Accents in Black and White movies

Rick Johnson   Wed Oct 12, 2005 10:11 am GMT
I always think that the accents in old films sound quite different from those today. Also, to my ears, a lot of the accents in British and American films of that period sound much more similar than they would today. I can't say I've ever been really aware of any great differences in accent between Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, for example. However, I think that era came to an abrupt end with the introduction of Technicolor and Dick Van Dyke's "cockney" accent in Mayery Puppins!

I'd be interested to know other peoples opinions......
JJM   Wed Oct 12, 2005 12:17 pm GMT
Well, there would seem to be a couple of reasons why accents in old films seem different.

First - and most obviously - language is constantly evolving. People really did speak differently back then. English pronunciation does change, only slightly in some cases but markedly in others. Vocabulary is particularly ephemeral, especially colloquialisms and turns-of-phrase ("Gee, that's just swell!" "Say, what's the big idea?!" "Oh Charles darling, do let's go to Ramsgate with father!").

Secondly, at the time the "talkies" really started taking off, sound reproduction was quite poor. At the same time, movie actors generally started out as theatre actors; they were accustomed to enunciating every word to overcome the acoustic limitations of the stage (whether on a movie set or in a theatre). Hence the tendency towards what seems a rather contrived "stage accent" to modern ears.

On top of all this was the ever-present suggestion of social class. The "preferred" accent for British cinema was the rather clipped tones of RP (listen to the narration in any old Thirties Path้ newsreel about the King). In the US, the "Eastern Seaboard/Ivy League" accent seems to have fulfilled a similar role.
Uriel   Thu Oct 13, 2005 12:59 am GMT
I'm not a film historian, but the accents used by old American actors like Katherine Hepburn and her ilk sound fairly "Anglicized", i.e. overpronounced and often slightly nonrhotic, as if they were trying for an American version of RP. I think they were probably taught to talk that way for film; it was probably not their original accent. (I have certainly never heard this type of speech in real life.)

If you notice, this type of accent was often reserved for the stars of the movie; minor or lower-class characters often had much more natural-sounding accents, although the delivery style of ALL characters was often very stilted and unnatural compared to today's movies.
Gjones2   Thu Oct 13, 2005 3:15 am GMT
Yeah, language has changed some, but much of the difference is probably because the actors learned a stage accent. Even in real life an Anglicized accent had more status in some circles, and -- being actors -- they had the skills to make themselves into what they wanted to be.
Mxsmanic   Thu Oct 13, 2005 3:47 am GMT
Almost all the differences you hear in early movies are the result of stage accents. That's not the way people really talked, which was nearly identical to what one hears today.
JJM   Thu Oct 13, 2005 7:53 am GMT
"That's not the way people really talked, which was nearly identical to what one hears today."

