That Weirdo Announcer-Voice Accent: Where It Came From and Why It Went Away

Is your language rhotic? How to find out, and whether you should care.

Westbrook Van Voorhis, narrator of the March of Time radio and newsreel series, and the man whose voice epitomized 20th century Announcer Speak  (YouTube)

Thanks for the scores of replies that have arrived in the past day, in response to my post asking why the stentorian, phony-British Announcer Voice that dominated newsreel narration, stage and movie acting, and public discourse in the United States during the first half of the 20th century had completely disappeared.

The responses fall into interesting categories: linguistic descriptions of this accent; sociological and ethnic explanations for its rise and fall; possible technological factors in its prominence and disappearance; explanations rooted in the movie industry; nominees for who might have been the last American to talk this way; and suggestions that a few rare specimens still exist.

Here’s a sampling for today, with more planned in the days ahead. I’ll try to give a representative range, and I am grateful for the care and thought that have gone into these responses.

1) The linguists have a name for it: they call it “Mid-Atlantic English.” I don’t like this name, for reasons I’ll explain in a minute. (And, OK, I’m not a linguist, but I’m married to one!) But it’s clear that the diction I call Announcer Voice has been the object of close linguistic study. I received many notes like this one:

The variety of English you are referring to has a name in linguistics:  "Mid-Atlantic English".

The Wikipedia entry for it is quite detailed.  I'm not an expert, but Bill Labov from UPenn is, and he is quoted thusly:

“According to William Labov, teaching of this pronunciation declined sharply after the end of World War II. As a result, this American version of a ‘posh’ accent has all but disappeared even among the American upper classes. The clipped English of George Plimpton and William F. Buckley, Jr. were vestigial examples.”

Buckley clearly flaunts it, probably to set himself apart from the hoi polloi of his contemporaries.

The Wikipedia entry is indeed delightful. For instance:

Mid-Atlantic English was the dominant dialect among the Northeastern American upper class through the first half of the 20th century. As such, it was popular in the theatre and other forms of elite culture in that region….

With the evolution of talkies in the late 1920s, voice was first heard in motion pictures. It was then that the majority of audiences first heard Hollywood actors speaking predominantly in Mid-Atlantic English…

British expatriates John Houseman, Henry Daniell, Anthony Hopkins, Camilla Luddington, and Angela Cartwright exemplified the accent, as did [a long list of North Americans, from Elizabeth Taylor and Grace Kelly to Richard Chamberlain and Christopher Plummer]. Orson Welles notably spoke in a mid-Atlantic accent in the 1941 film Citizen Kane, as did many of his co-stars, such as Joseph Cotten. …

Others outside the entertainment industry known for speaking Mid-Atlantic English include William F. Buckley, Jr., Gore Vidal, George Plimpton, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Norman Mailer, Diana Vreeland, Maria Callas, Cornelius Vanderbilt IV.

With such a useful explanation, why do I gripe about the name? To me, “Mid-Atlantic English” is the nom juste for a related but distinct phenomenon (which is also mentioned in Wikipedia). That is the tendency of Americans trying to sound more British, or Brits trying to sound more Yank, to split the difference and speak in an accent whose home ground is no real country but somewhere in the middle of the sea.

Several readers wrote in with specimens of Americans who had gone to England and ended up speaking in this mid-Atlantic way. For instance:

The American-British television presenter Loyd Grossman, who has described his accent as Mid-Atlantic. This speech pattern might be common among US expatriates in the UK, of which Grossman would seem to represent just the most ostentatious example.

If  you listen to Grossman (who is originally from Boston) starting about 15 seconds into the clip below, you’ll see that he uses a split-the-difference UK/US hybrid that is literally “mid-Atlantic,” in the sense of combining accents from both countries, but is different from the newsreel announcer voice:

One more note from the academy:

You should talk to William Labov [JF: I will try] , pioneering sociolinguist, whose landmark study into New York City speech led him to ask the same question you have.

NYC speech in the sixties, in some ways, flipped prestige markers. Labov suspected that WWII had something to do about it. I feel that his work on this and many other language-related matters should be far more widely known than it is.

The “flipped prestige markers” point here is fascinating. From looking at Labov’s study, I know today, as I didn’t know yesterday, that linguists use the term rhotic to describe whether a person pronounces, or doesn’t, the “R” sound before a consonant or at the end of a word. If you say, I pahked my cah in Hahvahd Yahd, like some vaudeville version of a Boston accent, you are non-rhotic. If you say, I parked my car in Harvard Yard, you are being rhotic. Now you know!

