American accent as acoustic distortion

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E.E. Fournier d'Albe, "The Talking Film", Nature 1/31/1925:

The demonstration of the De Forest phonofilm at  the Royal Society of Arts on November 26, 1924, and its recent exhibition at the Royal College of Science during the Physical and Optical Societies' Exhibition, showed that the old problem of producing a motion picture endowed with its original sound effects has been brought within hail of a perfect solution.

After an extensive discussion of the electro-mechanical processes involved in creating electrical and optical analogues of acoustic signals, Fournier d'Albe sketches the process of turning the results back into sound, illustrating along the way the willingness of physicists to write confidently about topics they deeply fail to understand:

The moving film passes a fine slit, 0·038 mm. wide and 2·3 mm. long, illuminated by a small incandescent lamp. The electric fluctuations produced in the circuit of the photo-electric cell are excessively minute on account of its high resistance, but four or five stages of amplification suffice to enable them to operate a loud-speaker, and the actual volume of sound heard at the demonstrations showed that not much difficulty need be anticipated on that score. The remaining difficulty appears to be the distortion introduced by the loud-speaker. Whether that can be entirely eliminated remains to be seen. The rapid progress made in the construction of loud-speaking telephone receivers in recent times gives room for optimism in this direction. In the banjo solo (see Fig. 1) no distortion was perceptible, but President Coolidge's speech was marked by an exaggerated American accent, most of which must have been due to the manner of reproduction. This fact may obtrude itself less upon an American audience than upon Britishers, but if it were to be perpetuated, the vogue of the American film in England would be seriously jeopardised. [emphasis added]

He ends with a paragraph underlining his talents as a futurologist:

It has often been objected that nobody wants the talking film ; that silent film acting is an art in itself ; that the film has an international appeal, which would be lost by introducing speech and local accent ; and that the art and training of even the greatest film "stars" would become useless if the film were to throw off its mantle of silence. But the most probable issue is that the talking film will develop its own art and its own industry in its own way, and although it will no doubt evolve its own conventions and limitations, it is likely to win a permanent place among the amenities of civilisation.

Update — Here's the orginal de Forest film, in its YouTube version:



  1. Laura Morland said,

    May 6, 2018 @ 4:14 pm

    E.E. Fournier d'Albe: he indeed saw the future. (Or perhaps, heard it.)

    Is there a link to hear President Coolidge's "exaggerated American accent"?

    [(myl) I've added the YouTube version of de Forest's film.]

  2. Y said,

    May 6, 2018 @ 5:13 pm

    Coolidge's speech.
    What strikes me most is Collidge's non-rhotic New England accent, but surely that isn't what caught Fournier d'Albe's ear.

  3. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 6, 2018 @ 5:42 pm

    His accent sounds to me as if half of it's rhotic.

    I wonder whether the speaker could have really caused a distortion that matched Fournier d'Albe's mistaken idea of an exaggerated American accent. Do other people sometimes hear acoustic distortions as accents?

  4. Bob Ladd said,

    May 6, 2018 @ 6:26 pm

    What struck me (in addition to Coolidge's non-rhotic New England accent, and what a dreadful public speaker he was) was the phrase "brought within hail of a perfect solution" in the first quoted passage at the beginning of the post, which I thought might be what MYL was going to talk about. I'm still not entirely sure what it means (within hailing distance?) and I'm entirely sure I've never heard it before.

  5. Doctor Science said,

    May 6, 2018 @ 6:35 pm

    Fournier d'Albe surely was already familiar with Coolidge's voice from radio broadcasts. If you take e.g. Coolidge's inaugural speech as a baseline, it DOES seem to me that the movie version sounds more nasal and flat–and so, to Fournier d'Albe, as more American.

    [(myl) Fournier d'Albe was originally Irish, and this is what Wikipedia has for his life history in the relevant period:

    In 1899, he taught mathematics at University College, Dublin. He was an assistant lecturer of physics at the University of Birmingham starting in 1910, and in October 1914 he went to teach at the University of the Punjab in Lahore. He retired in 1927 after a stroke that left him with a paralyzed hand, but he continued to write in his chosen fields.

    This makes it seem less than obvious that he would have heard Coolidge on the radio.]

  6. D.O. said,

    May 6, 2018 @ 7:16 pm

    Bob Ladd, I think it might be what OED calls hail,n.4. I will copy the entry here without much attempt at formatting

    1. orig. (At hand-ball, etc.) The act of saluting the dool or goal with the exclamation ‘hail!’, when it is hit by the ball; hence, the act of hailing or driving the ball to the dool or goal; a ‘goal’ or victory in one game or round. In phrases, to give the hail, to win a hail or so many hails.
    a1646 D. Wedderburn Vocabula (1685) 37 Transmittere metam pila, to give the hail. Hic primus est transmissus, this is the first hail.
    1804 W. Tarras Poems 66 The hails is wun.
    1861 J. F. Campbell Pop. Tales W. Highlands (1892) III. 10 They went to play shinny and Jain won three hales.

    2. transf. Each of the two goals at hand-ball, football, shinty, and the like.
    1843 Hardy in Hist. Berwickshire Naturalists' Club 2 No. 11. 58 The hails, or boundaries of the game, were hamlet of Headchesters as one terminus, and the conical height of the other.
    1880 Boys' Own Book 130 These posts are the hail or goal.

  7. David L said,

    May 6, 2018 @ 7:37 pm

    I will guess that d'Albe had never heard a pronounced New England accent before (this was well before the time of SNL), so that he attributed the difference between Coolidge's speech and what he expected of a 'standard' American accent to distortion by the audio system.

