3 Reasons to Watch Our 'Salton Sea' Video, and More on That Weirdo Old Accent

More

As for the Salton Sea clip, which has gone up today on the Atlantic's video channel:

1) It's interesting and visually arresting.

2) It is particularly interesting/alarming for me, because I could well have been in one of those shots from the Leave it to Beaver era. Several times in the late Fifties and early Sixties my dad would dragoon the rest of us for the broiling drive down through the desert to Salton City and neighboring developments, with the fantasy that it could be a "good investment" for the family to buy a lakeshore lot there. Thank goodness he never followed through. I will claim that the grade-school version of me is somewhere in shots from the video like the one below -- hey, that could be my sister eating watermelon -- and I defy anyone to disprove it.

Salton2.png

Fortunately our Video Channel's Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg pronounces this the "glamorous" era for the Salton Sea. (Other pics here.)

3) The announcer's voice in the old footage shows post-World War II remnants of the striking pre-war "announcer voice," whose rise and amazing near-instantaneous disappearance I mentioned a few weeks ago. I am remiss in not sharing some of the very, very abundant flow of responses about why a style of speaking that dominated American public discourse -- newsreels, plays and movies, some politicians -- is so rarely encountered now. Here come the hypotheses:

Marlon Brando did it:

I'd say the answer to the question of why the transatlantic was no longer called, "standard American speech" is method acting. The schools stopped teaching people to speak as if it were a kind of singing. Movies after Brando, Natalie Wood and James Dean just sounded different. Liz Taylor was one of the few to go "method" and keep the old voice, party because she grew up in England.

Newscasters wanted to reach this new "natural tone." Newscaster accent under the influence of schools shifted to a central Indiana dialect which has an odd nasality that you can often hear.

If anything, the switch can be seen as the triumph of the hard Irish-style "r" which so many people tried to banish on both sides of the Atlantic.

Easy Rider did it:

The end of the Hollywood studio system took away the prescribed elocution classes contract players were required to attend, then the 1960's 'cinema verite' style fad that lasted into the 1970's reached for a gritty, ultra-reality style of film making. "Easy Rider" with a mid-atlantic accent?? The stuffy elocution no longer made sense to that fashion.

You can still hear this voice on stage in pieces written for that voice. Using today's contemporary speech pattern with the formal, florid dialogue sounds ludicrous. As an actor,I enjoy that form of speech. It really helps create an aura of "another time and place" for the actor AND the audience.

Arthur Godfrey did it:

Who dun it?   Arthur Godfrey! From Wikipedia:

"Recovering from a near-fatal automobile accident en route to a flying lesson in 1931 (by which time he was already an avid flyer), he decided to listen closely to the radio and realized that the stiff, formal style then used by announcers could not connect with the average radio listener; the announcers spoke in stentorian tones, as if giving a formal speech to a crowd and not communicating on a personal level. Godfrey vowed that when he returned to the airwaves he would affect a relaxed, informal style as if he were talking to just one person. He also used that style to do his own commercials and became a regional star." and

"Godfrey became nationally known in April 1945 when, as CBS's morning-radio man in Washington, he took the microphone for a live, firsthand account of President Roosevelt's funeral procession. The entire CBS network picked up the broadcast, later preserved in the Edward R. Murrow and Fred W. Friendly record series, I Can Hear it Now.

Unlike the tight-lipped news reporters and commentators of the day, who delivered breaking stories in an earnest, businesslike manner, Arthur Godfrey's tone was sympathetic and neighborly, lending immediacy and intimacy to his words. When describing new President Harry S. Truman's car in the procession, Godfrey fervently said, in a choked voice, "God bless him, President Truman." Godfrey broke down in tears and cued the listeners back to the studio. The entire nation was moved by his emotional outburst."

Old-style microphones did it (plus Edward R. Murrow):

I suspect there were two other contributors to the shift. One is that Edward R. Murrow (whose accent hails from Washington state, where he learned voice from a local) mostly picked untrained upper midwest voices. Soon everyone in the news business wanted to sound more or less like Uncle Walter [Cronkite, part of Murrow's team at CBS].

The other thing is that one might notice that nearly everyone in the early days has a voiced pitched in a particular register, a rather high and often somewhat forced sound. I'm guessing that part of the reason for that is that this is the register that the early radio broadcasts carried through the best; as the capabilities of the equipment improves, one starts to hear lower and more natural registers, although there is still a tendency to pick a slightly projecting tone. For instance, listen to Tom Brokaw in this retrospective (YouTube clip.)

In the second segment, you hear his real voice; in the first, his Announcer Voice (capitals and all). One may note that on old Today show broadcasts his voice is also more conversational and less projecting. Back in the oldest days one really did have to sort of shout at the microphone a bit, which also emphasized the high end of the voice. [JF note: From the world of radio, I know that these two registers still exist. You could overstate the difference as "AM Voice" vs "FM Voice." More later.]

Yes, it was the mikes:

My understanding (and my partner's, who was trained as an opera singer) is that it fell out of favor because microphone technology improved, making that stage accent irrelevant.