The point of the flipped prestige markers is that generally the fewer the Rs, the fancier the person. Queen Elizabeth doesn’t say car, and neither did Franklin D. Roosevelt, nor did the newsreel announcers or movie actors of his day. But Labov said that in post-World War II New York, fancier people started becoming rhotic, and recovering their Rs. This brings us back to the “why things changed” question.

2) The Role of Broadway and Hollywood, and the Shift from Jimmy Cagney to Marlon Brando. A reader writes:

I’ve wondered about this myself when I see old Jimmy Cagney movies—and the date of his last starring role might give us a hint towards the date range of the change: "One, Two, Three" in 1961. (What else happened that year???  See below!)  I’d like to offer a speculation, for what it’s worth.

My suspicion is that the shift might have begun in the switch away from the two paired styles in American movies, the classical acting of the British School and the rapid patter of popular American actors (Marx Brothers, Cagney, Powell and Loy, etc), and over to the Method Acting style of the Strasberg/Brando/Dean school.  (Newsreels ran in movie theaters, of course: what better critique of the high newsreel style than the new movies that jarred against it?)

The enormously popular speech styles of Brando and Dean (and I could add Elvis Presley) clearly pushed vernacular style into a kind of mainstream acceptability, then desirability. Just in time for the Sixties, with all their other pressures towards some kind of anti-Eisenhower authenticity. (Did Eisenhower speak the newsreel style? A little before my time, but Kennedy certainly didn’t, even if his vernacular was more formal than Brando’s.  His high Boston accent might have been heard as an influential transitional hybrid, and it’s interesting how prominent parodies of the speech of Brando, Dean, and Kennedy were at the time: seems a sign that we were noticing a marked change.  

So, pairing the Cagney hint with the Kennedy Inaugural, could we date the changeover to 1961?  A heuristic approximation!

Of the Murrow Boys, Eric Sevareid held on to the newsreel style the longest; relying on memory, I’m betting that we could actually watch the transition away from that to a more vernacular style in the long career of Walter Cronkite.  He never went all the way, though his authenticity and newly-downstyle speaking could probably be marked in the crisis/triumph stages of his reporting: the death of JFK; the Vietnam report; the moon landing.  Interesting that the two competitors for his anchor chair were both fully vernacular speakers from the South and West: Mudd and Rather.  Dan Rather certainly marks the definitive end of the newsreel style and the ascendance of the folksy vernacular: those rustic analogies!

Another entertainment-related explanation for the shift, right about the time of the Eisenhower-Kennedy transition:

The plumby announcer voice that hovers over the Atlantic midway between the Eastern Seaboard and England was mortally wounded in 1959. That was when Westbrook van Voorhis, the famous “March of Time” voice, did the intro narration of the pilot episode of The Twilight Zone. After running the pilot, Rod Serling realized the narration needed a less pompous sounding and more natural voice – himself. The fake English announcer voice lingered on sporadically until the end of the Johnson administration in newsreels, which themselves ceased production around the same time, but Rod Serling’s decision sounded the death knell for that accent.

And similarly on the role of ridicule in speeding the move away from this accent:

This is only partly facetious, but I think I know who was the American to speak "Announcer." And the answer may explain partly why it has gone out of fashion: Jonathan Harris, the actor who played Dr. Smith on the television show "Lost in Space."

I think that perhaps Harris' portrayal of Dr. Smith made the accent so identified with cowardly buffoonery that no one in the baby boom generation and later would want to use the accent as anything other than a joke.

The funny thing about Harris was that he did not start out with that accent - as I suspect George Gershwin did not. Harris trained himself as a young man to lose his native Bronx accent - to the point that he was asked if he were British. His response was "no, just affected."

And the role of Katharine Hepburn, whose “Locust Valley Lockjaw” accent was a cousin of announcer-speak:

I was just discussing this not a week ago with a friend who has done voice work in film and television, and can adopt this accent in an instant to evoke that period, much to my amusement.  But he has never employed that voice professionally, and certainly does not speak that way in “real life”.

As an old film buff, I am used to this voice, though it figures unevenly in old movies.  Katharine Hepburn spoke this way, on and off screen until she died.  Jean Harlow, one of my favorites, is all over the map with this, sometimes sounding like a tough streetwalker, other times like a society matron, and, oddly, slipping in and out of both dialects in the same role, or even in one sentence.   Even the manliest actors, such as Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable sometimes slipped into this voice-coach mode.

