The Year American Speech Became Art

During a whirlwind 15-month period in the late 1920s, technology and cultural trends intersected in turning Yankee diction into a global force.


For an American embarking upon a literary career in the early 19th century, Henry Cabot Lodge once noted in The Atlantic Monthly, the first step “was to pretend to be an Englishman.” This was necessary, Lodge wrote, “in order that he might win the approval, not of Englishmen, but of his own countrymen.”

The fetishization of “English” English extended beyond the written word to the spoken. Almost every British travel book about America from the 19th century ridiculed Yankee ways of talking, and the elites of U.S. society scrupulously imitated English upper-class speech patterns. Students at Harvard were taught to embrace the purity of the King’s English, and if a president’s version existed in the former colonies, no one in Cambridge would admit to speaking it. As late as 1919, when H.L. Mencken published his ambitious study The American Language, the very concept of a legitimate homegrown way of speaking was a radical notion, and brought with it, in the words of Jacques Barzun, an “air of defiance and heresy which some found provincial and even chauvinistic.”

Yet less than a decade after Mencken’s bold gesture, Yankee English was well on its way to conquering the world. In a peculiar role reversal, writers and artists in other countries would now feel compelled to learn from American role models.

What happened?

Changes of this sort usually take place gradually, over a period of decades. But in this case, an extraordinary confluence of circumstances—cultural, technological, and attitudinal—raised Yankee diction into an art during a brief and tumultuous 15-month period in the late 1920s. We are still living with the fallout of those events.

Even today, music fans ask why British soul singers sound so American. Why do Paul McCartney, Adele, Mick Jagger, and Elton John take on a Yankee tone when they shift from talking to singing? And it’s not just music. The same patterns of influence and dissemination can also be traced in movies, novels, and other creative fields.  When the French author Patrick Modiano won the Nobel Prize in literature in 2014, commentators pointed out that his work echoed the hard-boiled prose of Dashiell Hammett. Hammett, it’s worth noting, developed this way of writing during this same 15-month period.

Homegrown speech had shown up in books before that time, but even Mark Twain and Walt Whitman couldn’t quite turn it into a global phenomenon. The very premise of Twain’s book A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) was built on the incongruity of an American influencing British ways. At the close of the 19th century, this juxtaposition was merely funny. But during the Jazz Age the joke became reality, and on a far grander scale than Twain or any of his contemporaries could have imagined.

From October 1926 through December 1927, American speech patterns found electronic tools that would capture their subtle nuances and allow them to go viral. Breakthroughs in microphone design enabled jazz singers to croon and whisper, and the days of shouting vocalists would soon be gone. The spread of electrical recordings aided in this process—just listen to the difference to popular music before and after the arrival of these technologies. At the same moment, the launch of the first U.S. national radio network created a powerful platform for these innovations. The rise of talking films sealed the deal. All these changes took place over the span of just a few months.

In February 1926 Louis Armstrong and his wife Lil Hardin Armstrong tried recording a love duet and you can hear the results on the track “Georgia Grind.” Alas, the primitive recording devices of the day forced them to bellow and scream at each other. The song sounds more like an argument than a seduction. Yet after the changeover to newer recording technology, Armstrong could finally project the warmth and human quality in his voice. By the dawn of the 1930s, he had evolved into an incomparable singer of love songs, as demonstrated by classic tracks such as “Body and Soul,” “Star Dust,” and “I Surrender, Dear.”

But even before the 1930s, British bands were imitating these stylings, both over the airwaves and in dance halls. During our 15-month period, the bandleader Fred Elizalde was criticizing English dance orchestras that were still imitating Viennese music, and arguing for a more Americanized approach. His high profile on BBC Radio helped his cause, and in 1928 Elizalde’s orchestra was picked as the best dance band in Britain by the readers of Melody Maker. From this moment onward, English popular songs would draw on role models from the U.S.

That may seem an obvious choice, in retrospect. But few today realize how exciting and influential the cabarets of Paris and Berlin were in the 1920s. Any smart music critic in the year 1910 would have seen these continental venues as the most likely sources of inspiration for 20th-century popular music. But they would have been dead wrong. Before the end of the 1920s, the American model was poised to take over the entertainment world.

