“Aristocratic” American, Part 2: Samuel Barber

Samuel Barber's childhood home in West Chester, PA (wikimedia)

Samuel Barber’s childhood home in West Chester, PA (wikimedia)

[This is my second post on the non-rhotic accent once spoken by the Northeastern US Elite. My first post on the subject, about Eleanor Roosevelt’s accent, can be found here.

West Chester is an town in Eastern Pennsylvania with a beautiful mix of Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian architecture. One of its most famous native sons is Samuel Barber, renowned for his Adagio for Strings. (You’d recognize his Adagio as the sad music from Platoon, the 9/11 Memorial, and The Elephant Man). Curious about Barber’s life story, I located a series of 1949 interviews with him on NPR’s website.

You get a particularly good sense of how Barber spoke in this interview. His accent does not, to say the least, resemble contemporary Philadelphia English. Entirely non-rhotic, with the TRAP-BATH split throughout, this is clearly “non-local” speech. Barber has some relatives from Boston, which might offer a partial explanation, but keep in mind he spent his entire childhood and adolescence in the Philadelphia area.

Located 17 miles west of the City of Brotherly Love, West Chester is in an area that generations ago was a major branch of the Northeastern US elite (America’s “aristocracy sans monarch,” if you will). So it’s possible Barber’s lect is an example of the RP-like accent once heard in parts of the affluent East Coast (and in some cases beyond).

But even so, Barber’s accent was probably atypical. For instance, contrast Barber with this video of another West Chester native, General Smedley Butler. Butler was born nearly three decades before Barber, was from a comparable upper-class background and yet spoke with an accent close to contemporary General American English.

This is perhaps another reason why this type of “American Queen’s English” never caught on as widely as its British counterpart; it was too inconsistent. If you grew up in a wealthy household in England in the Edwardian era and attended elite schools, it is very likely you would speak with a predictable accent.

But clearly, there are wealthy young men from West Chester who didn’t speak like Barber, just as there were no doubt wealthy young men from St. Louis who didn’t speak like T.S. Eliot*, and wealthy young women from Hartford who didn’t sound like Katherine Hepburn.

I can’t dismiss the idea that Barber’s accent was perhaps affect. But it nevertheless suggests the remnants of a linguistic trend that might have taken root had demographics and history gone in a different direction.

*Eliot came from a prestigious New England family, so it’s hardly surprising he didn’t talk like a Midwesterner.

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About Ben

Ben Trawick-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 “Aristocratic” American, Part 2: Samuel Barber

  1. jp 吉平 says:

    Hello! Are you enjoying the Seattle winter?

    I wonder if Barber’s accent isn’t a product of his education, rather than his hometown. I perceive it as a prestige accent, something to be picked up at the Ivy League or while hob-nobbing with high society. Not my professional opinion, just an amateur hunch.

    When I heard the Barber interview, I immediately thought of Kelsey Grammar voicing Sideshow Bob. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=atX0M99CB5Y

    • Sideshow Bob isn’t far off! Grammer was a graduate of the Juilliard School at a time when Edith Skinner’s speech training techniques were at their height. She generally advocated a type of non-rhotic English very similar the kind of “elite” East Coast English I’ve described here.

  2. Ed says:

    Is there any stigma attached to this accent in the USA? I imagine that it would be considered pretentious.

    Is there anyone in Canada who speaks like this? It seems to me that rhoticity is more dominant in Canada than in the USA. This is surprising when the British ruled Canada for much longer than they ruled the eastern states of the USA.

    • It is true, rhoticity is almost 100% in Canada (until I find one of those elusive non-rhotic New Brunswick accents), which is vaguely paradoxical given its stronger ties to Britain. Three possibilities, though:

      1.) A large proportion of America’s greatest metropoles are on the Atlantic, while most of Canada’s are at least several hundred miles inland. I suspect that if Montreal were located in Nova Scotia, some type of local non-rhotic speech would have emerged. That is to say, the fact that America had easier shipping routes between large American cities and large British cities may have helped maintain non-rhotic accents.

      2.) New England was apparently settled by a large number of East Anglians, and early settlers often influence long-term pronunciation trends.

      3.) A somewhat more fanciful hypothesis which I read long ago is that early Royalist settlers in Canada perceived American English as non-rhotic, and attempted to actively disassociate themselves from the rebels by “rhoticizing” their speech. Not entirely implausible, but difficult to find real evidence for!

      • Ed says:

        I would agree with you that the 3rd one sounds fanciful. The other two sound more plausible.

