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October 25, 2023 48 mins

Have you ever wondered about that old timey accent so many actors used in black and white movies? Hollywood stars like Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis and Orson Welles, who sounded sort of British … but not quite. Was it all a put on or did people back then talk that way in real life? Mo investigates the emergence and disappearance of the accent commonly known as “Mid-Atlantic” with the help of linguist John McWhorter. Plus Hollywood dialect coach Jessica Drake tries her best to teach Mo how to talk that way.

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Episode Transcript

Available transcripts are automatically generated. Complete accuracy is not guaranteed.
Speaker 1 (00:02):
If you watch any movie from Hollywood's Golden Age today,
you'll notice something distinctive about the way many actors speak.

Speaker 2 (00:11):
Oh, we're going to talk about me.

Speaker 1 (00:13):
Good Catherine Hepburn in Philadelphia Story, Orson Wells in Citizen Kane.

Speaker 3 (00:20):
You're right, mister Thatcher. I did lose a million dollars
last year. I expect to lose a million dollars this year.
I expect to lose a million dollars next year. You know,
mister Thatcher, at the rate of a million dollars a year,
and I have to close this place in sixty years.

Speaker 1 (00:35):
Or Betty Davis as Margot Channing in All About Eve.

Speaker 4 (00:39):
Nice speeches, But I wouldn't worry too much about your heart.
You can always put that award where your heart.

Speaker 1 (00:45):
On t V, I've always been fascinated by this old
timey accent, whether in black and white movies or in
the TV commercials of my youth.

Speaker 5 (00:58):
You see, high Point has a special way of capturing flavor,
deep brood flavor.

Speaker 6 (01:05):
You see, high Point has a special way of capturing flavor.

Speaker 4 (01:09):
Better. Yes, deep brood flavor.

Speaker 1 (01:13):
Deep brood flavor.

Speaker 4 (01:15):

Speaker 1 (01:16):
Who knew Lauren Bacall was such a coffee connoisseur. But
just where did this peculiar accent come from?

Speaker 4 (01:23):
It was a real accent. It was a really dominant
sound in the northeastern part of America.

Speaker 1 (01:31):
And one that commanded authority.

Speaker 7 (01:33):
Let me upsit, my family. That's the only thing we
have to fild.

Speaker 8 (01:41):
Bird the idea that that's the way you wanted to
hear your leaders speaking is a different kind of America
than today.

Speaker 1 (01:49):
So why does almost nobody talk like this anymore? With
the exception of Kelsey Grammar.

Speaker 7 (01:55):
Rather than truckle to the forces of commercialism, I've decided
to take a stat and on principle it's.

Speaker 1 (02:01):
A mystery I'm determined to solve. From CBS Sunday Morning
and iHeart I'm Morocca and this is mobituaries, this moment
the death of an accent. Now, this is where it

gets a little bit controversial. There's a lot of disagreement
around what to call this because it's been commonly called
the mid Atlantic accent.

Speaker 8 (02:51):
I call it the old Rless dialect, or that way
they talked in old movies. It's Betty Davis roughly.

Speaker 1 (03:01):
That's linguist and New York Times columnist John mcwarter. You
may remember John from our episode on the death of
once popular names. He's helping me today with some of
this dialect detective work. Let's listen to Betty Davis herself.
Pay attention to the way she says Parker's written.

Speaker 9 (03:20):
By that outstanding leading lady of.

Speaker 2 (03:23):
Literature, Dorothy Parker. Dorothy Parker is the one who said
men seldom make passes at girls who wear.

Speaker 8 (03:31):
Glasses Paka instead of Parker. Yeah, that excellent, And is.

Speaker 1 (03:35):
That the primary characteristic when we're discussing this way of
talking burlessness?

Speaker 8 (03:42):
Yeah, what sticks out today is that ours at the
end of syllables have a way of softening or even
not being present. And there's a certain archness that we detect.
We imagine that the women had fluty voices, etc. But
then again, Betty Davis did not have a fluty voice.
She didn't talk like this. She had a rather low,
cigarette stained voice. And yet what we hear in her

is paka instead of Parker, corner instead of corner. And
that's where you get this accent that sounding ever more
exotic as the decades go.

Speaker 1 (04:16):
By, sounds almost alien and it makes people, i think today,
especially young people, kind of laugh.

Speaker 8 (04:22):
I think that's absolutely true. It makes a lot of
older movies difficult for people. I would say, at this
point under fifty to take because everybody seems to talk funny.
It's been a long time since any real person spoke
that way.

Speaker 1 (04:37):
Where does the R lists come from?

Speaker 8 (04:39):
There are some consonants that are less hardy than others,
Like R is a very muddy kind of sound. It's
almost like a vowel. There's a difference between going puoh
or too and going it's muddy. When you hang a
R on the end of a vowel, it's delicate. It's
kind of like hair and split ends. You know that

that R is ripe for getting soft. It's going to
change the color of the vowel before it, and pretty
soon the our is gonna probably disappear. It's gonna erode,
as we put it. And so in any English, any
rs that are at the end of syllables, such as
in Parker, are in danger in a way, and it's
almost a matter of not weather, but when stuff is

going to start to happen.

Speaker 1 (05:24):
Would you find this all over the United States?