More on microphones:

If I may interject a history of technology moment here, the pronunciation may have had as much to do with microphone tolerances as it did with expectations about conformity or class. As I understand it, microphones did a poor job of recording certain sounds and sound combinations. Singers were frequently taught to move their head or body to accommodate. (Somehow I can't imagine Edward R. dancing in front of the microphone as he reported from London, and he certainly couldn't on TV.) A standardized pronunciation, along with an expected speaking pace , would increase listener comprehension.  By 1968, when we all wanted to do our own thing, recording devices had improved enough that the result wasn't a total disaster [at least acoustically].
<<

WWII did it:

It was the war; that's the short answer I think. Interesting to a Canadian that in the thirties the infamous 'Canadian "eh" ' was common in the US but disappeared from the excited states during the war. Also the broadcaster accents as in Murrow and Paul Harvey eg. blended into an amorphous and new 'army or fighter pilot talk' of the Texas variety. From a philosophical point of view it was the end of 'talking down' to the great unwashed.

A few more after the jump.

WWII did it, but in a different way:

When I took a course at Oxford on British-American relations, the lecturer briefly discussed the disappearance of the Transatlantic accent after WWII. It was replaced by a "generically American" accent that was sort of a watered down Midwestern accent. In the hyper-patriotic sentiment of the time, news announcers wanted to sound American, and Northerners and Southerners both disliked each the others' accent. The particular Midwesternish accent they decided on was inoffensive to everyone in the country.

The accent was always odd and artificial:

Clearly, the faux British accent that fascinates you always enjoyed limited popularity. Movie, radio and intellectual personalities put it on. The rest of us didn't unless we were aspiring to one of those careers. All the newsreel announcers sound like that.

The examples of Katherine Hepburn and William F Buckley ring true. That Connecticut variant and its relative   "Long Island Lockjaw" sound so affected now, but were the height of sophistication in the 40's.

On the one hand I don't miss the snobbery that this accent implied. On the other hand, their diction was perfect and you could understand them.  Today's slurring and expletive filled American English has reached new depths of vulgarity. O tempora O mores - I do realize that since the new sounds are so offensive to my 68 year old ears, I have become a conservative curmudgeon.

Or, on the contrary, maybe it was widespread:

I think your correspondent who calls this a transatlantic accent is wrong, or at least doesn't know the whole story. If you listen to radio recordings from the 1930s and 1940s, it isn't just actors and announcers who talk like this; you hear it from athletes, musicians, and "ordinary people" on quiz shows. The fact is that the "standard" accent changes over time. American accents are much less clipped than they were in the 1930s. British accents have changed too; "BBC English" is now much closer to the Thames Estuary accent than to the old Received Pronunciation. Even the Queen's English has changed-- linguists have studied her Christmas speeches over the years, and observed that her vowels are broader than they used to be.

But this shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who reads Shakespeare. In Elizabethan times, "love" and "move" rhymed. They don't any more; that's because the language has changed. And it'll continue to do so.

The real problem is Connecticut:

It sounds incredibly British. Have you compared British accents of that day with the video below?The way he says 'oriental', 'operator', 'warf', 'harbour' etc. Sounds very British. 'Arches', I mean I hear it over and over again.

Perhaps the British accent was considered posh to the well-off in Connecticut, and they adopted it?

On the other hand, it gives us a reason to watch Frasier:

In regards to your interesting article to the loss of the Transatlantic accent, there was a key bit of information left out.  As your reader P. Hoh stated, yes it is the Transatlantic accent, however, he left out the true origin of the linguistic art form. 

The Transatlantic was indeed an accent that was taught, but it was not taught to actors and newsmen.  The Transatlantic accent originated from private boarding schools in the New England region, and was a mark of the social elite of the era. When it comes to the demise of the accent, the culprit lies in the change of American society from World War II.  Many of the boarding schools were closed down, and the culture would now favor the voice of the hero, an everyday blue collar man. 

Although this accent has lost favor, there are still several schools which teach it.  As a matter of fact, there is a rather famous actor and celebrity who was raised in this fashion, Kelsey Grammer.  I hope that this sheds some light on the matter for you.

And maybe this whole funeral is premature:

>>I fear the Transatlantic Accent is making a comeback.

While reading your article on Language Mystery (i.e., Mystery Language as in Mystery Meat), I was reminded of the plethora of ads on television these days where a prissy looking fellow...almost sporting a wavy pompadour....is selling gold and/or silver (presumably to an audience of "discerning investors who are fed up with the Dow") and who seems to be using this ridiculous Transatlantic Accent.

His pretentious air is truly nauseating and as I fling myself across the room to get to the remote to get him out of my house, I wonder if there are people within the sound of his god-awful voice who really do think that this is a "sophisticated" form of speech.<<

More to come, but that is enough for now. Thanks for fascinating replies.

Presented by

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

'Stop Telling Women to Smile'

An artist's campaign to end sexual harassment on the streets of NYC.


Elsewhere on the web

Video

Where Time Comes From

The clocks that coordinate your cellphone, GPS, and more

Video

Computer Vision Syndrome and You

Save your eyes. Take breaks.

Video

What Happens in 60 Seconds

Quantifying human activity around the world

Writers

Up
Down

More in National

From This Author

Just In