Tuesday, September 02, 2014

More on accents

  • The mother country: Fr. Chadwick on RP and regional English accents. Modern BBC: cleaned-up southeastern England or de-affected RP? I say the former. About the only people who still speak 1920s-like RP are royals Prince Charles' age and older, and linguists have noticed that the Queen has naturally changed her speech very slightly so it's less tense today.
  • If you work at it, you can “elocute” (not electrocute) yourself, learning by imitation and acting. One of my favorite voices, ironic considering my misgivings about the Beatles, is that of Sir George Martin. 1940s RP/BBC, from lessons, with a few traces of "bloimey" North London (why is /woi/).
  • Clip from the classic 1958 motion picture Auntie Mame starring Rosalind Russell in the role of Auntie Mame, Gloria Upson (played by Joanna Barnes) underwhelms the crowd with her "ghastly" story about what happened when she played ping pong with her friend Bunny Bixler. Gorgeous golden-era blonde demonstrating "Locust Valley Lockjaw," a form of mid-Atlantic named after a posh town on Long Island (not to be confused with the L.I. suburbs that are Italian-American "Brooklyn and Queens East Annex": diluted Noo Yawk as Estuary is modified Cockney). Unlike many examples of mid-Atlantic she sounds largely American.
  • American English is heavily influenced by German immigration in the 19th century. Most of the accents you are so enamored with were just class markers by the WASP establishment who looked down on the peasant farmers and craftsman who came here from Germany and Eastern Europe, with their weird religions (Catholicism and both high-church and pietistic Lutheranism) and guttural languages. So, they got WASP-ier and more affected in an effort to distinguish themselves from the barbarians flooding in. Over time, though, the children of those barbarians outnumbered the affected elites, such that the largest single ethnic group in the US is German-Americans. So in numbers, so in language. Our version of English won out: common, robust, and like Latin, ideally a language of farmers and tradesman and engineers. Not sold on that. I think American English's sound was already set before the Germans and others (Jews' Yiddish tones coloring Noo Yawk) came; look up Shakespearean Original Pronunciation and listen to re-enactments. That's English in 1600, British and American Englishes' common ancestor, when American settlement began. It sounds a lot like us! We talk differently because English was very different then. Some say immigration has given American its slower, more evenly stressed, less melodious sound, from the newcomers learning the language.
  • I thought that Shakespearean English is basically West Virginia hillbilly English. Actual American English is northern Ohio dialect, made universal by the massive spread of German-Americans throughout the country + the advent of radio (they needed announcers who would be understood across the country, and the other regional dialects were not mutually intelligible -- hillbillies in the South couldn't understand Yankee New Englanders and visa versa). That's a myth about Appalachian English although it has a few archaisms, and the first American radio announcers' voice was mid-Atlantic. After World War II with the shift from British to American power, it faded away into general American: newscaster.
  • I thought Appalachian was Scots-Irish, like their music: the hard r's that became the voice of country music, NASCAR, and Texas. I think the non-rhotic plantation owners' Southern (Jimmy Carter), from southeast England, is endangered.
  • There is an island in the Chesapeake called "Tangier Island" (in the state of Virginia) where supposedly the natives speak in what is the closest living accent to restoration-era English, but no "thee" or "thou." The island is very remote - - you have to take a boat from the Eastern Shore to get there, very few ever do. There sure is. The Tangier Island accent is a mix of Southern and West Country of England brought over centuries ago: like, /loike/; sink, /zink/. The good news is it's not dying out.
  • H.L. Mencken, who in ways liked an English/American mix, described bad mid-Atlantic (the "Kansas City British" of announcers) as the announcers taking elocution lessons from third-rate American actors, who were imitating what they thought they heard English actors in touring shows sound like, who in turn were imitating upper-class English sounds. So on the airwaves before 1945 you heard an imitation of an imitation of an imitation. Degraded copy.
  • Blue-collar guys who became announcers trying to do mid-Atlantic but not quite getting it down, or simply Noo Yawk, which in classic form is non-rhotic, slightly polished and speeded up: I've seen very little written about another accent commonly encountered in movies, television, and radio from the 1930s through the early/mid-1960s; what I call "Newsreel" or "Accent Noir." It's spoken with a very nasal inflection, and usually very quickly. A challenge: try to say "Make it snappy, sonny boy!", "Why, I oughtta pop you one, see!", or "Flash! Flash! Japs bomb Pearl Harbor!" in anything but that accent. The mid-century golden-era announcer's voice didn't sound half-English anymore but was a more polished version of newscaster with traces of mid-Atlantic.
  • TV Make-Believe America, dumbed down, seems to have only five accents, more by class than geography: Noo Yawk for ANY big city, Southern for ANYTHING rural, no matter where, black, which is pretty standard across the country, originally a kind of Southern accent, Valley Girl, again, ubiquitous, a class accent, not a geographical one, spoken by white girls of a certain class on up (the boys' version is dudespeak, based on surfer talk), and newscaster (ambitious American anchors — newsreaders — still take elocution lessons, only to erase particular accents to make them marketable anywhere, not learn an English one).
  • Yous don't tawk 'Joisey? Dat's a shame, node two wayds about it... You're thinking of Noo Yawk West, not South Philly East near me. I don't think Joisey talks Joisey, if it ever did. Listen to Frankie Valli or, earlier, Lou Costello in Abbott and Costello. A marker of northern NJ speech vs. Noo Yawk is they pronounce postvocalic r; also, I think /oi/ for "er," which probably comes from Yiddish, is unique to Noo Yawk (and interesting, lesser known accents like working-class New Orleans, which sounds Noo Yawk, not Southern). NJ has two, maybe three personalities, Noo Yawk West suburbia, farmland (farms and wineries owned by Italian-Americans), and South Philly East suburbia, Wildwood being a part of the last. The border between Noo Yawk and Philly is around New Brunswick; the north cheers for the Yankees, the south for the Phils. Noo Yawk Italians: sauce is "sauce." South Philly Italians: sauce is "gravy."
  • Then there's second-generation South Philly Italian. Jerry "The Geator" Blavat, the half-Italian DJ who, sharing the grand marshal's car, makes a crack about my hat every Columbus Day parade, speaks it. It's to Italian in Italy as Quebecois is to Parisian. A friend has quoted a man from Italy as saying his countrymen think it's an Italian version of Ebonics, almost a patois or creole. The southern Italian dialects (languages) with an American accent and bastardized English words (like Spanglish).
  • I didn't meet and hear real Southerners in North Carolina until I was well clear of Raleigh, which is yankeefied.