Speaker 8 (05:27):
Well, actually no, it's interesting. You have it most prominently
in New York and thereabouts, and then also you have
it in Boston, and then it also happened in the South.
But that was also partly because African languages on the
West Coast tend not to have ours at the end
of syllables. Slaves were brought to the Southern United States

often helped to bring up kids. That meant that the
ours were certainly going to fall away in the South.
So it's a different reason. So that's why you have
the r less Southern accent, and so that means Black
English is r less all over the country. But the
main things that people tend to think about if we're
talking about, say Betty Davis, is what was going on
in the northeastern United States starting in the eighteen hundreds.

Speaker 1 (06:11):
And she was from Lowell, Massachusetts.

Speaker 8 (06:12):
She was from Lowell.

Speaker 1 (06:14):
Well, let's listen to her right now. In all about
Eve Eve.

Speaker 5 (06:17):
This is an old friend. Mister DeWitt's mother, Missus Caswell, was.

Speaker 2 (06:21):
Having to miss kiswell, how do you do Edison. I've
been wanting you to meet Eve for the longest time.

Speaker 8 (06:26):
It could only have been your natural timidative, but kept
you from mentioning it.

Speaker 4 (06:29):
You've heard of her great interest in the theater.

Speaker 1 (06:33):
Clip and it's where she's meeting Marilyn Monroe, right, and
Marilyn Monroe walks in.

Speaker 10 (06:36):

Speaker 1 (06:38):
She's a luminous closed. She really does. You should close. Okay,
now let's listen. Oh and I just have one other
thing to say about All about Eve. My father once
said to me. He said, the two most purely evil
character is sort of in Western arts and culture, in
the Western canon where Iago in Othello and Eve Harrington

and all about.

Speaker 8 (06:59):
Eve, if not Addison to but Eve, Yes, she is
more evil. That's definitely true. She has no feelings. That
is absolutely the case.

Speaker 1 (07:06):
I want to be Addison, right, you're referring to Addison Dewett,
the imperious drama critic.

Speaker 8 (07:11):
I wish Sondheim were still alive so that he would
do a musical of All about Eve that actually is
all about Eve, as opposed to Applause fifty years ago,
which wasn't. And because I'm kind of the age and
the temperament and we're now so interested in diversity in
the theater, I want to play Addison, but I can
tell nobody is going.

Speaker 11 (07:27):
To do it.

Speaker 3 (07:27):
You would be great that I should want you at
all suddenly strikes me as the height of improbability, and
that in itself is probably the reason.

Speaker 1 (07:37):
Did people speak like this in all cities on the
Eastern Sea border?

Speaker 8 (07:41):
No, they didn't. This hourlessness developed by chance in some
places and not others. New York and Boston have it,
but Philadelphia and Baltimore don't. And particularly there are Philadelphia
and Baltimore were our full rhodic cities, as we call it.

Speaker 1 (07:55):
It just skipped those cities. So it's ironic then that
Katherine Hepprince, because come Back, Early, Comeback was playing Tracy
Lord in the Philadelphia story.

Speaker 5 (08:04):
You seem quite contemptuous, and.

Speaker 8 (08:07):
They all of a sudden she wouldn't have sounded that way.

Speaker 1 (08:10):
In other words, Tracy Lord would not have ordered a
cheese steak. She would have ordered one. Other aspects of
this accent, it's posh, it's proper. What would you say,
how would you describe it?

Speaker 8 (08:25):
That is an accent that sounds British to us, And
I think there's an idea that everybody was trying to
sound British. I question that. I think that the way
American English happened to develop was something that would have happened,
whether there was a great Britain, and whether we associated
it with poshness or not.

Speaker 1 (08:46):
Here's a surprise. John mcwater says, early Americans didn't talk
this way.

Speaker 8 (08:52):
We have a tendency to think that the Founding Fathers,
for example, because they were such formal and educated people,
we assume that they sound that like masterpiece theater, or
if that's a dated reference, like many of the actors
in Every Potter. And actually that's not true. That accent
actually developed after America was already up and running.

Speaker 1 (09:11):
So Thomas Jefferson would have said went in the course
of human events, definitely, And John says the Brits themselves
only started dropping their rs in the late seventeen hundreds,
so the early sixteen hundreds it was William Shakespeare, definitely.

Speaker 8 (09:27):
Yeah. And there was no horelessness among the people in
the Globe.

Speaker 1 (09:31):
Theater, okay, all right. And it was the Virgin Queen.

Speaker 8 (09:33):
The Virgin Queen, not the Virgin Queen, right.

Speaker 1 (09:36):
Although Betty Davis dislay she was all the quing Queen.
I'm suddenly imagining Betty Davis walking to the hunter Acre
would and having to greet that donkey eawe. This accent,
with its emphasis on enunciation was especially prevalent in the

early American theater before the invention of the microphone. It
tended to carry all the way to the back of
the house.

Speaker 8 (10:07):
And then once amplification comes in, old habits die hard.
And so you have these people, you know, on the
soundtracks of these old movies, still talking in a way
that maybe would have been thought of as a better
way to sound if you're doing Our American Cousin in
eighteen sixty five as opposed to what you need to
do now.

Speaker 1 (10:24):
Thank you for the Our American Cousin reference, which, of
course was the stage comedy that Lincoln was watching at
Ford's Theater. Now, I've always wondered there was a star
of it. But then there was a guy who was
the second Banana, who played kind of the funny guy role.
And there's an insult he lays on her, and that's
the big laugh line. And that's when John Wilkes Booth
fired the gun. He was waiting for a laugh line.

