Linguists: what makes the 1920s voice so distinctive?
October 23, 2015 7:34 PM   Subscribe

I love listening to old newscasters and radio shows on youtube, and I've noticed that the different decades have very distinct sounds. I'm working on a performance bit that uses 1920s diction, but there's something I'm missing. What are the elements of the popular radio voice that make it distinctive? Clipped syllables? Longer "o" sounds? Help!
posted by monkihed to Media & Arts (16 answers total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
You are probably hearing a transatlantic accent.
posted by Tanizaki at 7:35 PM on October 23, 2015 [9 favorites]

You might want to look up Mid-Atlantic accent ( or transatlantic).
posted by beccaj at 7:37 PM on October 23, 2015 [2 favorites]

I wish I had something to add, but I've been thinking about posting something similar - ever since I watched a series of person-on-the-street interviews about the Kennedy shooting, and noticed the extremely different diction people were using. It's a sound that seems to encapsulate its time, and as someone that listens to a lot of old audio, there are real differences period by period that must have more complex explanations. The radio announcing style of the 40s isn't a transatlantic accent, but it's distinct. The middle-class, breathy, dignity-seeking style of the late 50s and early 60s isn't transatlantic either. How do eras get accents?

In any case, I think a transatlantic accent would work for a media personality of the 20s, but there's a bigger story to the everydat expression of people, and popular media styles/voices, that I would love to know more about.
posted by Miko at 8:31 PM on October 23, 2015 [13 favorites]

A friend who is a sound engineer once told me that the accents we associate with certain periods are not necessarily accurate, because some of it is due to the effect of the recording and transmission of radio on the voice and how that has changed over the years. So this could be a useful direction to follow up on. (I'm a linguist, but don't know much about how radio was recorded myself, so can't tell you if my friend was correct or not.)
posted by lollusc at 10:05 PM on October 23, 2015 [13 favorites]

I suspect that lollusc is correct and that part of what you're thinking of is the sound of audio equipment from that era. Radio microphones in the 1920s typically were carbon mics, which tend to exhibit a pretty extreme frequency response. Check out the diagram on this page. A lot of vocal clarity lives between 4 and 6kHz, so the microphones of that era with that drop off have an effect on the clarity of the voice. I suspect that radio announcers of the era may have altered the way they spoke to try to compensate for that.

This video has some examples of audio recorded through carbon microphones. Unfortunately it's coming from a low fidelity source to begin with so, but it should give you some idea of the tonal characters that the mics gave.

A little while later, ribbon mics became fairly common in broadcast, which also have some distinct characteristics. Two of the classics of broadcast, the RCA 44 and 77 are in this video.
posted by Candleman at 11:17 PM on October 23, 2015 [13 favorites]

When I think of the stereotypical announcer voices of the 1920s, I think this guy does a pretty good imitation. A bit Mid-Atlantic, but also very nasal and rather fast, with a tendency to raise the pitch in the middle of a sentence and then drop low at the end. Sometimes they sound kind of like a sped-up W.C. Fields. When you imitate that sound, you feel an instinct to tilt your head back and kind of talk through your nostrils. Sometimes there's a weird hold on the last syllable too. Ladiesandgennlemennnn, pleasestandbyforanANNOUNCEMENTfromtheGOVernoorr. Trying saying that like W.C. Fields, but fast and urgent.

Oh, but I just looked at your profile and it seems like you're a woman. In that case, I'd say go Mid-Atlantic. I definitely wouldn't expect to hear a woman doing that weird male announcer voice I mentioned above. Women didn't do much announcing in the 20s, but when they did I think I'd expect to hear that MA sound, fancy but stopping just short of full British. You could do worse than studying Katherine Hepburn.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 2:19 AM on October 24, 2015 [3 favorites]

What about the (female) reporter's voice in Hudsucker Proxy? That seemed a good fauxample to study.
posted by tilde at 4:19 AM on October 24, 2015 [2 favorites]

A friend who is a sound engineer once told me that the accents we associate with certain periods are not necessarily accurate, because some of it is due to the effect of the recording and transmission of radio on the voice and how that has changed over the years.

