Sez Who?

Besides the usual reasons, watching old movies and television shows are interesting because they open a cultural window into yesterday. (When I say “old” I’m not talking 1985; I’m referring to the 1930s, the ‘40s, and the ‘50s.) One thing that becomes apparent to anyone with an ear for language is that people don’t sound the same now as they did a few decades ago. There are a million ways that language has changed, and usually not for the better. One aspect of American language that has been disappearing at a fast clip is the regional accents.

Undoubtedly the proliferation of popular culture through music, movies, computer communication, and mostly television is the reason why almost all young people today sound the same, with nary a hint of a southern twang, or an East Coast soft “r.” All young girls want to sound like the popular girls they watch on TV; all young boys want to sound like the cool dudes they hear in the movies.

How sad it is that we are losing the charms of local speak. On a recent cross-country driving trip it was so very obvious. Everyone across the country under the age of forty sounds like they all grew up in the same town: Popculturesville, USA.

While the “New Yawk” dialect is still burlesqued on TV and in movies, the fact is, it is not the prevailing accent of New Yorkers that it once was. While listening to George Burns in a rerun of The Burns and Allen Show from the early fifties, I became aware that he spoke of smoking “cigahs,” playing “cahds,” and going to “dinnah pahties.” This soft “r” way of speaking was the norm for most New Yorkers once upon a time; now it’s more or less just for movie and TV Mafia types.

The same is true of New England accents. “Ay-ah.” There used to be a Pepperidge Farm spokesman in TV commercials who spoke that way. Think of the popular series Murder, She Wrote and the way the townsfolk all sounded in Angela Lansbury’s fictional village of Cabot Cove, Maine. New Englanders really used to talk that way, believe it or not, not just actors who play them on TV. And Midwesterners had their own way of speaking, as did folks in the northern parts of Dakota and Minnesota. Think Fargo.

But the winner of the dialect contest hands down goes to the South. The South had so many different dialects that there was just about one accent for every state. Texas was very different from Louisiana or Virginia, or Alabama or Tennessee. Actors in movies and stage had a field day with southern accents; they still do, even though the dialects are fading away with each passing year. How ironic it is that the entertainment business likes to keep the cliché regional accents alive in plays, movies, and commercials when it is they themselves that contributed almost singlehandedly to the end of the regional accents in this country.

For anyone wishing to get an education in what American regional dialect once was, I suggest reading Mark Twain for starters. Then move right into Joel Chandler Harris, Bret Harte, George W. Cable, Charles Egbert Craddock (Miss Murfree), Mary E. Wilkins (now Mrs. Freeman), and William Faulkner. Want to know how the real wise guys on the streets of New York used to speak? Read the delightful short stories of Damon Runyon. The newspaper comics of the early and mid 20th century used dialect extensively, particularly Li’l Abner, Krazy Kat, Barney Google, Mutt and Jeff, and Pogo. But almost all of them used it to some degree.

The United States was a patchwork quilt of individuals with individual nuance in speech and cadence and varied as the landscape. As John Steinbeck once wrote: “Ever’body says words different,“ said Ivy. “Arkansas folks says ‘em different from Oklahomy folks says ‘em different. And we seen a lady from Massachusetts, an’ she said ‘em differentest of all.”

—The Grapes of Wrath

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