You suckologizing old man trap, And that was the big
That was sort of like the sit on It Potsey
of its time.

Speaker 8 (11:00):
So few people are going to get them, all.

Speaker 1 (11:01):
Right, it's that's what she said of its time. Right, Wait,
what are the people laughing to now? I don't know
what they're laughing to now. Now, it wasn't only Hollywood
royalty who spoke like this, but also the political elite.
Here is Teddy Roosevelt campaigning to return to the White
House in nineteen twelve.

Speaker 10 (11:23):
These prohibitions have been given by the gods from safeguards
against political and social privilege, in the barriers against political
and social justice and the bastie our papers. He is
not to impume the gods, but to emancipate them from
a position where they stand in the way of social justice.

Speaker 8 (11:40):
That was amazing. I've never heard him. There's a story
of him going up to Albany when he is in
the Assembly and he was made fun of for the
way he talked, because that arl attack scent sounded silly
to a lot of the people from other parts of
the state. They imitated him as saying, mister speaker, miss
the speak up when he wanted to talk. That's not
the way people from further upstate spoke.

Speaker 1 (12:01):
Let's hear now his fifth cousin, Franklin Delanor Roosevelt, let.

Speaker 7 (12:06):
Me ussit my firmilie. Let's the only thing we have
to fish fire, so nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terra with paralyses
needed up, We'll convert with creek enter advance.

Speaker 8 (12:26):
It's perfect.

Speaker 1 (12:27):
Okay, this is twenty one years after that clip we
heard from Teddy, but it's still there, that accent very
much in the thirties, Like so many millions of others.
My Italian grandmother, she to her dying day, was grateful
to him for the new deal for the WPA. And
you know, she didn't talk anything like that.

Speaker 8 (12:46):
The idea that that's the way you wanted to hear
your leaders speaking is a different kind of America than today.

Speaker 1 (12:52):
You know, It's funny. My grandmother might have not only
expected it, but demanded it. That's right, let her leaders
speak like that. John mcwater says that in politics that
accent is as much of a relic as the art
of oratory itself.

Speaker 8 (13:06):
Your grandmother would not have tolerated the way a lot
of our leaders today speak in public. And it's not
to say that there isn't a such thing as being
very eloquent within the bounds of being colloquial and casual.
But for someone to get up and talk the way
Trump does. And this is independently of the content, but
just that kind of scattershot half sentences and you know,

rarely completing a thought that would have been processed as amateurish,
as offensive.

Speaker 1 (13:33):
But it's interesting the transition that happens, because you know,
FDR's last vice president, and his successor, of course, is
Harry Truman, who does not talk like that. He's not
a habadasha.

Speaker 8 (13:42):
Oh, he's a Midwesterner. He has his urs.

Speaker 5 (13:46):
I can't tell you.

Speaker 12 (13:47):
How very much I appreciate the honor which you just
confarred upon me. I shall continue to try to deserve it.

Speaker 8 (13:58):
And what's interesting is that his speaking is not something
anybody was particularly interested in paying attention to. He wasn't
considered an orator, he wasn't a performer. But yes, he's
somebody who did not have that kind of hourlessness, and
no one ever expected that he was going to become president. Anyway.

Speaker 1 (14:18):
Let's now hear from one of Teddy Roosevelt's six children.
And no one had more fun children than tr had
in the White House. Okay, so let's hear from Ethel
Roosevelt Derby.

Speaker 2 (14:28):
The children especially will be interested in seeing that odd
little animal under the table there. His name is Josiah.
And my father, knowing how he liked to have things
brought home to us whenever he could from his trips
out west, used to bring us home treasure. One time
he brought us a bear which lived in the woodshed.
This time he brought home a little badger. I took

a picture of my brother Archie in his ordinary girl
barefoot is little ragged trousers holding Josiah. My father used
to say.

Speaker 8 (14:59):
Hissing like it, boy, And you can see why people
think this is about great Britain. Actually, the badger that
was a wonderful cliff.

Speaker 1 (15:07):
It is so great. And I had to tell you
the picture of Archie holding Josiah the badger is just adorable.

Speaker 8 (15:12):
Really, Yeah, you've got to look it up.

Speaker 1 (15:14):
You will, of course not remember that I wrote a
book about presidential pets in two thousand and four, and
so Cheddi Rosevelt was my favorite chapter. He didn't know, no,
of course he didn't. I've seen the sales figures, and
so he had thirty six pets, and he hated amazing pets.
He had amazing pets.

Speaker 8 (15:31):
Did the Lincolns. How many pets they did.

Speaker 1 (15:33):
They had a horse samed Old Bob. They had a dog,
which is the very first photographed presidential pet. The dog's
name was Fido. It's actually really a very sweet picture
of Fido. He was a mott which is perfect for it.

Speaker 8 (15:47):
But there's of Lincoln.

Speaker 13 (15:48):

Speaker 1 (15:48):
And then they had two goats named Nanny and Nanco.

Speaker 8 (15:51):
Did the dog sit still in the Lincoln picture? Is
it all blurry?

Speaker 1 (15:53):
Because no, the dog is actually seated on what looks
like a pedestal, like a plinth.

Speaker 13 (16:00):

Speaker 1 (16:00):
And after Lincoln died, a drunk with a knife stabbed
the dog.

Speaker 8 (16:05):
You're kidding.

