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.