Announcer-Speak: The Video Highlights Reel

Clips that mark the progress of America’s weird decades-long linguistic detour

Gore Vidal, foreground, and William F. Buckley before one of their famous 1968 television debates. (Trailer for <em>Best of Enemies</em> film, at SXSW2015 via YouTube)

As promised yesterday, the time has come for a video-centric post. That promise was part of post #4 in the series, “The Origin Story.” Before that we had #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.” The one is #5.

No unifying theories this time. Just points for which readers have sent in illustrative videos. Let’s start with the most riveting.

1) Vidal and Buckley. You cannot top this. This video of one of the debates Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley had during the Republican Convention in 1968 is astonishing in fifteen different ways. Among them, for people who followed the two men’s careers through their maturing and declining years: the reminders of how Buckley sounded, and of how the youngish Vidal (both men then early 40s) looked. Prowl around at random. Commentary below.

From the reader who sent in this video:

Probably the last well-known user of Mid-Atlantic English is Kelsey Grammer. Other recently departed examples include George Plimpton, Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley.

My fiancé and I recently attended a screening of the documentary Best of Enemies at the Seattle Film Festival. It focuses on the Buckley/Vidal debates of 1968. Clips from the debates were fantastic to watch, in part because it’s almost a joy to merely listen to both men speak. Here’s a trailer:

Appropriately, the film hired Kelsey Grammer to narrate certain written material as Buckley and Jon Lithgow to read as Vidal. While I don’t normally think of Lithgow as speaking with a Mid-Atlantic accent, he does a great job affecting one for the role.

2) Truman v. Kaltenborn, 1949. H.V. Kaltenborn was a famous mid-century announcer who was one exemplar of the newsreel style. Harry Truman’s style was as plain as American plain-speak could be. A reader says:

In your list of moments of transition in accents of Americans in the media, don't omit Harry S Truman mocking H.V. Kaltenborn in 1949:

The entire 7-minute clip is a nice specimen of the accent we’re talking about. President Truman’s cameo begins about 20 seconds in.

3) Don’t forget Millicent Fenwick! I posed an open question, Who was the last American to speak this way? One answer, from reader Joe Reckford:

The last person to speak that way was my grandmother, Millicent Fenwick (1910-1992).  She was a member of congress and ambassador, and part of her success was that accent. Here’s a video clip.

4) And don't forget Walt Whitman, or James Earl Jones.

I am a non-rhotic-accented [feeah rather than fear] Australian—the son of a Briton and an American. Hearing Americans speak without pronouncing their final r always makes me smile at the thought of how fluid speech is and how we’re connected.

I don’t think the speech pattern to which you refer has died out quite yet. Consider this beautiful reading of Whitman by James Earl Jones:

And I suspect it isn’t all to do with Jones’ upbringing as black man in the South and at least some to do with his training in the theatre. It is the US equivalent of Canadian Dandy and Received Pronunciation in the UK, don’t you think?

It’s probably dying a natural death for the same reasons those accents are: a more move towards a more liberal, equal society. Indeed, you might even hear somthing of it in Whitman himself.

5) Or Tom Kean. From a Garden State reader:

I'd like to nominate former N.J. Gov. Tom Kean. He must certainly be the last high-profile American politician to speak that way. It didn't seem to hurt in in New Jersey, but it can't have helped with any national political ambitions.

Some quick Google research indicates he acquired the speech pattern in boarding school, and that his efforts to overcome a stutter may have been a factor.

This old ad for N.J. tourism is how many of us on the East Coast were introduced to his jarringly anachronistic accent. "New Jehhsey and you. Puhhfect Togethah."

6) Or Aubrey Plaza. About one of her Parks and Recreation characters, “Janet Snakehole.”

7) Or ‘The Incredibles’

8) Ansel Adams: Not just a photographer! A reader in Israel suggests this 1958 film about Ansel Adams, narrated by photography curator Beaumont Newhall.

The reader adds:

My impression, perhaps from an aside somewhere in Five Came Back, a history of Hollywood directors during WW II, is that contract players during the 30s were required to take diction lessons and that there must have been a community of voice coaches that existed to created all these role models…. But 1958 sounds pretty late to be doing it.  I watched American Graffiti recently (set in the late '50s, pre-Beatles), and there was none of that.

9) There are German and Dutch versions too. (For this dispatch I’m leaving out the many messages about similar developments in the UK.) From a reader in Holland:

We have had a similar kind of accent in Dutch here in The Netherlands. In times of the Polygoon-journaal (a news broadcast in the forties, fifties) the voiceover was also with a typical, forced accent, which now is only used in parodies. Maybe you can hear some similarities in the kind of nasal, back-in-the-throat, kind of voice:

In this video is done as a parody:

And from a reader in the north of Germany:

A similar phenomenon existed in German TV and radio until the 1950s/1960s. Without doing any real research, I have always drawn a connection between that accent and the fact or rather my assumption that many news readers and reporters would have been trained in "Bühnendeutsch", stage German, at the time, which shows several phonetic similarities.

10) And, to close for the day, a voice of American sports.

My nominee for the last American to speak true "Announcer Speak" was John Facenda. Now mostly remembered as the early voice of NFL Films, he was a long-time sports, TV and radio announcer in Philadelphia. Mr. Facenda passed in 1984, but you can still hear his voice on YouTube.

Again thanks to all.