Speaker 1 (16:06):
I'm just bringing all of us really down. It's really,
really terrible. But let me just make it better by
saying the teddy Roosevelt. They had a bear, a little
bear that they named Jonathan Edwards. So next time, listened
to Ethel Roosevelt saying Jonathan Edwards, the bad and the Bad.
And they had a hyena. Did they really have they
did have a hyena?

Speaker 8 (16:27):

Speaker 1 (16:27):
It was crazy. I mean, I hope those kids had
all their shots. I want to give this guy some props.
Cornelius Vanderwbilt the fourth because he was an outcast from
the Vanderbilt family because he dared to get into newspapers.
Can imagine that as if he'd gotten an OnlyFans account

he was working for the newspaper My God. Okay. He
produced what is arguably the very first anti Hitler documentary,
Hitler's Reign of Terror, in nineteen three four. It was
met with a cold shoulder as hysteria warned people about
anti Semitism. So if just for that, let's listen to him.

Speaker 10 (17:10):
There was money enough in Hollywood to tempt me to
go through it again. I'll tell you that last day
on the frontier, I felt like Mickey Mouse.

Speaker 4 (17:17):
It was one tough.

Speaker 10 (17:17):
Squeak for me.

Speaker 2 (17:19):
I knew just what I would be up against if
the Nazzies ever found my films.

Speaker 14 (17:22):
The last few weeks I've been carefully watched.

Speaker 8 (17:25):
He sounds like Betty Davis and Nazzy.

Speaker 12 (17:28):

Speaker 8 (17:29):
Yeah, you hear that occasionally, especially that Nazzies. Yeah, yeah,
that's that's something that people It was a spelling pronunciation
if you don't know German, and so it looks like
Nazzy and some people would get away with saying it.
That guy says is a piece of work.

Speaker 1 (17:42):
Yeah, he really is.

Speaker 8 (17:43):
Did he have a family?

Speaker 1 (17:44):
He was married seven or eight times, never had children.
It seemed like a guy I look just for the
documentary along. We've got to give the guy some props.
I mean, I don't know what it was like to
be married to him, but I like him. I like him. Okay,
let's hear another voice often associated with this accent. This
is a conservative intellectual, founder of the National Review and

co host of the TV show firing Line, William F. Buckley.

Speaker 15 (18:09):
If the telephone company projected the number of people using
telephones nineteen thirty eight, they figured that at the rate
of which people were using the telephone by nineteen hundred
and sixty, in order to service that many calls, they'd
have to hire. Every woman in the United States is
a telephon operator.

Speaker 1 (18:25):
Now, this is a much parodied accent. What is it
that we're hearing there that we're reacting to.

Speaker 8 (18:33):
He's speaking rather quickly, not a whole lot of melodic change,
almost as if he can't be bothered to enunciate too much.
There's a privilege in it, and that he sounds like
he can't quite be bothered to try to get himself across.
He assumes that you're listening.

Speaker 1 (18:49):
Closely, there's a certain lack of effort or I'm not
sure if it's a fatigue in there, a detachment, detachment.

Speaker 8 (18:57):
It might also be brilliant, because he he was brilliant,
whatever you think of the content of the things that
he wrote and said. And so he's so committed to
the thinking that he can't be bothered with performance is
one kind of quick psychology you might pull.

Speaker 1 (19:13):
Buckley indeed had a cosmopolitan upbringing. Born in New York,
he grew up speaking Spanish and received his early formal
education in France and England. But it wasn't just those
to the manor born who spoke this way. Let's turn
back to entertainment to listen to a commercial from the
early nineteen eighties starring The Bronxes. Betty Joan Persky aka

Lauren Bacall.

Speaker 5 (19:41):
My favorite time of day is night. I love curling
up with a rich cup of coffee. You think coffee
and sleep down mix.

Speaker 8 (19:49):
They do.

Speaker 5 (19:49):
If it's high Point, it's decaffeinated and the flavor is marvelous.
You see, high Point has a special way of capturing flavor, flavor.
It's a coffee lover's dream.

Speaker 1 (20:05):
Betty Joan Persky was born of the Bronx. Okay, okay,
grew up pretty hard scrabble. Now we can only guess
because she started in Hollywood when she was so young.
But do we think that an adolescent Betty Joan Persky
soon to be Lauren bacall, was arless.

Speaker 8 (20:21):
She definitely would have been ar less, because this hourlessness
was not only people of a certain means, it was
also people who were middle and even lower class. Lauren
McCall had an air about her, especially as she got older,
and so it ends up sounding rather high toned that
she says flavor. But she learned to say flavor, probably

in the Bronx, in a very hot third floor apartment,
because that's the way everybody would have spoken there.

Speaker 1 (20:49):
She's playing a high status character in one of the
high Point commercials. She's in a limousine drinking high Point coffee.
She's actually pouring it, which is insane. That's because how
you I mean? These are New York City streets, pop
holes everywhere. That's a major LOSSU youit ready to happen.

Speaker 8 (21:02):
My pants are full of flavor, my dad.

Speaker 1 (21:05):
These pants are full of flavor. I'm the woman of
the year with third degree burns. Okay, sorry, coming.

Speaker 6 (21:19):
Up after a break. How to speak with distinction when
quoting from the classics.

Speaker 4 (21:25):
Don't say flavor and hold it, get off it quicker flavor.

Speaker 6 (21:29):
You see high Point has a special way of capturing
flavor better. Yes, you see high Point. You see high Point.

