Accents and dialects develop and change for two distinct reasons, one phonetic, the other social.
On the phonetic side, speech sounds change because of the way they are produced and perceived. Feel the position of your tongue against the roof of your mouth when you say the K sounds at the beginning of “key” and “car.”
The tongue makes contact farther forward in “key” than in “car,” because it is anticipating its forward position for the vowel sound EE. This more forward position has led to changes in which K sounds became CH or SH or S sounds before EE or E vowels. The Latin word “centum” began with a K sound, but Italian “cento” begins with CH and French cent with S.
These changes were among many that occurred as Latin evolved into modern Romance languages.
Phonetic changes don’t happen continuously, though, because language is used to communicate. If your pronunciation is suddenly different from that of the people around you, you won’t be understood.
The communicative function of language provides a social brake on the phonetic causes of change. In any community, however, phonetic changes can take hold from one generation to the next. When communities are relatively isolated as Australia was from England during its development they may adopt different phonetic changes.
This is how Australian and English pronunciations have diverged. Two hundred years is plenty of time for differences to develop.
This kind of divergence brings a more subtle social effect into play.
The information you convey when you talk is not limited to the linguistic meaning of your words, but includes many things about yourself, such as regional origin or level of education.
Speakers unconsciously, or consciously, tailor their speech to sound like the person they want to appear to be. This has an influence on the development of accents and their change: people adopt or reject specific sounds and sound changes to signal their identification with a particular community.
Starting with a relatively uniform speech community, minor variations in sounds may acquire greater or lesser prestige by association with individuals or groups who use them.
In Australia and New Zealand, the biggest divergence from English “standard received pronunciation” is in the vowel system. In the early nineteenth century, there was a tendency in southern England, where many colonists came from, to pronounce the vowel in “bad”, known to phoneticians as RP Vowel No 4 or RP 4, in a more “closed” position, with the mouth less open, so it sounded more like “bed.”
Later, this trend was halted and partially reversed in England. Its southern base was relatively stagnant demographically compared with the booming North and Midlands, which kept the more open A in “bad.”
Today, the very closed version of vowel 4 is increasingly stigmatised as “hyper-posh” and causes surprise when heard in old 1940s newsreels.
By contrast, in Australia and New Zealand it flourished, perhaps cementing solidarity among the older settlers as against the later-arriving Poms, who had the more open vowel.
The “closedness” was exaggerated further, causing potential confusion with RP 3, as in “bed.” The latter vowel had to move over to make room for it, by becoming even more closed and sounding like “bid.” The vowel in “bid” (RP 2) in turn had to become still more closed, to sound like RP 1 “bead,” which in turn tended to become a diphthong, sounding something like “buyd.”
In New Zealand, the process was similar, except that RP 2 (“bid”) was pushed into the center of the mouth, to sound like RP 10 as in “bud” or RP 12—the sound in the second syllable of “cupboard.”
This phonetic musical chairs, caused by an initial point of imbalance in the system, is known to linguists as a “push-chain.” RP 4 “pushed” the others to make room for itself.
There can also be a “pull-chain” in which a departing vowel leaves a slot into which a neighboring sound can expand. This also happened in Australia. Once RP 4 “bad” had moved over to “bed,” the long back-vowel of “bard” RP 5 was free to drift to the front of the mouth, without fear of confusion.
Thus, RP 4 has “pulled” RP 5 after it. In support of this, in Australian soaps like Neighbors, older characters tend to have accents closer to received pronunciation, but younger ones have a pronunciation typical of the system outlined here.
It is often assumed that accents in countries that see large-scale immigration will diverge from the accents of the settlers’ original country. The reverse may be true, however. The original accent can remain in the country now occupied by immigrants, while the accent in the nation of origin develops along new lines. This has occurred in the development of American English.
The first permanent English immigrants to North America settled in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607, while 13 years later the Pilgrim Fathers landed further north at what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts.
The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of the English Language by David Crystal tells us that these two settlements had different linguistic consequences for the development of American English. The Jamestown colonists came mainly from England’s West Country and spoke with the characteristic burr of these counties. This pattern can still be heard in some of the communities of the Jamestown region, especially Tangier Island in Chesapeake Bay.
Because of the relative isolation of this area, this “Tidewater” accent has changed only slightly in 400 years and is sometimes said to be the closest we will ever get to the sound of Shakespearean English.
The Plymouth colonists, by contrast, came from eastern England.
These accents dominated in what is now New England, and their speech patterns are still the main influence in this area.