The literary scene was discovering the virtues of plainspoken American vernacular during this same 15-month juncture. The period kicked off with the publication of Ernest Hemingway’s debut novel The Sun Also Rises on October 22, 1926—a book that probably did more to alter prose fiction than any other work of the century. Conrad Aiken, writing in the New York Herald Tribune, echoed the sentiments of many readers when he proclaimed: “If there is a better dialogue to be written today I do not know where to find it.”

Just six days later, Bing Crosby cut his first record, “I’ve Got the Girl,” and would soon usher in a new era of cool, understated vocalizing based on conversational speech patterns. Three weeks after Crosby’s maiden voyage, Louis Armstrong recorded “Skid-Dat-De-Dat” and “Big Butter and Egg Man” with his Hot Five, tracks that would delight audiences with their offhand mixture of nonsense syllables and street banter.

And the next year, biggest revolution of them all arrived with a fanfare. Hollywood embraced the talking movie. American dialogue was now coming to the forefront of a third art form. Al Jolson charmed audiences in movie theaters around the country (and soon around the world) by proclaiming: “You ain’t heard nothing yet!” in the first talkie, The Jazz Singer. The ain’t might have made grammarians cringe, but everyone else knew that this new American way of talking was all about breaking rules and cutting corners. This style of speech would now become the norm for Hollywood screenwriters.

This period came to a close in the final days of 1927 with the first serial publication of Dashiell Hammett’s debut novel Red Harvest, the opening of George and Ira Gershwin’s Funny Face on Broadway, both in November, and the birth of the modern musical with the launch of Jerome Kern’s Show Boat on December 27.

Music historians pay great respect to George Gershwin, and deservedly so. But linguists ought to give some respect to his brother Ira, who had a sure ear for new ways of American expression, and even invented some of his own. Funny Face featured the song “’S Wonderful,” a tune built on a slurred Gershwin neologism that seemed to sum up the whole mood of the movement. We are Americans, the song proclaimed, and this is how we talk.

But Ira Gershwin wasn’t the only songwriter trying to capture the rhythms of American conversation in song lyrics.  During this same period, Irving Berlin published “Blue Skies,” Cole Porter wrote “Let’s Misbehave,” and Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart delivered “Thou Swell.”

“Thou Swell”? Few song titles capture better the irreverence of this new style of musical (and verbal) expression.  The tune comes from the 1927 musical A Connecticut Yankee, a story based on Mark Twain’s old book about a smart-talking American teaching King Arthur’s court how to modernize its ways based on U.S. values. But if the plot was an old one, the story was a perfect fit for the new American confidence of the late 1920s.

Yet something even more shocking than “Thou Swell” and “’S Wonderful” had now arrived on the music scene. This same period witnessed the mainstreaming of folk blues music from the poorest parts of the South. Paramount enjoyed huge sales with the raw guitar-and-vocal recordings of Blind Lemon Jefferson, and a host of other blues singers followed in his footsteps. But country music also hit a new stride during this 15-month period, with the first recordings of Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family Singers. Whether white or black, mainstream or outsider, Americans were embracing less polished forms of expression, seeing in them an authenticity that more sophisticated discourse lacked.

Newspapers also began to grasp the newfound popularity of American vernacular talk. In 1926, just as Hemingway was launching The Sun Also Rises, Will Rogers started producing a daily column for syndication. His homespun way of expression, presented under the title “Will Rogers Says” would eventually attract an audience of 40 million readers—making him one of the most influential commentators of his generation. Over the next two years, Rogers would tour the U.S. and Europe, with much of his appeal coming from his rule-breaking approach to language, which found him mixing slang, cowboy talk, Southern dialect, and puns in a unique hybrid.

The days of the grand style, whether in books or spoken language, were now over. Movies, music, and fiction all embraced the new idiom with enthusiasm. It was only a matter of time before the rest of the world jumped on the bandwagon. When Louis Armstrong gave a command performance at Buckingham Palace in 1932, he shook up protocol by dedicating a tune to King George V with the words: “This one’s for you, Rex.”  Even more shocking was the song he dedicated to the monarch: “(I’ll be Glad When You’re Dead) You Rascal You.” The King responded by giving Armstrong a gold-plated trumpet.

At that same juncture, the hard-boiled style was starting to influence British sensibilities, as demonstrated by the 1930s thrillers of Graham Greene or the films of Alfred Hitchcock. The American way was now a model for movie directors, just as it was for singers and writers.