Speaker 4 (21:47):
That's not bad. You see high Point has a special
way of capturing flavor.

Speaker 1 (21:53):
You see high Point has a special way of capturing flavor.

Speaker 16 (21:58):
Cap cap Chuck like cha sharing capturing dialect coach Jessica
Drake is teaching me to pitch decaf like Lauren Bacall.

Speaker 1 (22:12):
Since the late nineteen eighties, Jessica's been helping major Hollywood
actors get into character for movies and TV. She helped
Sean Penn play Harvey Milk and Anada Armis become Marilyn Monroe.
I'm curious, what are you asked most about.

Speaker 4 (22:30):
It's Forrest Gump. It's always Forrest Gump. That's it.

Speaker 1 (22:34):
The Alabama accent.

Speaker 7 (22:36):

Speaker 11 (22:37):
Now, because I've been a football starg and war hero
and national celebrity and a Shrimp and Bolt captain and
the college graduate this city follows at Greenbow, Alabama decided
to get together and offered me a fine job.

Speaker 4 (22:51):
You know, for an actor, it's another piece, right, It's
like a false nose or a limp. It's a thing
that they add to the character, or it's a piece
that brings them closer to that other person they're playing.

Speaker 1 (23:08):
The accent that we're talking about is commonly called the
mid Atlantic accent, the Transatlantic accent. Is that a misnomer?

Speaker 4 (23:19):
Yes, it is, first of all mid Atlantic. I just
want to say, would be Delaware, Maryland, something like that.
The idea, the notion is it's halfway between English and
American speech, and so it's this mythological place that doesn't
exist in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

Speaker 1 (23:36):
Oh my gosh, I know exactly right. The closest you
could get it's a southern tip of Greenland. And I
don't think they talk like that there.

Speaker 4 (23:42):
No, definitely not well observed. It's got nothing to do
with that. It was a real accent. Loads of people
spoke that way.

Speaker 1 (23:51):
So what would you call this accent we're talking about.

Speaker 4 (23:55):
I would call it probably Northeastern elite, because it's a
sod with those regions. I mean where you really would
hear its, places like New York City, Newport, Rhode Island, Darien, Connecticut,
Kenny Bunkport, Maine, and Boston.

Speaker 1 (24:14):
Now this way of speaking wasn't only about dropping ours.
You'll also notice a softening and elongation of the vowels,
especially the A sound. And can I say my father,
who grew up in a factory town called Leminster, Massachusetts,
I would hear every so often he would say bathroom

instead of the bathroom. He'd say bathroom, bathroom, the bathroom,
I need that or bathroom? Yeah yeah that a and
I would go bathroom, but he'd go bathroom.

Speaker 4 (24:46):
Yes, yeah, it's pretty good, Moe, you have a pretty.

Speaker 1 (24:49):
Good middle a. Jessica Drake says that for most people,
this accent wasn't learned formally in school.

Speaker 4 (24:56):
The influences on most people's speech are pretty basic. It's
your parents and it's your friends when you're young, and
that's pretty much where it gets formed. But where their classes,
I think unless you were pursuing either a career in

the arts or perhaps going to say some sort of
a finishing school, which is a thing that existed, then yeah,
but otherwise no.

Speaker 1 (25:31):
One piece of misinformation you'll find online about this accent
is the notion that it was taught to Golden age
Hollywood actors by a woman named Edith Skinner, a speech
teacher best known for writing a book called Speak with Distinction.
Jessica Drake was one of Skinner's students at New York's

famed Juilliard School, and she wants to set the record
straight about her late mentor.

Speaker 4 (25:58):
Edith Skinner was dedicated to the theater more than anything else.
The theater. She is responsible definitely for training a whole
generation of regional theater actors.

Speaker 1 (26:11):
But Jessica says Skinner couldn't have coached those old, tiny
Hollywood stars because she never once worked in Hollywood. How
did she become associated with this.

Speaker 4 (26:23):
Accent misinformation is the simplest answer. Unfortunately, there have been
things put into print that have claimed that she was
in Hollywood teaching in the thirties, or that actors were
running around the studio lots carrying her book under their arms.

This is all complete and total fabrication.

Speaker 1 (26:49):
In fact, her book wasn't published until nineteen forty two,
and then it was only available in the bookstore at
Pittsburgh's Carnegie Tech, where she taught at the time. Now,
Skinner did teach a later generation of actors something that
would come to be known as good American speech.

Speaker 4 (27:07):
So the sound that she came up with, the good
American speech, is certainly based on what we've been talking about.
That Northeastern accent. However, it had specifically something she called
the seven points.

Speaker 1 (27:23):
One of those seven points Skinner prescribed was softening those rs,
but not quite as much as old time Hollywood actors
often did. Skinner's method also encourages performers to pronounce certain
words with a middle a.

Speaker 4 (27:38):
What she called the ask list of words. Those are
words that Southern English would pronounce with a long a.
Ask pauls Claus and she had it at ask pass class,
which is not ask past class, which would be more
general American.

Speaker 1 (27:58):
One of Skinner's students, the actor Ellis rab Here, in
a production of the comedy The Royal Family, he.

Speaker 8 (28:05):
Said, who's directing this picture? I said, you're directing the picture.
You're not directing me. I'm through with it and you
can take that to remember me.

Speaker 1 (28:11):
By Ellis rab taught by Edith Skinner, was the inspiration
for Kelsey Grammar's voice for side show Bob on The Simpsons,
which means that side show. Bob was trained by Edith Skinner.