        The comment below mentions some non-rhoticity in Newfoundland. That is on the east coast and was the first area of British settlement.

        I’m not familiar with New Brunswick. I’d like to hear their speech.

    • Robert Cox says:

      @ Ed:

      R-fullness does seem to be more dominant in Canada to me too, but I’ve read about a few small r-dropping enclaves in Newfoundland. There are some accents in eastern Canada which are unlike any others in North America. A quick YouTube search for “newfie accent” yielded this video. I really had to listen closely, but starting at 0:14 in the video, I hear: “Yeah, St. [bəˈnaːd] I mean they came across with the Vikings an’ that. Somebody said they was [ðeɐ].”

      @ BTS:

      I was going bring up 1). As you said, to get to Montreal you have to sail into the North American continent a bit and up (which is to the southwest in this case) the St. Lawrence River. Whereas America had (and still has) many ports right along the Atlantic. But I also wonder if the many Scottish settlers in Canada were at least partly to blame. And I also wonder if those Royalists you mention simply left the US before R-lessness existed there (or at least before it was very common) and so they themselves didn’t have R-less (or “non-rhotic”) accents. I just enjoy speculating about these kinds of things. Don’t take this too seriously please.

      • Ed says:

        That is an interesting accent. I don’t think that I’ve ever heard such speech before.

        Non-rhoticity on the east coast would fit with links to Britain and probably to the non-rhotic eastern states of the USA.

  3. Ben W says:

    Ed asks whether an accent like this would be stigmatized in the US. To me, as an American, “pretentious” isn’t the right term — this accent sounds ridiculous. The best I can describe it is that it sounds like a gay man doing a rather campy imitation of the kind of old-timey female Southern accent I associate with movies like “Gone With the Wind”. I imagine the reason for this is the combination of the R-dropping in “word”, “heard” etc. and the high-pitched, affected prosody.

    I can’t believe there’s anyone in the US who’s talked this way for several decades. I went to Princeton in the late 1980’s/early 1990’s and the students basically spoke GA just like everyone else. If you heard any other accents, they were just standard regional accents (Boston, Southern, etc.). The kind of students who were planning on going into the “I’m going to rule the world” class tried hard to act like preppy frat boys (or the female equivalent), which meant they dressed in a way that screamed “elite” but would “slum” in their behavior (e.g. drinking cheap beer, acting like they were constantly on Spring Break). If they affected any accent at all, it would probably be a California surfer accent.

    • dw says:

      For what it’s worth (pretty much zero, but you do mention it), Barber was indeed gay.

      He sounds to me like someone trying hard to do RP/mid-Atlantic, and occasionally overshooting the mark: the back vowel in “piano”, for example (which is still TRAP in RP).

  4. Ben W says:

    BTW I just listened to that Smedley Butler clip. This way of speaking doesn’t sound pretentious at all; in fact if anything it sounds a bit like rural Midwestern speech, maybe a little too nasally, with some vowels too high and the R’s pronounced too strongly — almost as if the tongue is consistently held a bit too high. This is audible in words like “American” and “dictatorship” near the beginning. At the same time the prosody is somewhat old-fashioned. Some words sound distinctly old-fashioned, like “lead” in “lead to a fascist dictatorship”, although I can’t say exactly why.

  5. Jerry says:

    I grew up in West Chester, as did my Mom and her family going back many generations. I’ve never heard a fellow West Chestrian (or Chester Countian for that matter) speak like Samuel Barber. It seems to be a studied affectation. General Butler is much more familiar sounding, not at all out of place in southeast PA.

    My family speaks with a mostly Gen American accent, but with some Philly-influenced oddities. For example, my Mom pronounces “legal” as “liggle” (though we kids didn’t pick that up). I however used to say “wudder” instead of “water” and “munster” for “monster” until college cured me of those.

    Hmm, I think I’ll call Mom and see what she thinks of the new “Iggles” head coach.

  6. Steve Bronfman says:

    He has an Oxbride accent. What could only be described as an upper-class transatlantic one. I’d assume he had an English nanny and/or teachers.

  7. Inchoative says:

    What a delightful blog to have discovered.

    It’s absolutely an affect in my opinion. When I was kid in the early 80s my lesbian aunt had an older gay male friend who had been a teacher at a New England prep school. He was gay, and sounded exactly like this. I think it was kind of a Polari for upper-class American gays. A way to signal that they were gay, but that they came from one of the good families LOL.