Language Mystery Redux: Who Was the Last American to Speak This Way?

A particular style of American English once dominated respectable discourse. Now it has entirely disappeared. When? Why? How?

George Gershwin, fancy-talker (Wikimedia)

Four years ago I mentioned a wonderful documentary called Wings Over the Golden Gate, which was produced in the 1930s. The scenes of Depression-era San Francisco were fascinating. But what riveted me was the language.

The narrator of that film spoke in a way instantly recognizable to anyone who has seen footage of FDR-era newsreels, or for that matter listened to recordings of FDR himself. It was a style of phony-British “Announcer Speak” that dominated formal American discourse from the 1920s to maybe the 1950s—and now has entirely disappeared.

I mention this because today I was listening to a rebroadcast of a great 2012 Fresh Air  interview with the musician and writer Michael Feinstein, which included a rare, brief interview that George Gershwin had done on Rudy Vallee’s hyper-popular radio show in 1933. The amazing thing was that even George Gershwin sounded this way!

The revolutionary genius of modern American music, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, the child of Brooklyn who moved to Hollywood, the epitome of whatever seemed jazzy about America of the Depression years—even he had that Voice of Time diction. Start at time 20:00 in the clip below (the whole thing is interesting) and listen to the creator of Porgy and Bess and Rhapsody in Blue talk about his work.

Here is what I asked four years ago, and would still like to know: Who was the last American to speak this way? And when and why did this accent disappear? We often think of language change as evolving over long historic periods. But this is something that has happened with comparative speed. By the time I became conscious of TV, radio, or movie voices in the late 1950s, the formal Announcer version of American English still existed. Now, no one would use it except as a joke.

When? How? Why? These are all rhetorical questions. While you consider them, I offer you another look at Wings Over the Golden Gate.

UPDATE Please see this follow-up post for reader hypotheses on the when and why of this language change.