In a discussion of the John Adams miniseries on The New Republic’s website, author Steven Waldman wrote, “I’d personally be interested in hearing how they figured out what kinds of accents to give each figure.” Earlier he had written, “This series depicts some of the founders as having accents—some English, some Scottish, some a unique new hybrid.” I’ve been, well, totally baffled by that question myself, trying to figure out tonal differences between Southerners and Northerners, upper-class and middling-class, and Tom Wilkinson’s Franklin and everyone else.
Screenwriter and producer Kirk Ellis replied to Waldman’s question:
From the beginning, we wanted to emphasize that independence was a battle between British Americans and their brethren in England, not, as so often depicted, a conflict that pitted Crown officers with plumy Oxonian accents against patriots with full-blown American dialects. All our research pointed to the fact that, in written and spoken speech, America was much closer to the mother country than had been acknowledged in past dramatizations.This question (or a press release about it) also prompted Vanity Fair to interview the dialect coach herself. Charlton says such things as, “when we’re talking about the Boston area, the Puritans believed that if you did not speak clearly and loudly enough then God would not hear what you were saying while reading the Bible.” Hmmm. Also, East Anglia was the starting-point for most Puritan emigrants to New England; I hadn’t heard it as the home base for lots of Virginians.
From our advisors in Colonial Williamsburg, we learned that one’s residence in America frequently depended on one’s point of origin in England. Virginia, for instance, was largely settled by residents of East Anglia—in terms of dialect and accent a very distinctive region. Moreover, a goodly number of our characters (notably John Dickinson) had been educated in English schools and had acquired the manners and speech of the time and place. Still others, such as Adams’s Secretary of War James McHenry, were themselves immigrants whose accents (Irish, in McHenry’s case) were noted at the time.
Our dialect coach, the gifted Catherine Charlton, asked me to provide miniature biographies of each character, from which she was able to reconstruct that person’s likely accent. Catherine had had past experience in such linguistic archaeology, having had to essentially re-invent a lost Native American language for Terence Malick’s film about Jamestown, The New World. The results of the painstaking craftsmanship are evident in the rich tapestry of accents heard throughout the series, which we regard as accurate an approximation as can be reached at this distance in time, without the benefit of recording.
But at least it’s good to see that the miniseries-makers made a serious effort at figuring out how their characters should speak. We Americans do have a tendency, whether in Spartacus or Die Hard or All About Eve, to equate upper-class British accents with villainy about to be upended. A lot of American Patriots went into the political conflict with London hoping to end up more like upper-class British, not less.
I haven’t sat down to study Revolutionary-era dialects, but we do have a lot of clues about New England pronunciation from such phonetic spellers as Quincy Thaxter and this Rhode Island officer. Some things have definitely changed: Fanueil Hall used to be pronounced “Funnel Hall,” which is a little closer to the original French name than our modern rendering. We know Boston boys in 1737 found a Scotch-Irish newcomer’s pronunciation amusing, and that in 1775 British officers and Bostonians were divided by their slang.
I’ll see if the next episode of the series leaves me any less baffled by how different characters talk.