— In its fullest form, as practiced by Westbrook Van Voorhis and H.V. Kaltenborn, this now-extinct style of speech combined the “non-rhotic” (FDR-style dropped-Rs) accent with the overly dramatic presentation. But gradations of the form are of interest here.
— Accent and diction are not as dispositive markers of class, background, and life prospects in the United States as they are in England. But they still matter quite a lot, which explains some of the willed accent changes discussed below.
Over to the readers.
1) The phony accent was too easy for outsiders to learn. A message that gets right to the class-war implications:
Here's a class-based theory for why the Mid-Atlantic Accent disappeared. You briefly touched on it when you mentioned "flipped prestige markers." A more blunt way of putting it might be to say that as the dropped /r/ became associated with the working class, the upper class began pronouncing /r/ again. But here's a more insidious theory:
The Mid-Atlantic Accent was fairly easy to learn, and was an easy way for people from immigrant and working-class backgrounds to differentiate themselves from their upbringing. It doesn't take a college education to figure out that in a certain crowd, one should say "One generally prefehs vanilla" rather than "I like vanilla." You could learn it by going to the movies.
But look at the way upper-class Americans speak now. It's all labored circumlocutions that travel around and around the point that wants to be made while using all kinds of vocabulary words. A person might say "I feel that in this particular situation, it might have been preferable for you to handle that endeavor in a way that would have more effectively utilized your skills," rather than, "You did a bad job, try harder next time."
A person can't pick up this way of speaking by going to the movies. You have to go to graduate school. A great example of this can be found in that This American Life episode about the woman from a working-class Latino background who made recordings of her supervisors at the SEC who she felt had become to cozy with the bankers they were supposed to be regulating.
So perhaps—perhaps—the upper classes dropped this accent because they felt they needed a code of speech that was not easily learned by a less desirable population. Meritocracy and all that.
2) Reader #1 offers an explanation for the fall of fake-Brit English. Reader #2 has a hypothesis about its rise:
My mother was born in Eastern Europe and came to America when she was eight in 1910. The only language she spoke was Yiddish. She lived on the Lower East Side. I doubt that her grades school teachers had that fake Brit accent.
But much of her time was spent at Henry Street Settlement House. And like all the other settlement houses at that time, it was founded and run by upper-class American debutantes who probably spoke that way. I have a tape recording of an interview of my mother, made when she was about 65. She sounds exactly like Eleanor Roosevelt.
At least for upwardly mobile immigrant and first generation New York Jews and perhaps Italians, this was the accent of choice learned by identification with the debutantes
3) On the parallels between assimilative pressures on non-WASP recent arrivals to America, like George Gershwin’s family, and on blacks working in a white-dominated market and society:
It’s no surprise that Gershwin spoke the way he did. Particularly as the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, he would certainly have wanted to broaden his market appeal in Anglo-Saxon America. (Keep in mind that Gershwin was born in 1898, Noel Coward in 1899. Gershwin paid attention.)
The pressure of the market was in similar operation for Berry Gordy as he started Motown in the 1960s. Gordy was fiercely focused on NOT producing “race music.” He wanted to crossover into success with White audiences. From the beginning, Motown acts were literally and thoroughly groomed in how to “act White” on stage and in public. This is explicitly covered in a number of documentaries on Motown readily available on YouTube, particularly some great ones from the BBC.
I watched and listened to Wings over the Golden Gate. I was struck not only by the accent, but also the content. To my ears and sensibility, there is a deliberate and conscious “inoffensiveness” in the content, a rule of “pleasantness," which at the time may have been more automatic or even unconscious. This politeness, sincere or otherwise, has apparently lost much of its value…
I suspect that at the time of Wings, many if not most Americans did not speak this way. But there were many pressures to conform, coming from both above and below in the socio-economic hierarchy. And there is always aspirational class consciousness and “passing.”
Even as you and I were heading to college in the late 1960s, I, an ostensibly Caucasian second-generation Jewish American boy on my way to an Ivy League university, was aware of a never-overtly-mentioned-but-still-not-subtle imperative to “pass for White.” I’ve a theory about how this manifest itself consequentially as pervasive Ivy League Jewish-American neo-cons symbiotically serving a primarily Anglo-Saxon elite, but I’ll spare us both here. Except to unnecessarily note that the consequences have been less pleasant than with Gershwin and Gordy.
One of my ever-strengthening Theories Of Life is that everyone has insecurities. This reader says he was worried about “passing for White.” When I was headed to college, from a small-town, American Graffiti-style public high school, I was worried about “passing for qualified to be here.” I’ve noticed about people who are great politicians, or negotiators, that they can always imagine what the other person is worried about.