Announcer Voice: Unified Field Theory Edition

Why Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra gave America its modern language, and why some preachers are struggling to haul it back into the past.  

Frank Sinatra at Liederkranz Hall in New York in 1947. Did improved microphone technology permit the more intimate, less histrionic singing style of mid-century stars like Sinatra and Bing Crosby? (Wikimedia)

Last week we had five installments of the Announcer-Voice saga. They were #1 “Who Was the Last American to Speak This Way?”; #2 “That Weirdo Announcer-Voice Accent”; #3 “The Rise and Fall of Announcer-Speak: Class War Edition”; #4 “The Origin Story”; and #5 “The Video-Highlights Reel.”

In today’s installment, some highlights of other reactions:

1) It’s about microphones, and singing. In response to the argument that crude early microphones required hyper-clear announcer-style diction:

I totally buy the microphone technology explanation because it's the way singers are taught, or learn themselves, to this day to project English text from the stage all the way out to an audience in the hall. I'm talking primarily about classical music singers because that's what I know, but you can hear it in some popular singers who care about communicating the text.

You can't sing on a consonant, so singing relies on clear, clean vowels (as clear as the musical note in question will allow) and crisp, clear but not explosive consonants. Diphthongs must be carefully calibrated-- sounded but not lingered on. With consonants, R is a particular problem because it doesn't sound unless you lean on it, which sounds horrible in the middle or end of a word (Try singing the word "lord" on a long note and making the R audible at the end). The solution to that is similar to the way diphthongs are handled, to close down the vowel at the end of the note towards the R, so that the lightly touched R is more assumed by the ear than actually heard.

All of which makes me wonder whether there was an equivalent to our "mid-Atlantic" voice in other rather messy languages to enunciate, such as Russian or even French. I believe there is something in French called "poetic style" in which vowels are cleaner and more streamlined than standard vernacular, but I don't know whether that is or was French "announcer style," as well.

Singers love Italian because it's regular and without the eccentricities of articulation that English has. Standard German, while posing problems for English speakers, is itself a quite clear and crisp language.

2. And let’s not forget Crosby and Sinatra.

Certain voices did seem to work better with early sound technology—and it wasn’t just the microphones that worked as a filter: the speakers also were limited in the radios of the 30’s and 40’s, as well as the bandwidth of AM broadcasts.

I have read that one reason (beyond musical ability) for Bing Crosby’s success as a crooner was that his voice was particularly suited to the technology of the period—though one would then have to think that (say) Frank Sinatra would also fit the groove.

From another reader:

I wanted to note the example of Bing Crosby. Famously, he was among the first to take advantage of more modern microphone designs to sing in a less histrionic style, which made him stand out.

Announcers, though, certainly didn't change over at the same time - "announcer voice" lasted decades longer. So while the origin of the speaking style may well have been with stage projection and clear enunciation on bad equipment, that's not what kept it going.

3) Let’s keep things straight. A reader reinforces some distinctions I tried to mention early on:

I think you're conflating two (or possibly) three accents which are different (and understandable in their own terms):

1) The New York (or, more loosely, Northeast) patrician accent, which predates the invention of radio. This is the accent of Buckley, Vidal, FDR, etc., but it clearly existed during the 19th Century. Eg., check out this clip from Teddy Roosevelt, and note the number of people mentioned by your readers who grew up within 100 miles of NYC in upper-class backgrounds (eg. Keane, Hepburn).

2) I do agree with the general suggestion that the American stage accent (ie. that developed for oratory and theater) influenced the "Announcer Voice" (although, again, the first predates radio). And by the 1930s you have this entertaining blending of American patrician, stage, announcer, and British BBC/Royal Shakespeare Co accents (with Cary Grant and Hepburn being the most obvious examples).

New York was the center of the US theater and broadcasting world during this time, of course.

My main point is that there was a real-world basis for the weirdo announcer accent (ie. this predates radio), something you could confirm by exploring records made between 1890-1910.

I agree with this reader, and have tried to say so occasionally as this discussion has shambled on. Some people “naturally” spoke in a dropped-R, “non-rhotic,” hoity-toity Northeastern accent; and some people aped a version of that accent for social mobility purposes; and there was a deliberately stagey actor/announcer-talk deliberately promoted in the days of early radio and newsreels. It’s a big messy but interesting world.

