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Obsolete American Accents

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Analysis of the  speaking patterns of early 1900s presidents from reddit:


This is great! Some observations:

  • McKinley seems to adopt an exaggerated rhetorical style whereby unstressed vowels are given their stressed value (e.g. "governmEnt" with the vowel of DRESS). He also rolls his Rs and is non-rhotic -- both traits that he must have learned consciously, being from Ohio.

  • Teddy Roosevelt is also non-rhotic, although this would have been standard in New York where he grew up. Initial and stressed plosives seem unaspirated -- e.g. "terms", "people". The way he says "Republican Party" at 0:49 is bizarre, using the FOOT vowel instead of STRUT, almost as if he is trying to pronounce it as a classical Latin word. "Can't" has the vowel of FATHER, as in southern England. There is no trace of nasal influence on the stressed vowels of "men" and "industry" -- this would be a surefire marker of a non-American today. An extremely conservative fully-back vowel in "who".

  • Taft The first speaker who actually sounds American to me! Fully rhotic. Nasalization of the vowel in "man". The final vowel in "justifies" has slight glide deletion. Lenition of the /t/ in "duty".

  • Wilson Not much to work with. It's noticeable that Wilson, like most of the preceding speakers, has completely clear /l/s with no trace of velarization, as in "unmistakable". This may be what sounded "Welsh" to /u/intergalacticspy

  • Harding Lenition of /t/ in "eighty", "liberty". Rhotic.

  • Coolidge. Variably rhotic. Sounds like Woody Woodpecker.

  • Hoover intones his speech like a monk singing Gregorian chant. (try 1:16).

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  • 2 weeks later...

The Atlantic has an article on Katharine Hepburn's accent (an invention called Mid-Atlantic English) which has disappeared.




The thrust was that with the advent of the "talkie" movie, there were a lot of voice schools who coached actors and actresses on their enunciation.


The punchline.


So how did the accent die? Thanks in part to these sharp-tongued headliners like Bogart, Americans began to see themselves better reflected in film. The Mid-Atlantic accent was very much in vogue until its abrupt decline post-World War II. Taught in finishing schools and society parlors, the accent had become common to off-screen America. But more people spoke as they do today, with regionally developed accents like Boston Brahmin or Locust Valley Lockjaw. The rejection of Mid-Atlantic was also a rejection of classicism. Highfalutin figures in American society who luxuriated in the vernacular were edged out by the everyman. "This idealization of the linguistic behavior of upper class Americans continued, in some Hollywood films, up to the late '40s and '50s," says Dr. Marko Modiano, senior lecturer in English studies at Gävle University. "It lost its position with the rise of a new generation of film stars who, like everyone else, were moving more and more toward the kind of neutral American English which we hear today in the US."

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