Did We Speak More “Properly” 50 Years Ago?

A TieLike countless others, I’m a fan of Mad Men. One of the things I find fascinating about the show is the choice its creators made about the speech of the characters. The series almost completely eschews regional dialects (it takes place in New York, yet there are hardly any New York accents*), instead going for a slightly fanciful array of “period dialects.”

I recently stumbled on an excellent old John Mcwhorter article that unpackages the curious speech habits of the series’ dramatis personae. I was particularly struck by this assertion:

More generally, however, the writers at Mad Men seem to have an idea that in the early sixties, people spoke more “properly” than they do now. And they did, in formal and public settings. Until the late sixties, there was a sense that language was to be cossetted and dressed up in public in the same way that one wore deodorant.

Did people indeed once have a more “formal” register than they do now? This is a difficult question to answer in America. If we were having this conversation about the other side of the pond, it would be a no brainer: given how different British attitudes were toward speech a mere fifty years ago, it’s no surprise that the public school student of 2011 doesn’t talk like the public school student of 1961.

But in America? I would hazard to guess that people of my grandparents’ generation weren’t any more likely to take elocution lessons than I was. So why would there be more of a distinction between formal and informal registers in the early 60’s than there is now?

I doubt that we ever, as Americans, abandoned the “formal register.” I certainly speak with more crisply pronounced consonants at a job interview than I do hanging out in a car with my brother. The details of what this register entails may differ from one generation to the next, but I don’t think the phenomenon is going away.

However, I do think this type of “elevated” speech is used differently now than it was in the 1950s. Particularly when it comes to media: until the mid-twentieth Century, “realistic” film was usually more heightened, formal, and idealized. What the market forces were that dictated this I’ve never quite understood. But television seemed to usher in a new era of narrative media, one where the focus is on characters who are normal, average and recognizable rather than those who are dashing, glamorous and speak like aristocratic 19th-Century New Englanders.

While watching Alfred Hitchcock Presents, a show from the 1950’s, I often notice this change in action. The older generation of actors largely speak with artificial “mid-Atlantic accents”, while younger actors (such as Robert Morse and John Cassavetes) speak in startlingly informal registers. It’s an interesting example of how rapidly attitudes were changing at the time.

Of course, there’s always the simple fact of language change. Each generation weakens some aspects of the previous generation’s speech. What, then, makes older dialects “formal” sounding?

*At times, Mad Men seems almost willfully anachronistic in this regard.  There’s something bizarre about watching the very Californian-sounding Elisabeth Moss sit down to dinner with her Brooklyn-accented family.  But I have to admit I don’t mind this.  It somehow fits with one of the larger themes of this series, the way that Americans try to make themselves into individualistic, transient, non-regional supermen.


About Ben

Ben T. Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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13 Responses to Did We Speak More “Properly” 50 Years Ago?

  1. Marc Leavitt says:

    I was 21 in 1961. We spoke pretty much the way we do today. Slang changes. Forms of formal address change; no one was called Ms. Code shifting was as much a fact of life as it is now. The mid-Atlantic accent used by actors in the 1930s was still in use by older actors, such as Katherine Hepburn and Betty Davis, but by the end of the 1940s for younger actors, it was fairly passe; of course there are always exceptions. Jim Bacchus used his Larchmont Lockjaw in Gilligan’s Island, and so forth.

    • trawicks says:

      A similar “mid-Atlantic” accent, Edith Skinner’s American Standard, also into the 21st-Century in American Stage acting. Even long after “mid-Atlantic” English’s Old Hollywood heyday, many actors still code-shifted between “modern” and “classical” texts.

  2. Eric Armstrong says:

    Actor’s accents in the fifties were a fashion of actors, (and directors and producers) not representative of the average American. Certainly the fashion for standard accents has changed radically, but it is still discussed amongst voice and speech trainers, as recently as YESTERDAY at the Voice and Speech Trainers Association (VASTA) conference in Chicago! The expectation that people who were professional speakers needed to modify their regional speech has been a fashion in parts of the the US for a long time, and that expectation has changed somewhat is most parts, but certainly not in the South. Status is marked in our society by many things, and speech is certainly one of them. The reason actors continued to use old-fashioned stage accents for film and tv up to and into the fifties is because they were trained STAGE actors and saw film and tv as being recorded versions of the what they had learned to do for the stage. As people came to understand that film and tv weren’t the stage, things began to change. Unfortunately, the trainers are often WAY behind the trend, and teaching students to be flexible in their accent is what is needed, not rigid in adopting an out-dated elevated form that they will only ever use occasionally. Traditions in actor training die hard, and this will be an ongoing debate for my entire career, I imagine… I have been teaching for 17 years and will be for the next 25 I imagine…