4) The masters of the craft. From someone who works as an actual announcer:

I’m no linguist, but I am a voiceover artist, so this whole conversation fascinates me because had I been born a few generations sooner, I might well have sounded like some of the announcers you’ve mentioned in this fascinating series.

In addition to the announcers you’ve mentioned, I offer these as well. As you will plainly hear, this hoity-toity manner of speech you have characterized as “newsreel announcer speak,” was not only present in the context of high society, Hollywood movies and politics, but a form of it was also present in newsreels pertaining to sports:

Hear the legendary announcer sports newsreel announcer, Pete Smith:

Also, and perhaps more profoundly, I wanted to draw your attention to one of the most famous announcers in history who has been curiously missing from your articles thus far. John Charles Daly was the longtime emcee of CBS-TV’s popular Sunday night prime time game show What’s My Line? The show itself was dripping with all the trappings of high society, as the men on the show all came dressed to the nines in their formal attire, and women came in elegant evening gowns accented by all manner of sparkling baubles and bangles adorning their presence.

Not only will you hear what sounds like a thick Mid-Atlantic accent from the host John Charles Daly (who actually hailed from South Africa, although his accent is almost indistinguishable from the Mid-Atlantic accent, except, perhaps by the more discerning ear of a trained linguist), but a similar Mid-Atlantic accent also was heard from longtime panelist and former head of Random House Publishing, Bennett Cerf. In this particular episode, you’ll also hear that Mid-Atlantic accent in spades coming from guest panelist Tony Randall. Come to think of it, even the regular female panelists on the show, Arlene Francis and Dorothy Kilgallen, had it in varying degrees. (Although ironically, the show’s announcer, Johnny Olsen, did not.) This was the show that aired the Sunday night before President Kennedy was killed.

[JF note: the video below is incredibly interesting, in ways beyond the linguistic.]

But I draw your attention to What’s My Line? emcee John Charles Daly in particular, as he was also the head of ABC News at the same time. In fact, his voice was heard on one of the most famous news recordings ever broadcast. Daly's is the first voice you hear on this famous recording:

6) Moving south

I am a bit older than you and very familiar with the "accent." I long ago noticed that if you begin with the full "Bahston" accent, with its fast and punchy style, then gradually slow down and soften the delivery, you can take a cultural journey down the Eastern Seaboard through New York, through Maryland and Virginia, all the way to Savannah, with the accent gradually becoming more and more "Southern Patrician."

To my ears, this sounds like the same accent becoming less harshly spoken, with a slower and slower delivery. It is not the same as the accent further inland where it becomes more stereotypically "hee-haw-ish" in the South, and more "A-yup" in Northern climes. And it most definitely jumps over south Jersey and Philadelphia, which have their own sui generis accent. Oddly enough, Pittsburgh, on the other side of Pennsylvania, also has a strong accent found only in that relatively confined area

And similarly on regional angles:

I find it interesting that you reference the term “mid-Atlantic” to an undetermined spot on the globe between the UK and USA. I’d always thought of it in reference to the so-called Mid-Atlantic States, and hence the accent as a general pointer to that region.

7) How about the Voice of the Yankees? I got many, many messages from New Yorkers to this effect:

If I may make a contribution to your discussion on the last person to speak that way, may I suggest Bob Sheppard, the beloved, iconic Yankee Stadium announcer? Jeter used his voice to introduce him even after Mr. Sheppard died.

Here is a great NPR story about the recorded voice-of-Sheppard introducing Derek Jeetah one last time:

8) Saying all the vowels. Earlier I quoted the elocution specialist Dudley Wright, who pointed out that 19th century orators would pronounce all the letters in a word, for instance “ocean” as owe-see-yun. A reader says:

This reminds me of the wry comment of a Christian friend of mine.  He said you can tell you're at a revival when the speaker doubles the syllables of certain key words (i.e. Jee-yuh-sus-uh and Bi-yuh-bul-uh).

9) Why didn’t I know about this in the first place? A video produced last year by How Stuff Works that goes into a lot of these very questions, and hypothesized answers:

Sincere thanks to all. I still have a grain-silo’s worth of these responses and will continue to look through them.