    I moved to the US from the UK in 1983, and I hadn't heard an authentic New England accent before. In fact, I worked with someone who had what I thought was a British accent, modified by years in the US, only to be told, no, he was from Massachusetts.

    It's easy to forget that before the age of cable TV and YouTube, exposure to funny accents from around the world was much more limited than it is now.

  8. Y said,

    May 6, 2018 @ 9:09 pm

    Coolidge was born in Western Vermont, which was then and still is now the territory of the rhotic Western New England dialect. He might have shifted to the Eastern dialect when he went to college in Amherst and started his career in Northampton (both in Massachusetts); perhaps the Eastern dialect was more prestigious? I wonder if any traces of the Western dialect remain in this speech.

  9. D.O. said,

    May 6, 2018 @ 10:32 pm

    I am not a linguist by any measure, but Coolidge's speech is not entirely non-rhotic. He systematically pronounces /r/ in government (I guess, that technically should be called r-coloring of the vowel) and in words like clerk. He 100% drops r in -Vr endings and in some instances in VrC inside the words. Wikipedia, though, says that it is typical of modern American non-rhoticity. The question then is whether Coolidge can be considered "modern".

  10. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 6, 2018 @ 10:45 pm

    Bob Ladd: The OED has "2. b. Phr. within hail: within call, near enough to be hailed; so out of hail, beyond call. Originally nautical phrases."

    Bob Ladd and Y: In the first 1:05 of Coolidge's speech, aren't "government" (twice) and "earning" rhotic?

    David L: I'd say it would be excessively foolish to hear someone for the first time and think he couldn't possibly have that accent. But anything's possible.

  11. Gregory Kusnick said,

    May 6, 2018 @ 11:32 pm

    I have to say I'd be very surprised to find no perceptible distortion in a recording made in 1924. So quite possibly Fournier d'Albe had never heard a banjo either.

  12. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 7, 2018 @ 6:06 am

    I wonder if it's possible to track down the clip with the banjo solo that Fournier d'Albe saw/heard at the same time that he was using as his other example? He does seem per wikipedia to have had wide-ranging interests. Perhaps the time he devoted to translating from Irish into Esperanto meant he didn't have enough time left to learn about the full range of AmEng dialect variation?

  13. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 7, 2018 @ 6:15 am

    Separately, whether or not Fournier d'Albe had had the practical ability to hear the voices of American politicians on the radio, there's the separate question of whether he had heard them via the Victrola. There was a bit of a vogue for such spoken-word recordings at the time – the LIbrary of Congress website has a bunch of examples from c. 1920 (including Coolidge, Harding, Samuel Gompers, Henry Cabot Lodge, etc etc) here: What sort of distribution these recordings got outside the U.S. is another question. I note that for one Coolidge speech they have multiple versions, because as with other recordings the "recording artist" would sometimes do multiple takes, with the best one being selected for release. So scholars of Coolidge's idiolect could profit from comparing multiple attempts at the same text.

  14. David L said,

    May 7, 2018 @ 9:48 am

    @Jerry Friedman: even when I was growing up in England, there were basically only two American accents that we knew about — regular and 'southern' (anything from the SE and Texas, the kind of thing we would hear in Westerns). Most other American accents in movies or on the TV were some kind of standardized variety, just as the English accents we heard on the TV were BBC English or some close variant thereof. That was changing by the time I was in my teens, with regional British accents being introduced, but I had no idea of the varieties of American dialects.

    That's why it seems plausible to me that d'Albe would have heard Coolidge and found his speech pattern not only unfamiliar but also 'un-American' in the sense that he would not have been aware that such a variant existed. And therefore the result of distortion.

    This is speculation, obviously, but I can see how it might have happened.

  15. J. Silk said,

    May 7, 2018 @ 12:03 pm

    Accent aside, it's a pity that so few over the years have apparently paid heed to the message itself …

  16. Coby Lubliner said,

    May 7, 2018 @ 12:44 pm

    I listened to recordings of two of Fournier d'Albe's American contemporaries whose voices he might have been familiar with, since they were well known in Europe: Buffalo Bill Cody and Woodrow Wilson. The difference between their speech and Coolidge's seems to be mainly a matter of modulation, so it may have been the flatness of Coolidge's speech that led him to hear it as "an exaggerated American accent".

  17. Doctor Science said,

    May 8, 2018 @ 10:19 am

    I still think it extremely likely that Fournier d'Albe might have heard the President of the United States' voice in radio news, in reporting about the election and inauguration. Or was radio not yet a major source of news?

    But aside from that, does anyone but me think Coolidge's voice does in fact sound different in the video clip compared to audio-only clips? Partly, he doesn't seem to be projecting as much for the video, so perhaps the very flat, nasal sound is closer to his natural speech.

  18. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 8, 2018 @ 12:13 pm

    David L: I can certainly believe that Fournier d'Albe hadn't heard an accent like Coolidge's, or that he'd heard an upper-class Boston accent (not surprising for an academic at the time) and Coolidge's accent with its rhotic traces sounded even more American to him. But it still would have been stupid to think what he heard in Coolidge's speech had to be the result of distortion in the loudspeaker, instead of at least imagining that it might be an accent or idiosyncrasy he'd never heard. (Beyond thinking that distortion from a speaker could exaggerate an accent.)

    But not unbelievably stupid.

  19. Doctor Science said,

    May 8, 2018 @ 3:17 pm


    When you listen to Coolidge's Inaugural, does his accent sound different than the video, to you?

  20. Chris C. said,

    May 8, 2018 @ 5:20 pm

    I wonder if Coolidge's non-native non-rhoticity was an imperfectly affected mid-Atlantic accent?

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