That accent? C'mon. A reader vents:
Your post on your colleague Megan lamenting the end of the American "upper class" accent was interesting. I would venture to guess that this accent disappeared because it was an affectation more than a genuine accent. I had a Connecticut born, Yale-educated prep school teacher (long deceased) who used to talk like that. We, his students, all knew that if he was given enough gin he was perfectly able to speak "normally." The Texas drawl, African-American speech, the Boston brogue, the speech patterns of the Deep South or Northeastern Maine -- all of these are genuine accents rooted in culture and migratory patterns. The "upper class" American accent, which arguably did descend from American Yankee inflections, was also known as a "mid-Atlantic" accent and it was largely a creation of the movies.
In Hollywood's Golden Age there was a small industry devoted to training "thespians" to talk like this (there's a wonderful scene in "Singin' In The Rain" that satirizes this fetish). My ex-mother-in-law, the daughter of a California rancher and a Hollywood starlet during this era, continued to use her "upper class" accent until she died a few years ago. This way of talking metastasized nation-wide through the movies and died out as the old studio system died. It's been widely reported that even William F. Buckley, an arch practitioner of this way of speaking, was the only member of his family who spoke like that. To the extend the "accent" was phony (even if unselfconsciously so on the part of those who used it), I suppose one could say "good riddance, y'all."
Another reader adds:
The expert on the historical tides underlying the decline of the "upper-class" accent that Megan McArdle mourns is William Labov, a sociolinguist at the University of Pennsylvania. His findings are more subtle, and more interesting, than the sudden death perceived by McArdle. Labov's work was covered nicely by The New Yorker's John Seabrook in 2005, available on the web here.
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