Speaker 7 (28:29):
Lisa, you always wear the one rose petal floating atop
the cesspool.

Speaker 8 (28:34):
That is the Simpsons.

Speaker 14 (28:36):
You see.

Speaker 4 (28:36):
You can tie Edith to these things that way. Kelsey
was a student of hers at Julliard as well, and
I would say the frasier sound is in no small
part connected to that Edith training.

Speaker 8 (28:51):
It's hard to say what to hate.

Speaker 14 (28:52):
Most about Crane's show is Papa's sanctimonious style, his constant
self congratulatory references to his own life, or his voice
a mock sympathetic tone, so sickly sweet. One wonders if
the man graduated from medical school or from some mind
controlling cult.

Speaker 1 (29:10):
And how's this for influence? That's truly out of this world.

Speaker 4 (29:14):
Robin Williams. He took some of the speech exercises and
turned them into that language that Mork spoke. She has
an exercise mo may me my mo moo nona nine
no new LAWI li lo lou, Oh my god, that's

where nyeah come from.

Speaker 1 (29:38):
Belief out of that.

Speaker 13 (29:40):

Speaker 1 (29:41):
I'll catch you on the rebound your magnitude until next week.

Speaker 12 (29:44):
I know.

Speaker 1 (29:45):
No Coming up more with linguist John mcwater. Is this

a white accent?

Speaker 8 (30:15):
This is of course largely associated with white people. But
an interesting thing about the olden times is that there
was a sense in the United States that if you
were going to be a person of influence, you had
to learn to talk in a certain way.

Speaker 1 (30:33):
I'm back with linguist John mcwarter to finish talking about
the way some of us used to talk.

Speaker 8 (30:40):
And one of the most counterintuitive things I think these days,
because of all sorts of layers of assumptions that we make,
is that black public figures did the same thing. So
Booker T. Washington was born a slave, he learned to
sound like William Jennings Bryan because that is just what
one had to do, included for black audiences as well.

And so you listen to people, especially in the first
half of the twentieth century, when you can have recordings
of them black leaders, and it can be jarring. How frankly,
what to our ears is white? They sound today, But
really what it was was public oratory American style.

Speaker 1 (31:19):
Let's hear the voice of educator and orator and founder
of the National Negro Business League, Booker T. Washington. It
may be a little hard to make out since it
was recorded in nineteen oh eight.

Speaker 17 (31:31):
Through the frays who depends on suttering back and begins
a foreign land, or wonder that fat eatavating friend relations
for southern white men? Who is the next door neighbor?
I would say, cast down your bucket where you are
pass down making friends in every man the way.

Speaker 1 (31:52):
So Bucker T. Washington, we can only speculate he would
not have said I'm trying to sound white. He would
have said, I'm trying to sound like a public figure
who's respected.

Speaker 8 (32:01):
He would almost certainly have said that. Yet the idea
that we would listen to him and think he sounded white,
he would have to wrap his head around that. He
would think, how else was I supposed to sound? If
I was standing up in front of a massive audience
making a speech, and this would include a black audience.
Booker T. Washington didn't try to sound white. He tried
to sound formal.

Speaker 1 (32:19):
Let's listen to who is often used as sort of
the counterpoint to Booker T. Washington. This is the activist,
pioneering sociologist, and socialist W. E. B. Du Bois, reading
from his autobiography, so presumably this is much later in
his life.

Speaker 18 (32:35):
I went from my home in Massachusetts when I was
seventeen don to Fisk University in Tennessee. There I stayed
three years. Then I came from there to Harvard University
in the fall of eighty five and stayed there four years.

Speaker 8 (32:56):
You know why that's perfect? That's so perfect? Do boys
was rful? He has his ours. The reason he's ourful
is because there is this otherwise utterly boring difference. It's
a dialecticians thing between western and eastern New England. Boston
accent is eastern. Western is say, Great Barrington, where he

grew up. I actually went to college for two years
in Great Barrings in the Berkshires, And that's why he
says year instead of the year. And so he's on
the other side of that line.

Speaker 1 (33:26):
Isn't that neat Well it's such an interesting clip to
me because vers goes Massachusetts, but he keeps his ar
on Harvard. And there are moments and I could be
getting this wrong. He almost it almost sounds like a burr.
He almost sounds Scottish.

Speaker 8 (33:40):
He also just sounds like he's very much from another time.
His vowels are something that we wouldn't hear in anybody
in the United States these days, because if you're listening
to Dubois, you're listening to somebody who learned to talk
at the end of the eighteen hundreds, and yet he
lived long enough to be recorded in good sound in
that way.

Speaker 1 (33:57):
And I think a whole heck of a lot of
people who know who w eb Boys was and who
have read him would be shocked to listen to that.

Speaker 8 (34:06):
Oh, you know, to tell you the truth. And this
is getting into a less cuddly dimension of these things.
But as a black person, I have often thought this,
many people who are big fans of people like Duboys
today might find themselves involuntarily put off by the way
he spoke, because he had There's no hint of what

we today think of as blackness in the voice of
that man. And it isn't an affectation. That's there's all
evidence that that's the way he and people like him
always spoke. And I think many black people today, quite
innocently would be waiting for him to kind of get
down and use certain expressions and to you know, have
some horlessness and to have some vowel colorations, and he

would never do it. And I think it would make
a lot of them rather uncomfortable. Whenever I've heard do boys,
I think to myself, hmm. Socially, it'd be a little
awkward now for many black leaders, even black intellectuals and
black thinkers, we have a whole different sense of what
makes a person approachable, and perhaps even our value of
what approachability is very interesting.

