I have read several excellent biographies on George Washington over the years. All of these works do an excellent job of describing the character and powerful persona of this American hero. Even though the camera would not be invented until around 1830, there are many excellent life like portraits and sculptures that give us a pretty good vision of what George Washington looked like at different periods of his life. Through his writings during the war years and his Presidency, we develop an understanding of how he thought about the issues of the day. The books he read, his favorite drinks, even the kind of women he liked can all be found in the thousands of pages written about him. There has always been one answer that has eluded me – What did he sound like? Did he have an accent like an Englishman or did he sound like a southern gentleman?
I asked the historians at the Mount Vernon Estate & Gardens to help me find an answer :
Thank you for using Ask Mount Vernon!
I apologize for this late response, but the question proved a stumper.
In 2005, on the Linguist List [Eastern Michigan University], Herbert Frederic Stahlke (Professor of English, Ball State University), whose research area is “languages” wrote, in response to a question similar to yours:
“GW was born in 1732, at a time when there wasn’t a clear ‘American accent’. We begin seeing references to “American English” around 1750. Washington would probably have spoken an upper class English that might have had some similarities to modern Virginia Tidewater, but he would have sounded distinctly different from anything you would consider Southern today. “
I found nothing about Washington’s speech in standard biographies, so I spoke with Ed Lengel, Editor, The Papers of George Washington (University of Virginia). We agreed that the information you’re seeking will most likely be found in language / linguistic sources. Unfortunately, our library collection is limited in this area.
I did, however, locate some pages from David Hackett Fisher’s ALBION’S SEED: FOUR BRITISH FOLKWAYS IN AMERICA (NY: Oxford University Press, 1989) that provides some insights. “Virginia Speech Ways: English Origins of the Southern Accent” begins on p. 256. While space prohibits me from transcribing the entire chapter, I here include some of the most relevant passages:
“Before the American Revolution, travelers from the northern colonies had begun to express surprise at the speech ways of the Chesapeake provinces…Even more startling to northern travelers was the dialect of Virginians. In 1773, a young Princetonian named Philip Fithian came south to teach at Nomini Hall, the great Carter plantation near Richmond. In his journal he described the language that he heard there;
‘The people here pronounce Shower ‘Sho-er.’–And what in New-Jersey we call a Vendue here they call a ‘sale’–All taverns they call ‘Ordinarys’–When a horse is frolicsome and brisk they say he is ‘gayly.’-‘…
The Virginia dialect was also distinctive in its pronunciation. In place of New England’s harsh, rapid, rasping, metallic whine, Virginia’s speech was a soft, slow, melodious drawl that came not from the nose but the throat. Virginians tended to add syllables where New Englanders subtracted them. Vowel sounds were prolonged, embellished and softened as in ha-lf for half, gyarden for garden, ke-er for care, holp for help, puriddy for pretty, fuust for first, Aah’m for I’m, doo for do, and the spectacular wah-a-tah-mill-i-an for watermelon. …
Consonants were also softened and prolonged, as in sebem for seven, chimbly for chimney, vahmint for vermin, holt for hold, mo’ for more, flo’ for floor, fo’ for four, dis for this, dat for that, dare for there, ax for ask, go-in’ for going, perserve for preserve, foller for follow, yaller for yellow, acrost for across, wunnerful for wonderful, mistis for mistress, and wid or wud for with. Redundancies were added, as in you all or y’awl for you….
These Virginia speech ways were not invented in America. They derived from a family of regional dialects that had been spoken throughout the south and west of England during the seventeenth century. Virtually all peculiarities of grammar, syntax, vocabulary and pronunciation which have been noted were recorded in the English counties of Sussex, Surrey, Hampshire, Dorset, Wiltshire, Oxford, Gloucester, Warwick, or Worcester…”
If you wish to continue your research into early American dialects, the following book–which you can locate through your local library–is a good starting place:
The Cambridge History of the English Language: English in North America By John Algeo (NY: Cambridge University Press, 2001)
I hope this answer provides some useful information.
Unfortunately we will never know for sure what George Washington’s voice sounded like, but we do know that whether he was on the battlefield, in congress or relaxing in an “ordinary” he always commanded respect and admiration when he spoke. I will not abandon the hunt and will continue to research further and I will certainly post my findings.
If you are looking for some excellent books on George Washington, I have three favorites that come to mind. Ron Chernow’s “Washington: A Life” is an excellent cradle to grave biography and “Washington’s Crossing” by David Hackett Fischer reads like a great adventure novel. David McCullough’s 1776 is a fast read with lots of quotes from common soldiers and covers the action of the most important year of the revolutionary war.