In addition to the effects of differing technical specs in recording and broadcasting media, the 1920s is the first period in which we *have* lots and lots of relatively good-quality recordings of the "standardized" mass-media "voice;" it's the first era the average person can really compare to their own in this respect. Consider whether or not there's any popular notion of a "1910s" radio voice, for example.

Other eras have distinct "voices" of this sort as well, if you pause to think of it: imagine the archetypal war correspondent's voice of the 1940s or that of the radio announcer of a popular show; imagine the paternalistic, booming tones of the 1950s. As we get closer in time to the present, of course, we get a "standard" vocal delivery, cadence and accent more and more like the ones we're most used to.
posted by kewb at 4:22 AM on October 24, 2015 [3 favorites]

Also, I found one source speculating that the accent was transferred over from live theatre, which makes a sort of folk-linguistic sense given that we're talking about the first generation of live broadcasting.

More usefully, this blog explains why a variation of the mid-Atlantic accent would be standard in the early 20th century and discusses some of its technical features:
I often discuss Received Pronunciation, the British accent which was long the standard of educated speech in England. Although Americans have a hard time understanding how an accent spoken by so few people could be the ‘standard,’ we in fact had something of our own ‘RP’ in the late 19th- and early 20th-Centuries. It simply never caught on the way RP did.

What I’m referring to is the speech of the East Coast Aristocracy, a small group of elites from powerful old-money families[....]it is quite like older types of Received Pronunciation. Her speech is entirely non-rhotic (r-less), with the vowel in words like ‘nurse’ a long mid-central vowel, often with some lip rounding and/or fronting (ə ~ ɵ ~ ø). She pronounces ‘again’ so it sounds like ‘a gain‘ and ‘been’ as if it were ‘bean‘ (although she goes with the American pronunciation of ‘category’). She preserves the ‘trap-bath’ split (note the broad vowel for ‘ask’ at 1:40 and ‘last’ at 9:12). Astute readers will no doubt find many other pronunciations of note.
So maybe model your voice on Eleanor Roosevelt?
posted by kewb at 4:31 AM on October 24, 2015 [6 favorites]

Mask and chest resonance, says my musician/audiophile. Microphones weren't able to pick up the wide range of frequencies modern mics can, so they emphasized aspects of their voices that were most compatible with microphone technology of the time.

He's speaking from a "resonance" standpoint... obviously there's much more to the dialect other than just that (tempo, notes, placement, etc.) ((from the non-musician, voiceover people speak about the voice with regards to notes. In VPS, the variance of your voice is called notes.))
posted by arnicae at 10:45 AM on October 24, 2015 [2 favorites]

There are certainly "era" accents that go beyond mundane recording irregularities. Your ears are not fooling you. For example, I would say uptalk is a distinctive feature of our current era's accent.
posted by pravit at 12:23 PM on October 24, 2015 [3 favorites]

A lot of it is an impersonation of Walter Winchell, a gossip columnist who had a popular radio show. He was a product of theater and so had a New York-inflected mid-Atantic accent, but also spoke in a rapid-fire, chopped manner that we now associate with period newscasters.

Winchell was actually mostly associated with the 30s and 40s, but he started as a columnist in the 20s, and people impersonated him a lot (especially his "Mr. and Miss America and all the ships at sea" intro, so I think his voice wound up being sort of the default.
posted by maxsparber at 9:07 AM on October 30, 2015

One big, big, big influence on American speech up to the '50s was McGuffey Readers, the de facto standard grade school textbook of the day.

Example: Just off the top of your head, how many ways can you pronounce the letter a? Three, right? Al, ale, and all? McGuffey lists seven (ate, care, arm, last, all, at, what), and if you listen to old movies, sure enough, you'll notice a stark distinction between each one, and they sound weird.