    • trawicks says:

      You make some excellent points here. In the US, at least, I think attitudes have finally, mercifully changed. I was in an undergraduate acting program a mere ten years ago, and at that time the heavily-mid-Atlantic influenced “Standard American” accent was still de rigeur. I don’t think it has entirely been wiped clean from North American stages, however: it seemed the gold standard when I saw a Stratford Festival production a few years back, and everybody clearly used the accent in a Pearl Theatre (NYC) production of “The Master Builder” I saw in the 2000s. But there are other major classical companies (Chicago Shakespeare being a good example) that have clearly done away with mid-Atlantic speech. The change is slow, but it’s happening!

  3. IVV says:


    We don’t say “warsh” anymore, where I’m from. So there’s that.

  4. Guy Wisen says:

    If the issue is use of accents in “Mad Men” then there’s a perfectly legitimate reason you’re not hearing “New York accents” in the ad man world.

    Until the 1960’s Madison Avenue was, aside from being virtually completely male stronghold as depicted, it was also a notoriously “WASP” world. A bastion of Ivy Leaguers from proper upper-class stock.

    Not being an adland expert I can’t rattle off the exact point where some pioneering break-through by New York ethnics – the carriers of the NY accent – first occurred. But from general knowledge and reading Mad Ave was a decidedly ‘restricted’ territory, certainly so far as Jews were excluded, and probably just as much for NYC’s other main ethnics – Irish & Italians.

    The show won notice right from episode #1 for depicting the overwhelming condescension directed at ‘the girls’ – secretaries all – in the office. (I’ve talked to a couple of women graphic artists who worked in these places at that time. One refuses to watch because it is ‘painfully accurate’. The was watching, for the same reason.)

    Thusly the program has won praise for this accuracy, and has won its many younger viewers who are fascinated by this time capsule.

    As thoroughly researched as it is — producer/writer Weinstein having done extensive interviewing of people who worked in these agencies at that time — he has also nailed the Ivy-dominated element that existed there at the time. Roger is the Sterling example. Peter Campbell is the ambitious next-gen specimen, frustrated by his expectations of quick success due him via the entitlements he feels as result of his background. His rival Cosgrove was equally ‘qualified’ by lineage.

    You might specifically recall back in season 1 (or 2 maybe) when the potential client was a Jewish-run middle-class-targeted department store was heard by the Guys to be coming to Sterling-Cooper to feel out the agency, represented by the daughter of the founder who, naturally, came to be a fling for Don. The Mad Men crack jokes about why the prospect of talking to Jews (even ones who might be bill-paying clients).

    This ethnic division was generally equally true for the secretaries, certainly for the executives. These girls are shown as Seven Sisters grads who, even if Jewish (like the one who snared Sterling), come from families of the upper-middle class who grew up in Bronxville and never The Bronx. Even if granddad or daddy came up from the Lower East Side, they were now assimilated strivers whose daughters went to Smith, Radcliffe, etc and did not speak “New York”.

    The career of ‘Peggy’ seems second only to Don as a center of the series. Your note that the character speaks out-of-character with her Brooklyn family members (I’d never thought of it) is interesting. Though growing up Jewish in the Bronx I can certainly remember cases where a generation – or as in Peggy’s case, sometimes a half-generation – sometimes made a big difference in terms of “assimilation” including degree of ‘working class accent’. Due to these personal observations I didn’t think to question that youngest child Peggy spoke less Brooklyny that her older sister. On the other hand I am not expert as you folks are in the fine points of regional accents to have noticed her manner of speech might be an incorrect choice even given the above.

    I probably have prattled on too long, but, given your specific complaints I suppose I felt a need to explain and emphasize at some length something about the use of accents by Mad Men actors that seems to have been beyond your collective knowledge.