Why did the world find this American way of expression so compelling? In a perceptive 1937 essay, Malcolm Cowley captured the reasons why “during the last 10 years Hemingway has been imitated more widely than any other American or British author.” Cowley noted that the new American style “has freed many writers—not only novelists but poets and essayists and simple reporters—from a burden of erudition and affectation that they thought was part of the writer’s equipment. It has encouraged them to write as simply as possible about the things they really feel, instead of the things they think that other people think they ought to feel.”

Cowley was focusing on written language, but he could just as easily have looked at theatrical drama, Broadway shows, motion pictures, popular songs, newspaper cartoons, or radio broadcasts. The first national radio network in the U.S. started broadcasting three weeks after the publication of The Sun Also Rises. The launch of NBC, soon followed by CBS, would do more than even Ernest Hemingway to teach every American how to speak the snappy new vernacular. And if youngsters didn’t learn on the airwaves, they picked it up in their favorite comic strips. Little Orphan Annie enjoyed a huge following in the newspapers back then, and her catchphrases were “Gee whiskers,” “Leapin’ lizards!” and other bits of repartee not found in the Oxford English Dictionary.

But, for my tastes, I give the nod to Dashiell Hammett, whose rise to fame coincides with the end of this amazing 13-month period. Here is how Hammett’s detective encounters the first dead body in Red Harvest. Can storytelling get any sassier than this?

“What’s the rumpus?” I asked him.

He looked at me carefully before he replied, as if he wanted to be sure the information was going into safe hands. His eyes were gray as his clothes, but not so soft.

“Don Willsson’s gone to sit on the right hand of God, if God don’t mind looking at bullet holes.”

“Who shot him?” I asked.

The gray man scratched the back of his neck and said: “Somebody with a gun.”

I wanted information, not wit. I would have tried my luck with some other member of the crowd if the red tie hadn’t interested me. I said: “I’m a stranger in town. Hang the Punch and Judy on me. That’s what strangers are for.”

No one told stories in that crisp, uncluttered way before 1926. But soon, other ways of pushing a narrative forward would seem slow-paced and old-fashioned. Before Hammett, even popular fiction aspired to a grand, byzantine style. If you read H.P. Lovecraft, only four years older than Hammett, you will feel as if you are operating in a different century. Lovecraft’s prose is filled with modifiers subordinate clauses, and esoteric words. Here’s a typical Lovecraft sentence:

It was the ghoulish shade of decay, antiquity, and desolation; the putrid, dripping eidolon of unwholesome revelation, the awful baring of that which the merciful earth should always hide.

You could even use this for a SAT vocabulary or reading comprehension test.

In this passage, “eidolon” means

(a) Toxic spillage from a Superfund environmental disaster site
(b) An early generation microprocessor marketed by Intel
(c) The spirit image of a dead person
(d) The stinky residue at the bottom of your dishwasher

Okay, the correct answer is (c). But if you read Hemingway or Hammett, you don’t even need to consult the dictionary. Their language is the idiom of the street and barroom.

We still inhabit the world constructed by these brash Yankees almost 90 years ago. The conversational tone of singing introduced by Bing Crosby is still a powerful force in music. Dashiell Hammett still exerts tremendous influence on novelists and scriptwriters. Hemingway, for his part, may now seem too macho and misogynistic for contemporary tastes, but his lean and mean writing style still reverberates in the work of current day authors from Chuck Palahniuk to Junot Díaz. Without Hemingway, you don’t have Roberto Bolaño or Joyce Carol Oates or Raymond Carver or Jack Kerouac or Don DeLillo.

But this influence is perhaps most marked in television, video games, and movies. Fast quips, biting comebacks, and edgy repartee are prized in these fields. If anything, pacing is faster now than ever before in these art forms, and when you need to put across strong talking points in 15 seconds, you don’t look to Balzac and Tolstoy. The tough-talking Americans still set the tone. Can you imagine Quentin Tarantino without the precedents of Hemingway and Hammett? Or Martin Scorsese?  Or Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, and Orange Is the New Black?

This may be America’s most lasting contribution to world culture. And it’s not such a bad thing to be known for. Let’s stake our claim on straight-talk and raw honesty. Let’s be remembered for getting to the point, and not trying to talk around it. For mixing pragmatism and humor and cutting through red-tape and class distinctions and all the other hierarchies that inhibit truth-telling.

In fact, let’s not just celebrate these values from the 1920s. Let’s also try to live up to them. Even Yankees might need a dose of them in the new millennium.