  1. When I first moved from suburban New Orleans to NE Philly, people kept asking me if I was from South Jersey. I quickly figured out that, because I didn't drawl like I was from rural Georgia, people assumed I was a native of the area. Led to some funny miscommunication.

    Twenty years on stage gave me a good ear for accent and dialect, but also wore off the edges of my own native tongue. Now I only sound like I'm from New Orleans when I get very tired or I've been around my relations for a few days.

  2. Flambeaux, I take it you're not from the Ninth Ward, though? ;)

    John B: IMHO the classic movie clip dealing with accents is the famous elocution-lesson scene from *Singin' in the Rain*:

    "I cahhhhn't stahhhhhnd him."
    "I cann' stann' 'im."

    Pure comedy gold.

    I still have my Boston accent after almost 25 years in Carolina, but I do slip into a Southern drawl occasionally; I find myself saying "drahv" instead of "drive," for instance. Maybe, if I'm here another 25 years (if I live that long), I'll become a real Southerner. (Doubtful, though. :p)

  3. Ever see the 1938 film "Holiday" with Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant? I found it amusing to see the Hepburn character's elite New York family turn down their noses at Grant's working class scrabbler (of course Grant grew up on the rough streets of Bristol before becoming the epitome of Hollywood refinement). http://youtu.be/LEADwqAxp3Q


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