Speaker 1 (35:10):
Well, so we talked about William F. Buckley earlier, his
famous one of his famous debate partners James Baldwin. So
let's listen to James Baldwin.

Speaker 9 (35:21):
The reason for the political hesitation and in spite to
the Johnson landslide, is the one that's been betrayed by
American politicians for so long. And I am, I'm a
grown man, and perhaps I can be reasoned with.

Speaker 8 (35:34):
I certainly hope I can be.

Speaker 9 (35:37):
But I don't know, and neither does Martin Luther King.
None of us know how to deal with those other
people whom the white world is long ignored. We don't
believe anything the white world says, and don't entirely believe
anything I or Martin say. And one can't blame them.

You watch what has happened to them in less than
twenty years.

Speaker 1 (36:01):
I mean, James Baldwin's voice is beautiful, and it sounds
pretty close to British to my untrained ears.

Speaker 8 (36:10):
He was a performer. I'm a huge admirer of Baldwin,
but he also he was cultivating a persona. But to
be honest, I just hear black and nineteen twenties New York.
If anything to me, he sounds like Earth a Kit,
and Earth a Kit was not trying to sound British.
He was trying to sound like Earth the Kit.

Speaker 1 (36:31):
I want to be evil. That's my favorite. Earth the Kid,
the kids, I want to be mean. One interesting point here,
and tell me if you think this factored in. James
Baldwin's stepfather was a preacher. I wonder if that had
any bearing.

Speaker 8 (36:50):
You know, it probably did, because Baldwin had a very
close relationship to the preaching and the church and the
performance aspect of that. That definitely would have affected him.
What you're not supposed to say, though, and I'm going
to say it because I think many people are thinking it,
is that another thing he was doing I think was

imitating the way many gay men of that time spoke.
I think that there's some amount of playing with that
dynamic too, So if there's the preaching, there's the performing,
There is his sexuality, there is his blackness. You could
pour all of those things and mix them up and
almost predict that what would come out is him saying
matn in the way that he does.

Speaker 1 (37:33):
We spent so much time focusing on the eastern part
of the United States. Let's hear a clip from a
great playwright from Chicago, Lorraine Hansbury.

Speaker 13 (37:45):
In other words, what I was trying to say exactly
the opposite of what you paid attention to. That is
that we are not concerned, or perhaps to say, I
am not concerned with doing away with the mere paraphernalia,

traditional paraphernalia of the inexpressive, crude Negro character. That is
not the point. I very arbitrarily, very deliberately of thought
and intention, chose to write, for instance, and I come
from the Negro middle class about the Negro working class deliberately.

Speaker 1 (38:29):
So I love the way she talks.

Speaker 8 (38:31):
There's something about the way she spoke. And what's interesting
is that she has a few arms in there. She's
almost certainly smoking chainsmoker, and so there's some false starts
as she kind of composes her thoughts while taking puffs
on the cigarette, and yet I must admit, as a
modern linguist, I spend a lot of time arguing that
there are no grounds for looking down on new speech habits,

and I very much mean it, But I must admit
I'm going to only say this once on this show,
and I'm never going to say it again. I must
admit I liked that she wasn't saying like and sort
of every two seconds, because her equivalent today, including that
she could be just as fierce, just as educated, just
as talented, it would be sort of every four sentences

or so. That's not as good as we just heard.
And it's because she lived in a time when public
eloquence was still valued in a way that it just
isn't today. You don't grow up living under the strictures
that she did in terms of how you were expected
to speak in public. And she didn't sound like George
Washington's inaugural address, but that was different from all of

the humble hesitations that are part of the way most
modern people express themselves. I must admit I'd rather hear that.

Speaker 1 (39:50):
Her father was a successful real estate broker, her mother
was a ward committee woman in municipal politics, so they
were rich, but there's something And she describes herself as
a member of the Negro middle class.

Speaker 8 (40:03):
Middle class and not and she wrote about the Negro
working class. But she went to school beside you know,
many white people, and she lived in an environment where
there was a sense that if you were going to
present yourself in public, you had to speak in a
certain way. And I am quite sure that she did
not think of herself as speaking whitely. She thought of

herself as speaking the way one was supposed to in
order to go out into the world and try to
make a difference.

Speaker 1 (40:30):
You know, I had to say, of all the clips
we've heard, this is the one that if I heard today,
I would say, I really like hearing this person talk.
This is this doesn't seem like a put on, This
doesn't seem alien to me. It's like she's speaking in
a way that's almost a bridge between that accent we've

been talking about and today.

Speaker 8 (40:56):
Because she is somebody who's in her late twenties in
that clip, I think, and she's speaking in.

Speaker 1 (41:03):
That nineteen sixty is nineteen sixty one.

Speaker 8 (41:06):
Okay, yeah, And so she has learned to speak in
the middle of the previous century. So she's not going
to sound as arch as say black female activist Mary
McLeod Bethune, where if you listen to her making speeches,
she sounds like Eleanor Roosevelt. But she also Lorraine Hansbury
is not a modern person yet, and so she speaks

with a certain crisp directness. You sense that she knows
there's a microphone in front of her, and she's therefore
supposed to switch into a certain mode.

