Why has American English changed so much in the past 80 years?

Why has American English changed so much in the past 80 years? I’m not talking about the evolution of new kinds of slang, or the development of new vocabularies to describe new things. I’m talking about the accents of American English, the timbre and intonation of speech. Listen to the famous broadcast of the Hindenberg disaster – who talks anymore in a voice like that announcer’s? Listen to the soundtrack of any Hollywood movie made before 1960. It is as if these movies were the product of some previously unknown English-speaking country. Regardless of whether the characters were upper-class or lower-class, white or black, Northern or Southern, Eastern or Western, it is highly unlikely you have heard people speaking that way in the last ten years, outside of a retirement home. Why?

A trickle down of annunciational-tradition with-in a familial, and community wide setting. Basically, people fit into their neighborhoods by adapting to different folkways and mores acquired therein. The 1950’s style broadcaster’s language is a by-product of a new wave (at the time) of mass listening, then after the invent of the T.V. they continued the style because there were more and more people mimicking each other. This is all an opinion from my knowledge of accents…I bet someone will come along and elaborate…

Ever notice how the children in those old movies yell everything they say? :wink:

Mom: “How was school today, Billy?”

Anyway, some WAGs here…

I think a lot of it has to do with recording technology. People had to talk a certain way in order for the microphones to clearly pick up their voices. One example of this is the singing style known as “crooning” (Bing Crosby et al). Early microphones had delicate diaphragms, and speaking or singing loudly directly into the microphone could damage that diaphragm. So the soft, “crooning” style was invented to avoid this problem.

I think, also, that early recording equipment did not handle low frequencies well. In addition, sound was easily muddied. Combine this with the fact that movie microphones are usually overhead, rather than directly in front of the actor’s mouth, and you have a situation where the actors had to speak in a slightly higher-pitched voice, and had to enunciate very clearly. So diction was stressed back then. Of course, it’s stressed now too, but with a different emphasis now that recording technology is vastly improved.

Another possible factor: back then, radio and movies were still something of a novelty, and the actors/announcers were usually crossing over from stage acting, such as Broadway and Vaudeville. In stage acting, everything has to be exaggerated, from your movements to your voice, even today. Because most of the people in the theater can’t see the facial expressions of the actors on stage, a system of gestures and vocal technique was used to convey emotion to the audience. Ever notice, in old horror movies, the way a frightened character (for example, one being stalked by the monster) will raise the back of his/her hand to his/her mouth? That was an almost universal stage method of conveying fear to the audience. It’s the same thing with vocal technique - the actors had to speak loudly and clearly so that even the people sitting in the back row of the theater could clearly hear the dialogue. It’s also a sonic fact high frequencies will remain distinct over distance, while low frequencies tend to get lost over distance. This is why sopranos and tenors are more popular than basses and altos in opera. Get a bass vocalist on stage, with no amplification, and you’re going to have a very hard time understanding him past the first few rows (even if you understand Italian).

It took many years for movie makers to figure out that those techniques were unnecessary in a medium where the camera can zoom in on the actor’s facial expression, and where volume adjustments in the movie theater can make everything heard. Once the industry finally figured this out, actors began to speak in more normal, conversational voices.

I assume you’re talking about the sort of upper class Northeastern accent that was so common in film a few generations ago. The type of accent you’d hear when listenning to FDR.

There was less acceptance in the media of regional accents. People with those accents either took classes to get rid of the accents, or were not hired.

A better way to judge would be to listen to “man in the street” interviews.

I’m not sure you’re asking the right question. Reading the OP, I perceive the underlying question to be “Why don’t I hear speech today that sounds like recorded speech from the earlier part of the 20th century?”

As alluded above, chances are back then one didn’t hear that type of speech outside of radio and movie voices. And as mentioned above, the impetus to have radio (and TV) and movie voices sound that way has largely faded away.

Yes. Radio and movies are not a good sample of how things were spoken, any more than BBC “RP*” is a good example of how most British speak. There was an affinity for a certain type of “cultured” accent in films and radio.

Kids in movies yelled simply because they were, by our standards, poor actors (even for kids). When an actor is unable to give anything but a wooden line reading, shouting can make it sound better.

*“Received Pronunciation” – the BBC had very strict pronunciation rules for its announcers in the beginning.

The American theatre had developed its own accent, one not actually spoken by anyone in the country. This accent continued to reign through the early years of radio and motion pictures. It was a completely artificial accent and has pretty much died away.

Phase42, you’ve reversed the cause and effect. Pop singers Rudy Vallee’s and Bing Crosby’s “crooning” style was an effect of the switch from acoustic microphones to electric microphones in the mid-1920s. It was no longer necessary to bellow into the recording horn to get a good recording.

BrainGlutton, it’s interesting that you talk about Hollywood movies made before 1960s. The Hollywood studio system died out in the early 1960s. During the heyday of the Hollywood studio system, contract players were tutored in elocution by vocal coaches. You hear even Marilyn Monroe speak in overly precise diction in her movies, but if you see the outtakes from her uncompleted movie Something’s Got to Give, she lapses into ordinary speech as soon as the director shouts “Cut!”

You see this even more in earlier talkies, with actors who came to Hollywood from backgrounds in the theater: an artificial, declamatory style.

Another influence was the rise in television broadcasting vs. radio broadcasting. Television, as they say, is a “cool” medium that calls for a different vocal delivery than radio, which is a “hot” medium. A few general differences: television speech is more laconic, requiring fewer words; it requires less vocal emphasis than radio speech.

