James Fallows has been superintending an interesting discussion at the Atlantic about how strange early twentieth century American announcers sound to us today (There are five articles in the series so far, listed with links here). The comments on his articles suggest that we need make certain distinctions.
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.
Meanwhile, when today we find the old announcing style peculiar in terms of pronunciation, what is mainly striking us is a particular feature, r-lessness. That is, r’s lost at the end of syllables, such that Carter comes out as “Cah-tuh.” To Americans today, this sounds like Downton Abbey, such that we wonder why people in black and white or on old radio broadcasts sound “British” despite talking about Babe Ruth and Times Square.
As commenters have noted, elocution lessons of the era explicitly taught performers to sound “plummy” (as depicted by Kathleen Freeman’s speech coach in Singin’ in the Rain), but also encouraged r-lessness. However, the Fallows discussion trips up a bit in implying that this was simply a matter of trying to sound British, and that no Americans actually sounded like this in real life.
Britain’s r-lessness was only part of the story of r-lessness in America. American r-lessness has had, basically, three components.
- One, New England’s – generally traced, indeed, to r-less dialects brought over from Britain by the original settlers.
- Two, the South – where British influence is often suggested for cities like Charleston and Savannah, but a more convincing explanation in applying to the whole region is that the South was home to slaves from Africa, whose non-native rendition of English elided syllable-final r’s, especially since their native languages almost never had r’s of that kind.
- Three, the big cities of the eastern seaboard, such as Boston and New York (but not, interestingly, Philadelphia or Baltimore). This is the area most of interest in this discussion. Often it is thought that people in Boston and New York were imitating Brits, but this is only speculation, and what makes it questionable is that working class and poor people in these cities were also r-less. Think of the accent associated with The Honeymooners, The Sopranos, and South Boston – both Ralph Kramden and FDR would say “fee-ah” rather than “fear.” It seems unlikely that humble people in old New York and Boston were much invested in imitating upper-crust Londoners they never met. There was a time when we were to think such people were imitating “their betters” at home, but sociolinguistic theory has dismissed that notion: Ralph Kramden wasn’t trying to sound like FDR. Evidence of humble people’s speech changing in response to wealthy people’s speech is all but non-existent – if anything, the influence tends to go the other way.
There is reason to think, then, that people in New York and Boston were r-less not in imitation of people across the ocean, but for the same reason that (some) Brits had become r-less: natural processes of sound change. R’s are delicate after vowels at the end of syllables, like l’s, and there is no reason that the r-less that developed in Britain could only have happened there – one might even wonder why it would not happen on its own in places elsewhere such as the United States. This explanation, based on how the cookie crumbles here rather than there, would also explain why r-lessness happened in Boston and New York but not Philly or Baltimore.
In any case, with this take on American r-lessness, we are in a position to see two things.
First, Americans most certainly did really talk “that way” in real life – it wasn’t just a pose. That is, elocution schools urging r-lessness were working not just from British Received Pronunciation, but from how actual people spoke in and around New York and Boston, considered cultural beacons for the country.
Here, for example, is Bette Davis, of Lowell, Massachusetts, speaking off the cuff in a 1975 interview. Note the r-lessness – she hadn’t been saying “Peetah! The lettah!” for “Peter! The letter!” in old movies as an affectation. Perhaps for a celebrity like Davis, what began as an affectation became habit? But — accounts are rife of people of this era talking “this way” in real life: Theodore Roosevelt, raised in Manhattan in the 1860s and 1870s, was ridiculed for calling “Mr Speakah! Mr. Speakah!” in the New York State Assembly. Oral histories of countless public figures of this era reveal this kind of r-lessness; it makes almost any New Yorker or Bostonian of the time sound weird to us in recordings.
Second, a person of humble origins like George Gershwin was not talking “like that” in being r-less. Gershwin had the r-lessness that all New Yorkers of his era had – you didn’t need to be trying to sound like FDR, or an announcer, or “cultivated,” to be r-less in the 1930s in New York. In fact, beyond the r-lessness, Gershwin, although clearly having learned to speak “above” the dialect of the streets he grew up on, reveals in the radio shows he appeared on that his native speech is not FDR’s in his pronunciation of er. He has the “oy” pronunciation now associated with old Brooklyn, but which was actually a general demotic New York / New Jersey trait at the time. Note, no one ever actually said “foist” for first – it was more like “fuh-eest,” and Gershwin has that pronunciation here and there on words with er. He is reading from a script, and therefore we know that he would have been suppressing his true vernacular, as sociolinguists would put it. However, in a Gershwin radio appearance available on line, listen at roughly 4:54 for a good old-fashioned New York “fuh-eest.” Gershwin was talking like himself, not “like that.”
As to Fallows’ question as to who the last person to truly talk “that way” was, the truth is that there are still very old New Yorkers and Bostonians living who grew up with the old r-lessness. Any time you read of someone passing away at 100 or so who spent most of their life living on Park Avenue (or somewhere like Bensonhurst, but you’re less likely to read about them) they may well have been r-less in their speech to an extent that would have sounded quaint to us.
Just why r-lessness went out of fashion after World War II rather than earlier or later remains underinvestigated. Soldiers from all across the nation having mixed for four years, perhaps? I doubt that the reason is anything as grimy as one commenter's suggestion that rich people wanted to talk in a way that wasn’t so imitatable, however. Boston cab drivers have never been imitating Boston Brahmins; r-lessness happens by itself.