How did the "American Voice" come to be?
June 8, 2004 8:30 PM   Subscribe

I was listening to sound recordings of Theodore Roosevelt's voice, circa 1912, and was struck by TR's accent. It's nasal and aristocratic, and there are hints of both modern British and American dialects. I couldn't quite pin down TR's accent to a stereotypical New York, New England, or Long Island dialect. Which got me wondering:

At what point did the vocal style of American and Canadian English become distinct from British and Scottish English? I know that regional dialects are shaped by the immigrant communities that populated that region. But there is a fundamental difference between accents on either side of the Atlantic.

Put another way, what did Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin "sound" like? And how did the generic Midwest voice that we call "American" - Mr. Game Show Host and Ms. Voicemail - develop from the milieu of voices of Puritans, German/Irish immigrants, and slaves?
posted by PrinceValium to Society & Culture (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
It's said that at the time of Shakespeare, Britons spoke in a way that was closer to today's American. So the American accent came over the Atlantic and then the British way of speaking diverged, while ours remained somewhat similar...or so they told me in college.
posted by inksyndicate at 8:59 PM on June 8, 2004

It sounds Boston Brahmin (or some other New England uppercrust) to me...Katherine Hepburn is similar.

I'd say that the spread of radio in the 20s encouraged a generic "American" accent, so that programs could be transmitted all over.
posted by amberglow at 9:09 PM on June 8, 2004

Also, have you ever heard a fluent English speaker who is Dutch? They sound very nearly like a Midwestern Standard speaker. I've heard that out generic Amurrcan accent is an evolution of Nieuw Amsterdam English, circa 1680.
posted by mwhybark at 9:38 PM on June 8, 2004

One thing to remember with TR is that he had the ability to go anywhere, do anything. His accent was probably nudged a bit in his travels.
posted by nathan_teske at 9:42 PM on June 8, 2004

Have you seen the movie version (1993) of The Age of Innocence with Daniel Day-Lewis? His accent in this film is close to TR, and the period is close also to TRs young adulthood. To my ear, Day-Lewis sounds very close to TR, and the word was at the time the film came out that DDL had listened to (and copied) recordings of the novel's author, Edith Wharton, to get the accent of an upper crust New Yorker from the era of The 500 just right.

This doesn't really answer your question, but I'm 100% sure that Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin sounded "English" rather than what we now think of as "American". (But they also sounded very different from what we think of as "English" today.) Its interesting to note that the folks on the Mayflower were speaking and writing in Shakespeare's English (recall that WS died in 1616, the First Folio was published in 1623 -- the Mayflower set sail in 1620). This factoid always flips out middle school students as it ties together two parts of their education they hadn't really put together before.
posted by anastasiav at 10:08 PM on June 8, 2004

I'd argue that the standard broadcaster accent is much closer to that of the modern day northwest. When I talk on the phone to people in the midwest for work, they sound quite different, but people on the national news could live down the street from me. (Oregon.) Do they sound funny to those living in Mississippi?
posted by woil at 10:14 PM on June 8, 2004

Yeah, I think there's a form of "standard" American English that most consider to be that spoken in the West, rather than anything back East or in the Midwest.
posted by armage at 9:40 AM on June 9, 2004

In certain parts of the speech, it actually happened the other way 'round. British English was rhotic (pronouncing the letter "R") when North America was populated; it lost its rhoticity afterwards. North America kept it. I'll look up the details in the appropriate textbooks when I get home.
posted by DrJohnEvans at 10:57 AM on June 9, 2004

Woil: I used to work in Lynn, MA, just north of Boston. Folks had very thick Boston accents. This one kid, Peter (or, Petah), said to me once "I don't have an accent! The folks on the national TV news talk just like me!"

So, to some extent, I think you hear what you want to hear. On the other hand, I grew up in Indiana, and when I go back there now the accent is very far from the national news. The 'midwest' is a big place with a big variation. Urban Chicagoans who don't sound like the Blue Brothers might be the closest to 'neutral'. Not that this has anything to do with the question at hand.
posted by sohcahtoa at 11:25 AM on June 9, 2004

Bear in mind that microphone and recording technology in 1912 was very different than what we have today. The old charcoal microphones of yesteryear weren't able to capture the range of frequencies that we're used to - they tended to amplify the high end and had very little in the way of bass.

That's part of the reason everyone sounds "nasal" on old recordings.

As for the roots of modern American language, I can't even begin to answer that - hopefully someone here can, as I'm now rather interested!
posted by aladfar at 11:39 AM on June 9, 2004

Yeah, I think there's a form of "standard" American English that most consider to be that spoken in the West, rather than anything back East or in the Midwest.

Beware generalizations - there are pockets of accents (and "non-accents") all over the place. I grew up in central Jersey, and the first thing anyone says when that becomes known is "You don't sound like you're from Jersey". Most mean the Bergen/Hudson County wiseguy version, but South Jersey has a distinct accent as well - think Philly, which I find one of the most annoying accents anywhere. I'm happy to be free of either version.

While going to school in Oregon I can confirm most people assumed I was from there, though I could detect an ever-so-slight "oregon" accent (subtle enough that I can't really describe it, though it was distinct from how all the Northern California kids spoke.)

This one kid, Peter (or, Petah), said to me once "I don't have an accent! The folks on the national TV news talk just like me!"

That's 'cause he was re-TAAAHHHded!!! Sorry, couldn't resist. While some New England pronunciations have crept into my speech (aunt = "ahhnt" rather than "ant"), I've remained free of any serious taint, though my wife and I fear for our infant daughter. We're also pretty good at picking up who's from RI, as opposed to MA, or central CT.

posted by jalexei at 1:36 PM on June 9, 2004

I've always heard that the closest accent to the King's English still extant is the eastern shore of Maryland, and that Baltimore isn't too too far off. So, pehaps you shuld consider th' Bawlmer accent, hon!
posted by jearbear at 1:59 PM on June 9, 2004

So, pehaps you shuld consider th' Bawlmer accent, hon!

God help us!
posted by jalexei at 2:42 PM on June 9, 2004

Beware generalizations - there are pockets of accents (and "non-accents") all over the place.

Very true. After living four or so years in Houston, TX (a southern accent), I was surprised that native San Antonians don't have much of an accent. However, people from West Texas have a (surprise!) western accent.

(FWIW: I was born/raised in So. California - neutral accent. Well, my family says I now sound Canadian. And I still say "y'all". I wonder what a linguist (?) would make of me.)
posted by deborah at 1:13 PM on June 10, 2004

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