925. The English Language in America. Century Co.
  • Mencken, Henry Louis. 1919. The American Language.
  • Primer, Sylvester. 1887. Charleston Provincialisms. Transactions and Proceedings of the Modern Language Association of America.
  • Wells, John 1982. Accents of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Founding Fathers Materials and Miscellania