Funny, You Don’t Sound American

Really?  Seriously?  You think I’m “faking a pretentious British accent”?  I can tell you the British are never fooled. 

Europeans, on the other hand, always ask what part of England I’m from.  And the Australians think I’m Irish.

Wait, I’ve got that wrong.  What the Australians actually say is:  “Oh, your American accent’s not that bad.”

And then I drop on the floor laughing because I know exactly what they mean, which I suppose makes me some sort of self-loathing Bad American.

But my Aussie friends have a point.  Of all the castoffs of the British Empire, we Yanks are probably the unprettiest speakers.  Fellow Americans:  When was the last time somebody in your physical environs made you think:  What law do I have to break to get a voice a like yours?  More likely you’re listening around you thinking:  Stop whining.  Stop prattling.  Stop honking.  Stop wheedling like a baby.  Will you stop mumbling, for God’s sake?

Of course, I’m a little weird about it.  Being a radio volunteer will make you very, very aware of speaking voices and what they convey, and I’ve been a radio volunteer for 20 years now.

And yet it seems like there was a time when (at least on stage and screen) my countryfolk had a special gift for the spoken word.  The recent passing of Lauren Bacall is a good vantage point from which to look back at the life and death of the Great American Speaking Voice.

Here she is in To Have and Have Not (sorry about the ad at the beginning—you know the drill.  Punch Mute, then crank it way up).

Hear how she does that?  Anybody got a match?  Hardly any of us are born with Bacall’s smoky, resonant pipes, but that’s beside the point.  She’s completely in control of what she sounds like, barely speaking at all yet hitting every syllable clear as a bell.  That’s not an accident.

Actors of Bacall’s generation were trained in something called American Stage Speech, often described as “Mid-Atlantic,” and described by a lot of us now as “that funny way they talked in old movies.”  It was a style of speech taught in the East Coast theatre world, thought to be exceptionally clear and attractive and well-adapted to highbrow texts like Shakespeare.  It was also thought to be a good jumping-off point from which to learn dialects of all kinds.

But when silver-screen actors like Bacall blurted their contemporary lines with this enunciation they’d worked years to perfect, it didn’t sound pretentious.  It sounded perfectly suited to the world they were in:  the still-new, blown-up hyperworld of cinema.

American Stage Speech is still taught, but when I studied it briefly myself at American Conservatory Theatre, we students were made to understand we were lucky enough to be learning a stringent, demanding classical skill that was on a bullet train to extinction.  It involved memorizing charts of phonetic characters, diphthongs, and stop-plosives, and teachers moaning that nobody in this country could pronounce a decent “z” any longer.

But even before I took the class, before I trained for radio, I was still getting the “British accent” hassle from people.

My hairtrigger allergy to lousy speech goes back even further:  by third grade at the latest, I realized I wanted to sound nothing like my fellow schoolgirls when I spoke.  Already they were getting on my nerves, especially with the word no, which they always turned into a ten-second, high-dive, downward-spiraling dirge terminating in an endless, nasalized wail.  I can still hear it.  It still makes my skin crawl.  (Speakers of languages whose word for no ends in a consonant have no idea how good they’ve got it.)

Never, I remember thinking.  I will never sound like that.  Ne-vah!  Ne-vah!  I shall fight them on the beaches, I shall fight them on the fields and in the streets…

And there in the schoolyards of my small California town, another funny thing happened on the way to the 21st century.  Starting around the late 1970s, I started noticing that the teenagers surrounding me had inflections in their speech that differed from teenage speech in TV shows and movies made even 10 years earlier.  It was a certain broad, smiling sigh in the way they’d say all righhhhhhht! and oh my gahhhhhhhd!  They sounded cool and fun and intellectually untroubled.

Little did I know that this beachy patois would pretty much become mainstream American speech, let alone that speech scholars (mystified as to how and why it had shown up but compelled to document its importance) would eventually deem it the California Vowel Shift.  Even Frank Zappa’s skewering of it in his massive hit single “Valley Girl” (1982) couldn’t stop it; instead it moved from cultural obsession to unquestioned norm.  Suddenly an entire generation wanted to sound like spoiled rich kids in Southern California.  This was, after all, the 1980s.

If you consciously said no to the California Vowel Shift as a young Californian (which, with typical crankiness, I did), that alone would get you accused of being on permanent audition for Brideshead Revisited.

But since its canonization, the California Vowel Shift has not just become more common (especially—sadly—among women, no matter their age or career position); it’s snowballed from a bright and vaguely annoying speech style to full-blown, eardrum-assaulting baby-babble hell (“Hal!”).  About two years ago on a commuter flight, I sat through safety instructions from a young flight attendant whose “CVS” was so bad that I literally couldn’t understand what she was saying.  I felt like I was listening to a sped-up five-year-old rattle on about buckles, straps, and flotation devices.

Sure, language changes.  It’s inevitable and essential.  I’m just wondering why it had to change so that we all sound like gum-snapping tweens with bloated clothing allowances.

How do we fix this?  Maybe we shouldn’t be allowed to graduate from anywhere until we’re forced to do an audio selfie and listen to it at least ten times.  After all, visual selfies don’t bug us at all; try to stop people in a nightclub booth from doing the snap-and-gawk two-step, with accompanying looped soundtrack of “Oh my God!” for hours on end.

But ask for an audio-only selfie and watch people run away in horror:  “Nooooo!  I sound so stupid!”

Well, sure.  But listening to my own voice was part of my radio training, and it was invaluable.  It takes about three or four listens before you stop hating the sound of yourself and start taking apart how you make sound with your language.  And then you can start sounding the way you really want to.

How did I want to sound on mic?  Like Maggie Smith in a Maggie Smith role?  No, not really.  I just wanted to sound good.  Which is why I actually pronounced my t’s and d’s instead of hiccupping over them, which will make a name like Minton sound like a stifled sneeze.  I wanted to give every word full play.  I kept the habit.

Damn near anyone can sound better, but few of us are provoked to think about how we sound at all.  That’s too bad.  Speaking clearly shouldn’t be perceived as a kind of burning of your American passport.

Anybody got a match? 

 

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