And, as others have said, be cautious in comparing everyday speech with scripted or broadcasting speech.

Walloon’s observations seem directly on point.

People still speak differently on stage than in normal conversation; I dimly remember that when I was a kid I would watch Broadway actors perform scenes from current plays on The Ed Sullivan Showand wonder why they sounded funny; they were “projecting” so that the studio audience could hear them. In much the same way, stage actors often seem to have larger “more sweeping” gestures.

In the early days of sound recording there was also a need for a special sort of voice projection. As stilted as some of the speaking in early sound movies may sound, though, it is nothing compared to the voices on early cylinder recordings. People sound like they were shouting into a funnel–and they were.

The way FDR spoke was characteristic of upper class people from the State of New York in his times. It was imitative in some ways of the Received Pronunciation. At the same time, his political rival Al Smith spoke with a wholly different New York accent, which had distinctive pronunciations such as “raddio”.

With the rise of broadcasting, and of college instruction in broadcasting American accents have tended to become less pronounced. There seems to have been a leveling effect in having people regularly hear how people elsewhere in the nation talk. I have heard it said that the closest thing in America to an equivalent of the Received Pronunciation is the accent found in the northern suburbs of Chicago, such as Evanston and Winnetka. The Northwestern University broadcasting school is in Evanston. Winnetka is where Rock Hudson, Charlton Heston and Ralph Bellamy, among other film figures, went to high school.

The mobility of the American population is doubtlessly a factor too. Even where regional accents remain distinctive, it seems to me, they tend to be less extreme. I’m 47 and have lived in St. Louis pretty much all of my life. It’s been years since I heard anyone here call a porcelain fixture at which one washes one’s hands a “zinc”, and when someone calls the nation’s capitol “Warshington” it now seems funny. As a kid, neither would have excited notice.

American English has changed so much in the last 80 years for the same reason we no longer speak Old English or Latin or Indo-European.

Languages, including American English, are quickly and constantly evolving as they have since day one.

There are still plenty of fake announcer accents in use today, though they aren’t the same as they were in the '30s. Just listen to the narrator of any movie trailer, for example. Nobody talks like that in real life, but we’ve all accepted Mr. Voice’s over-the-top mannerisms as part of the moviegoing experience.

(Unless you’re from another country, that is. There was a thread here a couple of months ago called something like “Why do announcers in US commercials sound so ridiculous?” or something like that.)

Its funny you should mention that becasue i was watching a clip on the BBC today of a very early grand national horse race (probably 1920`s) and the accent of the commentator was so old english/upper class which you just do not get anymore anywhere in Britain. very funny. Now this at the time was how all middle/upper class sounded, and working classes was like your typical ‘cockney’ kind of accent with loose pronounced words. Nowadays probably due to intenational television the community has broadend and all local accents are mixing into new accents. Look at Britain for a good example. Americanisation for instance is in our choice of words, its changed or tweaked our accents, its in our songs the films are shoving it down our throats etc…
its just the way it is! just fine and dandy yall!!!

Once again, there is NO evidence that television has had any effect whatsoever on regional accents.

There is also no evidence that regional accents are “levelling”.

That accent was lampooned by Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hudsucker Proxy.

I don’t know, ruadh. I hear quite a bit of valley-speak/surfer-speak/“dude”-speak right here in Atlanta. It crept in over the past 20 years or so. There’s really no way to explain that except by media influence.

If media influence is the case, why only “dude” speak? Why aren’t people speaking in New Yorkese, despite the popularity of shows like Law & Order and The Sopranos? Why hasn’t AAVE spread throughout the white community, despite Eminem’s influence? You can’t hold the media responsible for the spread of one and only one dialect, especially when that dialect isn’t even the dialect most commonly heard in the media.

There is no familial annunciational tradition. Although the word annunciation can refer to regular announcements, it usually refers to one particular announcement – that of the Incarnation of the Virgin Mary. “Familial announcements” and “community announcements” are fabricated concepts or the result of a misused or misspelled term.

Television was already around in the 1950’s. Broadcast schools were located in the Midwest and that pronunciation continued to be the accepted standard. It wasn’t a matter of mimicking.

I wonder if acting styles these days will ever look dated to us? I came of age in the 1950’s and I thought that adults really did talk the way that Lana Turner did.:o

I have to agree with ronbo and ruadh. The Great Vowel Shift is an example of the change in speech, and seems to still be going on now (for instance, the “oo” sound is turning into a foreign “oe”) in all areas. OTOH, I can hear a difference in the enunciation of the local (Oregon) news reporters vs. the network newscasts which I think are typically recorded in NYC and L.A. It doesn’t seem to me like that’s going away anytime soon.

Old folks don’t talk the same way young adults do, and even without going into the specifics I’d say the GVS is alive and well.

The OP speaks of pre-1960s movies. When I was young, the greatest amount of exposure I had to this was…
Abbot and Costello movies (every Sunday morning!), followed by Three Stooges, the Marx Brothers, etc.
All these movies often had rapid fire dialog, sometimes spoken unclearly or mumbled, regional accents, funny voices, common street slang (well, common as of the time), and so on. Heck, even when Costello ‘played’ an announcer (on some show involving a radio program) he sure didn’t act (sound) like the archtypical ‘Voice of God’ announcer talked about in this thread.
So basically I grew up assuming people in the early/mid part of the 20th century talked like normal humans… :stuck_out_tongue: