In the 1956 production of My Fair Lady, Rex Harrison as Henry Higgins tells Julie Andrews as Eliza Doolittle that if she changes her accent she can change her life. Wikimedia

In our initial episode, I said that I was flummoxed by the discovery that George Gershwin, Brooklyn-reared exemplar of all that was new, spoke in the stagey, quasi-British diction that is familiar from FDR speeches and mid-century newsreels but now has completely disappeared. Then in yesterday’s update, readers suggested cultural, technological, and TV- or movie-related reasons for the rise and fall of this style of American speech.

Today’s installment: possible class and ethnic factors at work. Before turning to the readers, reminders on terminology:

— Linguists call this stagey newsreel voice “mid-Atlantic English,” but I’m resisting (though leaving it unchanged in some reader messages). A reader from the U.K., now working in the U.S., explains why: “That name is better used to represent the moving target that is an amalgam of the US and UK accents, themselves moving. Authority: I'm starting to get one.”

— The familiar, quasi-British, Northeastern-elite prep-school/Locust Valley accent (“The only thing we have to feeah … is feeah itself”) is part but not all of classic Announcer Speak. As reader #5 below explains, William F. Buckley used that accent, but only sometimes spoke in overly formal announcer tones. Still, the accent alone is intriguing when it showed up in non-prep-school people like Gershwin, which is what got my attention in the first place.

—  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.

4) What happens when you try to boil the German-ness out of your accent. From a writer and software developer in the Boston area:

How much of the “International Accent” comes from an effort to clean Germanic accents out of Yiddish-accented English? Think of Groucho — not the movie comic, but the raconteur of You Bet Your Life, and not when he’s kidding around but when he was being more-or-less serious.

    • relatively high register

    • lots of pitch variation

    • aspirational syntax and vocabulary (cf. Damon Runyan)

    • final “t” tends to shade toward “th"

    • final “g” is not pronounced, but “ing” is distinctly a dipthong

        Yiddish-accent: I was go-ink to the park

        International: I was going to the park [JF note: or, “to the pahhk”]

        Chicago: I was goin’ to the park

    • careful avoidance of ss/ß/sh confusion characteristic of German accents

Of course, American Ashkenazim weren’t the only emigrants from central Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries who found Germanic accents awkward in the wake of 1914 and 1932. Another conspicuous group in the media who shared a German-speaking heritage were the British royal family and their relatives, which might explain part of the “transatlantic” accent.

- - - -

More generally, I think regional accents have been pushed out of politics and the media. Aside from a very few southerners whose southerness was very much part of their argument,  I can’t think of any major US figure who speaks with as broad an accent as JFK.

But I don’t think that’s true on the ground.  If anything, people in Maine use a heavier accent than I remember twenty or thirty years back. Same thing for the South Shore, JFK’s notional accent.  At Harvard Commencement, the sheriff of Middlesex County traditionally opens everything (in top hat and silver-tipped cane); this year, Peter Koutoujian did it in a very, very broad South Boston accent—far broader, for example, than James Michael Curley used in the 1920s.

I agree on the contrast between the de-regionalization of national-level political and media speech, and the resilience of everyday regional accents, as my wife Deb has chronicled during our travels.

5) Briefly, the ever-shifting role of coolness and ridicule.

The accent used by the "Charles Emerson Winchester" character on the M*A*S*H tv series is another example of this sort of thing. I think, though, that this (and the Buckley and Plimpton accents) are slightly branched off from the announcer style. Both Buckley and Plimpton could and did speak in quick, low tones when it suited them (with accent intact), in a way that no announcer ever would have. To me, mid-century announcer English has both the accent (shared with Buckley, "Winchester" et al.) and a cadence that immediate says "Newsreel!"

Overall, I think that the process of "What's classy" coming to seem "What's outmoded/pompous/laughable" has been at work for a long time. You can see it in clothing and grooming fashions for centuries, but I'd be willing to bet that there were fashions in speaking that went completely unrecorded.

We have depictions of fashionable appearance, but few or none for fashionable accents or speaking styles. Reading Mackay's Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds you can see that there are slang expressions and catchphrases from the mid-1800s that are now totally forgotten (and hardly documented anywhere else, to my knowledge), and I would think that accents and tones are the same way.

Much more ahead. Thanks to all for the suggestions.

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