Dialect Work in the Old Days

Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps is a wonderful piece of classic moviemaking, but there is something amiss with the accent (not to mention dialect) of its leading man, Robert Donat:

Donat is the handsome chap who remarks, ‘Daaahhhling, fancy seeing you!’ within the first seconds of the trailer. Which is funny, because Donat’s character is supposed to be Canadian, not British. This is just one example of the way in which old films are endearingly anachronistic inaccurate when it comes to accents and dialects. Take, for example, the most popular film ever made:

As many a linguist has noted, the English spoken in the ‘Old South’ was very different from the English spoken there today. That being said, it’s unlikely that the accent spectrum of the plantation aristocracy encompassed both the plummy British vowels of Leslie Howard and Clark Gable’s all-American Ohian.

I love old movies, and don’t intend to suggest otherwise. But I find their careless anachronisms with regards to dialect telling about how our culture has changed over the past century. Perhaps even in the past few decades. My impression, which I’ve expressed here before, is that our electronic age has assisted English-speakers in identifying and understanding accents other than their own.

I don’t think it’s entirely a matter of the internet, either. Westerners have had a voracious appetite for media that began with the rise of cable television in the 1980s, intensified with the rise of the World Wide Web in the 1990s, and boomed with the emergence of streaming video and Netflix in the 00s. And if America’s current craze for Dr. Who* is any indication, this has made for a more international palate in terms of media.

But has this truly made us more dialect proficient?

*Okay, an admittedly bookish subsection of America.


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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12 Responses to Dialect Work in the Old Days

  1. gaelsano says:

    I agree with William Labov; accents are getting more distinguished, not less. I also inferred from his talks and interviews that many people do not realize this and notice it extremely well when hearing isolated sound samples, but rarely in regular speech. I’m assuming our brains do the adjustments for us.

    Most people simply do not have an ear for accents. I think the old movies stand out for you because the prestige accent was an accent with variable rhoticity based on New York City and the theater coaches taught “RP style” vowels and consonants. That carried over into film. Modern films have gotten worse if anything.

    The only feature people can master of London speech is r-dropping. A few noteworthy do glottalization and l-vocalization, but in general I hear r-dropping plus ridiculous stabs at London vowels. RP impressions are usually better, but not much. Likewise, the one feature of General American speech outsiders master is the ash (elongated regular ash, or diphthongal ash) and the DRESS vowel. For Southern speech, it’s the monophtongization of PRICE.

    Side note:
    TV can be a great way to study accents. You have a large body of work to listen to. If you watch It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and listen to the Mac character (the actor’s a Philly native). You can hear rounding of water (wood-er) and occasionally a ferry->hurry merger. He hyper-corrected once by saying “Yeah, well, herry up!”

    • gaelsano says:

      Much like your bit on Southern accents, the stereotypes we have about strange accents* are often false.

      *strange as in foreign, unfamiliar, outside

  2. Ellen K. says:

    I’m puzzled by your use of the term “anachronistic”. I understand the word to refer only to things that are out of place time-wise. And the online dictionaries I’ve checked only give that definition. But you seem to be using it to mean something else. Do you mean out of place geographically? If so, why use the word “anachronistic” for that?

    • trawicks says:

      Just sloppiness on my part, I’m afraid! I got caught up on the fact that Donat’s accent is old-fashioned in and of itself … although “anachronistic” might describe some of the accents in GWTW,

  3. AL says:

    I used to be completely oblivious to accents and dialects, until I started reading blogs like this. Now I’m a bit obsessed! I still know close to nothing about the linguistics of it, and I can’t read IPA or any of that, but love reading your posts and I’ve started to pick out features when listening to people in everyday situations. It’s fun!

  4. Sooryan FM says:

    The weird thing: people from the NCVS region think they talk like national newscasters. They’re not aware of their accent even when they are confronted with it.

    People from Denver: We talk like people on TV.
    People from L.A.: No, we talk like people on TV.
    People from Chicago: Shut up, we talk like people on TV talk.

    I’d say that people from Denver, Phoenix and S. Diego speak the most standard American English (the one that is taught by accent coaches in Hollywood). Unfortunately, L.A. accent has been spoiled by Valley Girls, Surfer Dudes and the like…On the East Coast, ”newscasters” English is spoken in Miami, and in Vermont (both accents are low back merged).

    • trawicks says:

      I’d actually say the most ‘standard’ American English (if it exists anymore) is in Omaha and Des Moines. Miami has a lot of pure GenAm speakers as well, though. If there’s a native dialect that comes close to GenAm, I’d say it’s probably are Mid-Eastern PA (i.e. around Allentown or thereabouts)–there seems to be a small pocket there where features aren’t particularly Northern, Midland, Eastern or Western.

      • gaelsano says:

        I don’t know why GenAm has to be restricted so much. If you look at Upstate New York East of Syracuse and North of Poughkeepsie and South of the deep Adirondacks, you’ve got GenAm with the college-educated adults at least.

        I grew up there. There was probably above-normal haplogy (not just “diff’rent” but also “probly” and “vowels and con’s’nts”) but the vowels were not “Northern Cities” and most people had cot-caught un-merged in careful speech. If you get North near Canada and near Vermont you get cot-caught merged and if you go west to Rochester you hear the diphthongal TRAP and the fronted PALM. You can go pretty far South and still be GenAm. When you approach downstate the only problem seems to dissimilative r-dropping in words like juror and the whole “Ah-range/orange deal.” True NYC accent seems limited to Bronx through Long Island.

        I’d say no one talks with newscaster’s speech in conversation with fellow locals (eg. wales-whales unmerged). Personally I never say wHales except when speaking with non-natives and only hear it among Southerners (sometimes) and among Irishers.

  5. Marc Leavitt says:

    I just had the pleasure of re-viewing “Mrs. Miniver,” which I hadn’t seen in years. Walter Pidgeon plays the husband to Greer Garson’s wife in an upper middleclass English family at the outset of World War II. Pidgeon, a native of Canada, makes no attempt to sound English, nor does the movie in any way give him a pass by inserting a backstory about his national origins. In “Captains Courageous,” Spencer Tracy plays a loveable Portuguese fisherman with an accent that must have come from the far side of Mars. In “Gone with the Wind,” Leslie Howard speaks the very best RP the Old South could provide.
    If it’s condescending, sue me, but I think audiences were bit less sophisicated in the thirties and forties. On the other hand, during the same period, as a mark of sophistication, we have Katherine Hepburn and her colleagues speaking the best mid-Atlantic English that never existed outside of Hollywood. Today, actors who speak other Englishes routinely assume other dialects, some with great, and some with little success. Despite the too-frequent lapses, I prefer the current modus operandi, and I simply turn on my willing suspension of disbelief machine when I watch the old movies.

  6. trawicks says:

    I don’t think that’s condescending at all. Audiences simply had a limited ability to hear accents outside their own until television came along. Obviously, this would have differed depending upon where you lived (people in New York or Chicago would have been more exposed to different types of speech than in the small Iowa town where my grandfather grew up).

  7. Laura F says:

    I was impresed not only by the accent olso by how the characters talk!
    Is remarkable how those actors could make their performanses so good even with the differents accents…. very good now I feel like encourage to see the movie, nice even being so old.