Speaker 1 (41:35):
And she treats her vowels right surely. But she's also
from the Midwest, and we love the Midwest.

Speaker 8 (41:41):
And therefore there's none of the weird rlessness. She's got
her proper urs. Yeah, that's let's make her the voice
of the twentieth century. That's the best voice of the
twentieth century.

Speaker 1 (41:51):
I really really loved that clip. So what happened to
the accent? The last time I hear it in the
movie was probably twenty oh four in The Aviator when
Kate Blinchett played Katherine Hepburn.

Speaker 12 (42:07):
It's all been a grand adventure, but it couldn't possibly last.

Speaker 1 (42:11):
But to alike you and I, the truth is some
Golden Age actors had never adopted it through the thirties
and forties, manly man actors like Gary Cooper and Clark
Gable brazenly brandished their rs.

Speaker 8 (42:26):
Frankly, might hear I don't give a damn.

Speaker 1 (42:28):
But then the accent started disappearing.

Speaker 8 (42:32):
There certainly seemed to come a time after World War Two,
and no one knows exactly why when that accent was
no longer fashionable.

Speaker 1 (42:42):
The war itself was probably a factor, with infantrymen from
all over the country mixing accents in dialects blending together.
And then, six years after the war ended, a film
performance that dealt a blow to the accent. Here's Jessica
Drake again.

Speaker 4 (43:00):
Marlon Brando and Streetcar Name Desire changed a lot of
people's ideas about what had to happen, certainly in movies
and entertainment and in the theater in terms of speech.

Speaker 6 (43:12):
You know what I say, ha ha, you hear me.

Speaker 4 (43:18):
But I also think that the culture began to shift
because the television came about. Now we had sources from
all over the country, but a lot coming from the West,
which in many ways to this day I would say,
has gone a long way to kind of leveling a

lot of regionalisms too, not just the Northeastern elite sound
but all accents.

Speaker 1 (43:47):
The year after Brando in Streetcar, the movie musical Singing
in the Rain, with a hilarious scene between the ridiculously
untalented actress played by the wonderful Genie Hagen being tutored
by an equally ridiculous addiction coach played by Kathleen Freeman.

Speaker 5 (44:07):
Now, let me hear you read your line.

Speaker 7 (44:09):
And I can't stand him.

Speaker 5 (44:12):
And I can't stand him.

Speaker 7 (44:15):
And I can't stamn.

Speaker 8 (44:19):
Can't get can't.

Speaker 6 (44:24):

Speaker 8 (44:26):
Yeah, you know that's a good that's a good timeline piece,
because there that is it's nineteen fifty two and they're
making fun of the idea that there's a certain plumby
way that people need to learn how to talk. And
that's that's a sign of the times. That character wouldn't
have been as funny in nineteen forty two.

Speaker 1 (44:44):
And then thirty years later The knockout punch against the Accent,
a nineteen eighty two performance by Hollywood heavyweight Meryl Streep.

Speaker 19 (44:54):
I don't care that I would die. I'm afraid that
you would die.

Speaker 1 (44:59):
With a to me, what is the significance of Sophie's choice?

Speaker 4 (45:04):
I think it made a huge impact because Meryl Streep's
Polish accent is flawless and real, and it does so
much to amplify the emotional life of that character and
the truth of that story.

Speaker 19 (45:25):
So I hid it maham under my skirt on the train.
I'm pretending that I am pregnant, you know, Oh you're
so afraid shaking.

Speaker 4 (45:37):
And I think after that, suddenly it became very important
to get the accents right. And everyone's trying to be
real now and not a fantasy or better than us
in the old days of the Golden Age and Louis B.
Mayer it's not that at all. It's now, let's really
get down in it.

Speaker 1 (46:01):
And do you miss what I guess we'll just call
this old timey accent.

Speaker 8 (46:06):
You know something, though, I don't miss it. And the
reason is because one with home video and streaming such
as it is, so much of it is at our
fingertips that we can have it whenever we want it.
And too, I enjoy listening to the variety of normal
modern voices. To me, it's all just a menagerie of
different vowels and consonants and melodies and slang and new

ways of using words. So no, I don't miss it,
but I think it's very charming.

Speaker 1 (46:37):
As for me, I kind of do miss it, and
you never know, it could come back and I'll be ready.
It's a coffee lover's dream.

Speaker 4 (46:50):
That's your best line. Excellent.

Speaker 1 (46:56):
I hope you enjoyed this Mobituary. May I ask you
to please rate and review our podcast. You can also
follow Mobituaries on Facebook and Instagram, and you can follow
me on the social media platform formerly known as Twitter
at Moroka. Hear all new episodes of Mobituaries every Wednesday
wherever you get your podcasts, and check out Mobituaries Great

Lives Worth Reliving, the New York Times best selling book,
available in paperback and audiobook. This episode of Mobituaries was
produced by Aaron Shrank. Our team of producers also includes
Hazel Brian and me Moroka, with engineering by Josh Han.
Our theme music is written by Daniel Hart. Our archival

producer is Jamie Benson. Mobituary's production company is Neon Hum Media.
Indispensable support from Alan Pang, Annie Cronenberg and everyone at
CBS News Radio. Special thanks to Tim Monk, Diane Camp,
Steve Razis, Rand Morrison, and Alberto Robina. Executive producers for

Mobituaries include Megan Marcus, Jonathan Hirsch, and Moroka. The series
is created by Yours Truly
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