Tuesday, August 05, 2008

U and Non- U American Accents

Megan McArdle at the Atlantic has a post up on the all- but- vanished "Mid- Atlantic accent" of the old Eastern WASP upper class. This interests me because I remember it well, but I have the sense that it is virtually extinct. (Think George Plympton; William Buckley's was a variant but very idiosyncratic.) Betsy Huntington had it in spades and didn't know it; shortly before she got sick she heard a tape recording of herself and was caught somewhere between being amused and appalled: "My God, I sound like a lady from Philadelphia!" (Whatever THAT means!) I think it died between the generation that are sixtyish now (boomers) and the next cohort up.

A couple of Megan's commentors had good things to say too:

"Take a moment to think about the sound of Hepburn, Roosevelt, Plimpton, and WFB. This is what's commonly known as Mid-Atlantic, and was the preferred mode of pronunciation prior to WWII. At most schools this was how language was taught, and disseminated through media, thus aped by most of the public who wished to assimilate into polite society. It was a curious amalgam of American and English accents on words. After the war, however after many working class men found their way into the ascendant middle class via the GI bill, and spawned the infamous baby boom, the old received dialect of Queens English became stodgy and pretentious, dare we say, "elitist" - and a new Queens County English, if you will, was de rigeur. It is here that we find the shift from William Powell to Humphrey Bogart, from Fred Astaire to Frank Sinatra."

Another in part: "...your native dialect is determined largely by who your peer group was as a child, and has very little to do with how your parents speak. And while exposure to other varieties and dialects can change how you speak to some extent (I spent several years overseas in an Anglophone country, and came back to strangers in my home town asking what country I was from), your speech will probably still be characterized mostly by your native dialect (I did not sound like a native to other people in the country I was living in while overseas)."

This last especially interests me: Bostonian, all private school, half my life in the rural west. I know no more than Betsy what I sound like, but I know my siblings think my accent odd.


PBurns said...

Back in the spring of 1995, I put together a long video tape on the history of Medicare and, as part of that small project, got 30-year old tape out of storage and went through hours and hours of older folks (folks who were, in 1965, age 65 or so) and the accents were AMAZING. The WASPS were stereotypes, the Jews were stereotypes, the Blacks were stereotypes, etc. But here's the thing: these folks were not from central casting. These were REAL PEOPLE and this is how that generation talked back then, before television and before radion homogonized us down into Cool Whip and American Cheese.


Mike Spies said...

Interesting post.. and not coincidental that this happened when it did. Do not forget (or forgive) that great leveler of cultural differences - television. The true peer group.

Regional cultures are a small shadow of what they were as late as 1960. Fading fast, too.

R Francis said...

It hangs on in pockets... I am about to go to a conference in Damariscotta Mills (organised by a good Democrat who dated 'W' in college - who was social climbing?) on the literary invasion of the 'brahmins'(Lowell, Stafford et al) and expect to hear those voices among the participants and the holdouts who live around here still. You only need to visit the local hardware store to get an amusing lesson in the class structure that once and still existed.
For an English person (from almost feudal Rutland when I grew up - grandparents in 'service' etc) it is still unnerving and slightly reassuring like the first cool morning announcing Autumn (Fall).

Brian Mihalic said...

I'm a west coast native with a small amount of exposure to east coast stuff. So I was intrigued earlier this summer when I was on vacation on the Jersey shore and discovered the unexpected accent of the local lobster trappers I had occasion to chat with. Their accent was not like the stereotypical Jersey accent at all. Instead their accent sounded much more like that of my friends from Maine, and even like some people I've spoken with in the Canadian maritime provinces. I suspect this is well known to folks who study such things, but it was surprising and enlightening to me, and certainly a refreshing echo of the past in the 21st century.