One thinks of the glorious character actress, Kathleen Freeman, as the voice coach Phoebe Dinsmore in “Singing in the Rain”: “Round tones, Miss Lamont.”  In Woody Allen’s “Radio Days”, Mia Farrow has an impossibly thick Brooklyn accent until she takes voice lessons and becomes a successful radio purveyor of celebrity gossip.  After her transformation, I noted that Mia sounds precisely like her mother, Maureen O’Sullivan, who had that patrician manner of speaking on and off screen.  Mia had the perfect model!

Off screen, George Plimpton and Gore Vidal come to mind.  They spoke in this manner, and it seemed perfectly natural, evocative of a background spent among the gentry of the northeast.  Prestigious prep schools and ivy league institutions  (though Gore Vidal never went to college).   Was this sheer affectation?  I hope not.  I thoroughly enjoyed listening to these men speak.  Orson Welles also comes to mind, though I noticed he spoke in this mode more often during his early days, on and off screen.

We’ll have a lot more to say about Buckley and Vidal — for now the leaders in the race for Last American to Talk This Way (with George Plimpton in third)—in the next installment. But for now, just one more category:

3) Changing technology, changing voices. One reader writes:

I've wondered whether that "announcer English" was at least partly caused by poor loudspeakers and microphones. If you were making a speech in a large hall, or speaking on the radio, you needed to enunciate very clearly and use a lot of emphases to be sure your audience could understand what you were saying. After the technology improved the need to speak so histrionically went away, and so did "announcer English."

And another, in more detail:

The primary reason [for the accent] was primitive microphone technology: "natural" voices simply did not get picked up well by the microphones of the time, and people were instructed to and learned to speak in such a way that their words could be best transmitted through the microphone to the radio waves or to recording media.

Just listen to very early recordings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, back even before microphones, when singers had to yell directly into a large cone and over-enunciate so that their voices would be recorded into something intelligible on a spinning wax cylinder or disk. The limited frequency response of the recording technology of the late 19th and early 20th centuries has left us with only a pale, and sometimes caricatural image of the original sound. Listen to Caruso singing or Bix Beiderbecke playing his cornet  to hear how muffled was the recording of those sounds.

Microphone technology improved enormously in the 40s, but a pattern, a style of speech in the news and entertainment industries had been set: radio announcers and broadcasters could, from the late 1940s onwards, speak more naturally, but those who wanted to "sound like a real newsman" had to affect the old way of speaking, probably as a way of establishing their bona fides...

I remember the Lowell Thomas documentary films of the 50s where Mr. Thomas' mellifluous tones and distinct radio-style pronunciation gave him a respectability that a similar huckster could hardly hope to replicate today by the mere application of such an artifice. (This is not to belittle Lowell Thomas, but to recognize the artifice that served him so well in his career).

A similar phenomenon can be noted in the use, well into the 1980s, of the recorded sound of teletype machines in the background of newscasts, a sound still faintly evoked by the bip-bip-bip patterns of music that often introduces news broadcasts, even though teletype machines are long gone… The subconscious association of this pattern of sound with news is fading fast with the passing of the years and will undoubtedly disappear entirely in the coming decade as surely as the over-enunciated style of radio speech of the 30s disappeared within a generation of its no longer being needed.

Since all we have are recordings of those long-vanished voices, we do not and cannot know whether people spoke "this way" when they were not being recorded, although I would be willing to wager that they did not. Except at parties.

And bolstering this last point, a reader who grew up in Depression-era Chicago writes:

All I can think of is that people were imitating FDR. I think it was an affectation people adopted because they thought it made them sound  much more intelligent! But the average person never talked that way. We all just had our own regional accent—or non accent, like the flat midwest speak.


The picture at the top of this post is of the same Westbrook Van Voorhis who epitomized FDR-era announcer-speak but didn’t fit the sensibility of the early-cool-cat-era Twilight Zone. It’s a shot from a YouTube video that itself is a fascinating time-capsule portrait of language change. The presentation was called Freedom of the American Road and was made 60 years ago, in 1955, as part of the campaign to build support for the new Interstate Highway system.

In it Van Voorhis has the formal delivery that would have seemed familiar to many mid-century listeners but which in retrospect we know was on the way out. The first minute is a cameo by Henry Ford II, who speaks in an utterly flat Midwest rather than Mid-Atlantic accent that no one would call elegant but that would sound perfectly natural in 2015.

Next up: some sociological explanations of why someone like George Gershwin might have tried to speak like Westbrook Van Voorhis. And the many candidates for the crown of Last American to Speak This Way.

Update: This post is #2 in the announcer-speak series. #1 was “Who Was the Last American to Speak This Way,” #3 is “Class-War Edition”, and #4 is “The Origin Story.”