Accents, of English or any other language, provides a sense of community and also of the place of origin. Once someone begins to speak, the dialect which is noted may provide information in the communication that can be either helpful or harmful. Some accents are seen as indicative of a person’s low standing in the greater community, while others tend to the opposite end of the accent spectrum.
Anyone wishing to provide an inaccurate sense of where they came from and who they are will tend to affect the accent which they think would be most appropriate and provide the sense of status which they seek. However, accents can be quite deceiving, and we have to wonder how we came to value them or devalue the persons expressing themselves with “unacceptable” accents.
Watch an old 1940s film featuring the Three Stooges or The Dead End Kids, and you’ll quickly receive an education in Hollywood movie mogul accent training. The “Kids” all had those mythical Brooklyn accents where people said things like “toity-toid” street or some variant of 33rd Street.
Sheer make-believe Brooklyn in the minds of the uninitiated. It emphasized their lack of education, low socioeconomic status, and depicted them as street kids. The message was clear; you are who your accent says you are.
Full disclosure here: I grew up in New York City’s boroughs, Brooklyn is one of them, and never have I heard what they said was a Brooklyn accent.
Hollywood pushes accents
The Hollywood studio titans picked up on the American manner of categorizing anyone in terms of their pronunciation. Movie studio schools were mandatory where more acceptable accents were drilled into young actors. Ava Gardner, whose parents were poor cotton and tobacco farmers, was pushed to rid herself of her North Carolina accent and assume a sexier, devoid-of-accent voice. Her vocal cords had to hum with sex.
Have you ever heard of the “Mid-Atlantic Accent?” I hadn’t until I began doing a bit of research. The mid-Atlantic accent, also known as the “Transatlantic Accent,” was someone’s imaginative take on a blend of a British accent and what was considered an aristocratic American accent.
Primarily used by those in the upper-class as well as actors, it was, according to dialect coach, Dudley Knight, not truly American but an accent that people were trained to use. The accent came into prominence in the first part of the 20th century, and we can find it in heavy emphasis in the films of the 1940s.
Listen to the voices of the famous actors of that era, such as Walter Pidgeon, Franchot Tone, Bette Davis, Katherine Hepburn, and William Powell. Of course, there were the “bad girls” and they had to have that dumb-blonde voice. These female actors played in “B” movies.
The “Queens of the Bs” were, of course, Cleo Moore, Mamie Van Doren, Mari Blanchard, and Gloria Grahame. Some had high-pitched nasal voices that were intended, I guess, to indicate “all body, no brains.”
Along came Cher
Have you listened to Cher’s records lately? Ok, if you don’t have any around the house, the internet will provide plenty of opportunities for you. The woman who goes by one name, no, not that woman who lives on the West Side of Manhattan, has been slurring those lyrics into a unique accent. There is no place on Earth that someone speaks like this, but that’s Cher.
Ready to roll out on another of her “final” concert tours, the lady is going to be dishing out those Cher-accented words, and so will her audience. Do they speak that way? No, they don’t, either. Cher sings that way, and even she doesn’t speak that way, but I’ll bet she’s done some accent trimming along the way to fame.
For Cher, “try” becomes “trah” and “time” becomes “tahm,” and “done” becomes “doan” and on and on. It’s totally Cher and totally her own concoction of sounds and accents. And it works for her.
Accents unusual in the neighborhood
And now a word from me about my involvement with accidents. No, it wasn’t Mr. Roger’s neighborhood, but one I once knew. I felt like I’d gone to live in a science fiction movie one day. What happened?
The first week of school, a girl I’d known all my young life joined the student body, and it was peculiar, it was bizarre. She was born at the same time as I, grew up in the same neighborhood and went to the same elementary school. How, then, did she, overnight, begin speaking with a British accent?
We were used to accents in my old neighborhood. The families who lived there came from several ethnic classes, and many of the parents and relatives all had accents. Nope, we thought nothing of it, except we had no one from the British Isles or anywhere near it.
Had she been infected or hit on the head? No to that, too. I guess she decided that one way to climb up was to sound like she came from a wealthy family where everyone was educated in England.
To the day she graduated from high school and left the state forever, she had that British accent, and I have to wonder if she ever admitted to herself that it brought more pain than anything else.
I know kids in high school made fun of her, and she had no friends.
Admittedly, she wouldn’t have wanted to bring anyone to her home where little laundry was done, and her father was always drunk. The accent was supposed to be a cover for all of that, I guess. What would we say about her today if she were to reappear?
Where’s your compass?
One of the over-used buzzwords these days is “genuine” or “authentic.” We’re supposed to be our genuine, authentic selves. Odd advice because it seems so many people in public life and entertainment found that’s not the secret to their success. But we should be authentic and genuine.
There may not be a need for voice coaches for the person-on-the-street, but there are those “dressers” who will tell us how to dress for success or to “lean in” and be successful.
A casual look behind it and you’ll find the home declutterer is living in a mess, the lean-in person isn’t so authentic, and the guru is far from genuine. He’s being sued for sexual harassment.
For you and me? Find your own joy, be who you are, and live a pleasant life, enjoying the wonders that are out there for all of us.
As for Cher? Good for her and her authenticity whatever it is to her.