There are tons and tons of little things like that sprinkled all over old-timey talk. One of the more noticeable is the pronunciation of wh- retaining its ancient Anglo-Saxon hw- order.

Also, basically everyone within earshot of a microphone was on speed, and it showed. Talk fast.
posted by Sys Rq at 6:08 PM on October 30, 2015 [3 favorites]

Best answer: The early-to-mid twentieth century radio/announcers accents absolutely are examples of the Mid-Atlantic accent, which Wikipedia summarizes as:
A Mid-Atlantic accent (also known as a Transatlantic accent) is a cultivated or acquired accent of the English language once found in the American upper class and taught for use as a standard in American schools for actors. It is not a vernacular accent typical of any location or any natural variety, but a consciously learned blend of American English and British English, intended to favor neither. [...] It was formerly used by American actors who adopted some features of British pronunciation until the mid-1960s.
The most important thing to know is that this was not (except in extraordinary cases) anyone's natural manner of speech but was, rather, a taught, cultivated, and acquired variant. It was basically the American counterpart to the British "Received Pronunciation". Both are/were prestige dialects found in the upper class and were adopted in a standardized and somewhat altered form by broadcasters. In broadcasting contexts, in many or most cases this was acquired passively as part of institutionalized body of knowledge and practices, but was/is sometimes explicitly taught as part of professional training.

Earlier this year James Fallows at the Atlantic wrote a series of columns about this:
  1. Language Mystery Redux: Who Was the Last American to Speak This Way?
  2. That Weirdo Announcer-Voice Accent: Where It Came From and Why It Went Away
  3. The Rise and Fall of Announcer-Speak, Class War Edition
  4. American Announcer-Speak: The Origin Story
  5. Announcer-Speak: The Video Highlights Reel
Subsequently, linguist James McWhorter at Language Log wrote a post about Fallows's columns titled "On American r-lessness" in which he specifically discusses at length the non-rhotic nature of that accent (which is really a much larger topic) , but which he begins with a brief discussion of the Mid-Atlantic dialect:
There seem to be two things that mainly strike Fallows and the commenters as comprising this way of speaking: its theatrical tone and its pronunciation. The tone issue is easier to parse: announcers on old radio, early television, and in old movies, as well as various newscasters, spoke in an elevated, singsong tone because that tone had been necessary in the era before amplification, when one only experienced announcing in theatrical venues.

In an America new to microphones, the unconscious cultural expectation was that public announcements were couched in a theatrical style – theatrical, as in pitched to be heard unamplified in an auditorium by hundreds or thousands at a time. That tone seemed as natural to people of this time as, for example, recording artists releasing packages of songs of roughly an hour’s length called “albums” seems to us now despite that practice’s roots in a particular physical technology now obsolete, or that pop music is today usually sung in a Southern / black cadence even by whites who don’t speak that way in real life.

Gradually, it dawned on people that microphones allowed a less hotly-pitched, intimate way of communicating: FDR’s Fireside Chats were an example, as was the singing style called crooning. However, the sunny, chirpy delivery persisted as a style well into the 1960s on radio, television and in films simply because of familiarity.
The pieces by Fallows and McWhorter provide an introduction to some of the features associated with that accent, including the phonetics. I think, though, that you might want to consult some more scholarly sources if you want to understand the phonetics in more detail.

Be aware that the term Mid-Atlantic is confusing (and which may have confused some earlier answerers in this thread) in that in this context it specifically refers to the cultivated accent described here and where the term is intended to refer to something more like "middle of the Atlantic" (that is, a hybrid of American and British English) while, in contrast, in other contexts it can be used to refer to the "mid-Atlantic region" of the American eastern seaboard.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 12:23 AM on October 31, 2015 [10 favorites]

This podcast episode is more focused on the technical side but also discusses the speech: Set the Wayback Machine for 1914.
posted by Monochrome at 8:47 AM on October 31, 2015

There was a recent article about exactly this.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:31 PM on November 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

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