American Announcer-Speak: The Origin Story

Why mid-20th-century American movies, plays, and public speeches were dominated by a dialect that no real American naturally spoke.

George Caleb Bingham's Stump Speaking from the 1850s, when super-histrionic, hours-long oratory was a leading form of civic entertainment (Wikimedia commons)

In the next day or two I’ll sort through the voluminous submissions on the mystery of mid-20th century American Announcer Speak, and then produce a final two or three installments. Next up will be an All Video Highlights dispatch, ranging from a scene of Harry Truman mocking H.V. Kaltenborn’s announcer-speak, to the Dutch and German versions of the same diction, to the story of the voice actor who portrayed HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Today, as entr’acte, a single-entry posting. It’s from a message sent by Joseph Cermatori, a Lecturer in Theater at the New School’s Eugene Lang College in New York. He did me the favor of pointing out a completely fascinating paper that touches on nearly all of the themes readers have mentioned in previous installments. (Those installments are: #1 “Who Was the Last American to Speak This Way?”, #2 “That Weirdo Announcer-Voice Accent,” and #3 “The Rise and Fall of Announcer-Speak: Class War Edition.”)

Here is the introductory note from Joseph Cermatori:

I have been following your inquiry into the disappearance of the pseudo-English "Announcer-Voice" with some interest recently. I'm glad you've uncovered the role mid-Atlantic English had to play in the forming of this accent.

You might be interested to learn that theater scholars, teachers, and historians have had a keen interest in the history, institutionalization, and legacy of this practice of speech. The person who I think had the most to say on the subject was Dudley Knight (1939-2013), whose article "Standard Speech: The Ongoing Debate" will probably provide a wealth of historical data for you, about the origins of Mid-Atlantic speech out of "World English" and "Good American Speech."

In 2011, my colleague Clare Hane (currently at Cornell) and I convened a conference panel on this article for the American Theatre in Higher Education's annual meeting, and found that interest in these matters is still quite vibrant for voice and speech teachers across the country.

Dudley Knight’s article, which is online as a PDF here, is so packed with nuggets that I’m tempted just to block-quote the whole thing. But I’ll let those interested explore for themselves and find things like:
• Accounts of the 19th-century hyper-dramatic American stump-oratory style for which early-20th-century “World English” (announcer-speak) was meant to be a classier replacement. According to Dudley Knight, that old, pre-movie or -radio style featured...

… a pattern that mandated the extreme extension of vowel sounds often with a tremulous dying fall of intonation when a word is to be emphasized, so that the lines were more sung than spoken; a pattern that required syllables- which in ordinary conversation are unstressed - to be stressed with discrete vowel sounds… (so that "ocean" becomes "owe-see-yun"); a pattern that insisted upon a heavy glottal attack on words beginning with vowels as a sign of vocal vigor…

This was the hallmark of elocution in its late and somewhat decadent form, where every inflection, every gesture, every pronunciation was predetermined in the textbooks….

In nineteenth-century America oratory emerged as the popular form of entertainment. In a growing nation in which professional theatrical performance was not easily available to large segments of the rural population, oratory satisfied the theatrical needs of the country. While acting genius could not be directly taught to the general public, oratorical techniques certainly could.

• The guiding principles of the World English approach, as championed by the Australian-born elocution expert William Tilly:

As initially defined by Tilly and those students who put his doctrines into print, World English was a speech pattern that very specifically did not derive from any regional dialect pattern in England or America, although it clearly bears some resemblance to the speech patterns that were spoken in a few areas of New England, and a very considerable resemblance, as we shall see, to the [upper-class] pattern in England which was becoming defined in the 1920s as "RP" or "Received Pronunciation."

World English, then, was a creation of speech teachers, and boldly labeled as a class-based accent: the speech of persons variously described as "educated," "cultivated," or "cultured"; the speech of persons who moved in rarified social or intellectual circles and of those who might aspire to do so…

World English was considered by Tilly's followers to be an identifying pattern for cultured coequals among English speakers the world over, precisely because it was not actually spoken by any known regional dialect group.

• And about those “non-rhotic” missing R sounds (“only thing we have to feeah… is feeah itself”):

The most important consonant change—and one defended with singular intensity by Tilly's students—was the elimination of all post-vocalic "R" sounds in words like "car" or "hurt" (what is usually called "R-coloring.") Now, this already was a feature of most East Coast American dialects from Maine to the Carolinas, but its inclusion in a pattern which already had several key RP sounds made it seem even more like an English accent to most American speech teachers who were working in the primary and secondary school systems.​

• On the goods and bads of what Tilly and his colleagues wrought:

WORLD ENGLISH TODAY: [Some scholars] labeled it "Good American Speech." Speech it is, most certainly, and for better or worse it has shaped generations of American actors. But its definition as "Good" is mired in a self-serving and archaic notion of Euphony, and in a model of class, ethnic, and racial hierarchy that is irrelevant to the acting of classical texts and repellent to the sensibilities of most theatre artists.

Its pedigree as "American" has already been shown to be open to serious question, especially since its earliest advocates bragged that its chief quality was that no Americans actually spoke it unless educated to do so, thus marking it as a badge of a self-defined cultural elite.

Thanks to Joseph Cermatori; thanks to others who have written in; this is enough for today.