    New York ethnics began to crash this Mad Ave barrier during the time frame the series has thus far spanned. Part of the whole fun has been watching the outsiders Don & Peggy, though different from each other, deal with their outsiderness (a reason Don was intrigued enough by Peggy’s insightful intelligence for him give her a chance at all was this sensed commonality.)

    How Don Draper – a mystery man with no known class or educational qualifications – infiltrated this world and became its superstar is itself a mystery. But it’s precisely that mystery Weinstein pegged the whole show around.

    Yours –

    • m.m. says:

      reading about accent assimilation and family dynamic reminds me of my family, where I, the oldest, assimilated into a more coastal california accent, but we eventually moved out inland around the time when my brother was born, where it’s a more midlands/less non-standard sounding variety. The result is me speaking more californian than him.

    • trawicks says:

      I actually don’t have any “complaints” about Mad Men–McWhorter takes a bit more issue with the language of the show than I do–because the lack of regional accents on the show strikes me as part of the milieu. Although located in New York, it seems like everyone grew up (or wants to have grown up) elsewhere.

      Regarding Peggy and her family, I actually would find that scene less anachronistic if it were set today. Young, wealthy New Yorkers of my generation (the under 40 set) are often so disassociative of their parents’ accents that I’m often surprised to learn they are New Yorkers. I’ve heard 17-year-old girls talking on the Upper East Side who sound like they might have grown up in Orange County. But Mad Men’s time period strikes me as slightly early in the game for this kind of total dialect erasure. As I said though, I didn’t really mind this in the context of the show: it says a lot about Peggy’s relationship with her family and upbringing.

    • opsimathphd says:

      You are right about the discrimination in the ad industry, but I think you are a little off on the timing. My father, who was born in 1918, retired from the ad business in 1963 or thereabouts for health reasons. When he retired he had already gone from account exec to copy chief to creative head, and had worked for three of the largest ad agencies of the time in those capacities; he was quite a power on Madison Avenue. Not only was he Jewish, so were many of his colleagues: also Irish and Italian. Unquestionably he encountered that kind of discrimination, but it was already disappearing in the Fifties.

      As to accents, although my dad grew up in Brooklyn and the Bronx, he had almost no trace of any kind of New York accent; I never asked him how that had happened, but I know that I, born in Manhattan in 1946, was made to take speech lessons at boarding school. And this was not a finishing school, it was a very very progressive, Auntie Mame-ish, call-the-teachers-by-their-first-names kind of boarding school. So I suspect the New York accent(s) were being trained out of a lot of people. It was, and still is, definitely a class marker, and I think perhaps that fact was faced somewhat more openly back then than it is today.

      I do think we spoke more formally in the Fifties and Sixties, but that is only a feeling, with no evidence to back it up. It may also have been caused by my personal circumstances: in the Sixties I was mostly working as a secretary, but by the Seventies I had shifted into management in the professional theater, a notably informal milieu, and I have remained there.

      • trawicks says:

        I’ve often wondered at what point New Yorkers starting specifically adopting more General American-like features. There has probably been some degree of accent “correction” in New York city for two centuries: the accent has been stigmatized since the 19th-Century. But in earlier eras, there was probably some kind of “aristocratic” New York accent that had more prestige.

        I’m re-reading the Great Gatsby, and am struck by how many of the characters are mid-western transplants. It’s possible the “General Americanization” of the city began even as far back as the 1920’s.

  5. Guy Wisen says:

    (Just a PS – I wrote & re-wrote the preceding post on the fly and see I’ve left a number of vestigial errors in wording, agreement, etc in my wake. I was wanting to put time into my contribution, but not enough for proper proof-reading. Forgive my sins – Tnx-Guy.)

  6. Charles Sullivan says:

    Babe Bennet was a character on Canadian TV (This Hour has 22 minutes) who comically portrayed the 1940s women’s actress dialect.

  7. AUDIO NOIR says:

    as for the bizzare mid-atlantic accent you do find sometimes in pre 1950’s american movies there does not seem to be any rhyme or reason to who used it and who didn’t. it doesn’t seem as though there was any real pressure one way or the other and it seems to have been a matter of personal choice. i personally think the accent sounds rather silly and above all else extremely artificial and “put on”. my dad is in his 70’s and a big time fan of old movies and i asked him about it and he said “only’ people in movies talked like that”.