I'd disagree. It's not difficult to detect generational differences in speech.
Travis   Thu Oct 13, 2005 10:56 am GMT
Of course, another aspect here is that the prestige dialect group in the US shifted from the dialects of the northeast, in particular the area around Massachusetts, to those of the non-Upper Midwest circa 1950 or so in the period after World War 2, and of course this has been reflected in the dialects used in movies, in particular by main characters. Therefore, it should not be surprising that more non-rhotic and RP-like forms were preferred historically, and that such has been replaced with more "General American"-like forms since the early 1960s.
Rick Johnson   Thu Oct 13, 2005 11:48 am GMT
I guess the real difference is that today in Britain, theatre and film actors are the same people so the "English" accent on screen often bares little resemblance to normal English accents. In the US, however, whereas this probably used to be the case, more recently film actors have tended not to come from theatre backgrounds and therfore speak more naturally.
Uriel   Thu Oct 13, 2005 6:38 pm GMT
I think also that back in the old days, when film was a relatively new medium, acting styles and thespian speech patterns were just different, more stylized. Film has just evolved in a more naturalistic direction over time.
Ecko   Fri Oct 14, 2005 5:39 am GMT
This is kinda irrelevant, but also I noticed the way actors..acted in older films seems more stylized and less natural and genuine.
leysa   Tue Nov 08, 2005 4:44 pm GMT
I think that at that time people still had the habit of pronouncing words closer to the way the British did because that is just how that generation of people spoke. As generation after generation continued being distanced from their British ancestry in North America, the bigger the difference in the way people spoke. For instance, a 2nd generation American of Scot, English or Irish, etc. will definatley have spoken differently from his great, great granchild who grows up in the same region he had a century or so earlier. I always noticed that older North Americans (let's say an 80 year old) speak in a general N.A. accent as though they were influenced by a British accent while a a much younger North American usually does not. And that's in real life, not in the movies. The accents have basically evolved just as it has evolved in Britain. Maybe in 100 years time or less the British will have the regional accents that North Americans of the 1930's had and as more years go by they may speak with the regional accent of the 2000's. North Americans might even develop a different type of regional accent than we hear today 100 years from now. It would interesting to hear how the British accent and North American accent will each have evolved 200 years from now. Only the people of 2200 can look back and say, "Wow, listen to how they spoke way back in the 2000's. It's quite different than how we speak now."
Talena   Wed Nov 09, 2005 5:34 am GMT
"This is kinda irrelevant, but also I noticed the way actors..acted in older films seems more stylized and less natural and genuine."

This is because they were essentially theatrical actors and were taught to be melodramatic because on stage you have to be alot more over the top to influence the audience. Acting was kept this way until Stanislavski a Russian thespian changed the rules by which actors approach drama. He alone invented what we now call "realism" im acting, which is what you see with actors on t.v. and in movies these days.
Travis   Wed Nov 09, 2005 5:59 am GMT
>>I think that at that time people still had the habit of pronouncing words closer to the way the British did because that is just how that generation of people spoke. As generation after generation continued being distanced from their British ancestry in North America, the bigger the difference in the way people spoke.<<

The thing that one must remember is that a very significant portion of the population of the US is descended from groups from outside of the British Isles, and furthermore, in many areas people from the British Isles may be very much in the minority, especially in the case of the English. For many populations in the US, one cannot assume any kind of direct historical connection, outside of language, a shared body of literature, and politics, to the British Isles at all, which is contrary to what you seem to be assuming here.

>>For instance, a 2nd generation American of Scot, English or Irish, etc. will definatley have spoken differently from his great, great granchild who grows up in the same region he had a century or so earlier.<<

Of course, then there are people of German, Polish, Scandinavian, Italian, or like descent whose ancestors, beyond a certain point, did not natively speak English in the first place, and who had learned English as a second language.

>>I always noticed that older North Americans (let's say an 80 year old) speak in a general N.A. accent as though they were influenced by a British accent while a a much younger North American usually does not. And that's in real life, not in the movies. The accents have basically evolved just as it has evolved in Britain.<<

Part of this, though is that the prestige dialects in the US have changed from "Boston Brahmin"-like forms to what is usually called "General American", and "Boston Brahmin"-like dialects are definitely closer to English English than "General American", as vague as it may be, is. Furthermore, a whole slew of sound shifts have happened in various North American English dialects which have not only distanced them from English English but also significantly distanced them, phonologically, from each other.

>>Maybe in 100 years time or less the British will have the regional accents that North Americans of the 1930's had and as more years go by they may speak with the regional accent of the 2000's.<<

You cannot assume that phonological changes occur in some kind of linear fashion; rather, phonological changes tend to increase entropy, except with respect to influence by some dialects on others which brings them closer together, and with respect to entropy-decreasing phenomena like analogy which may regularize "irregular" forms caused by phonological changes.

>>North Americans might even develop a different type of regional accent than we hear today 100 years from now. It would interesting to hear how the British accent and North American accent will each have evolved 200 years from now.<<

I cannot say that much about English English in this sort of department, even though it seems like there does not seem to be much actual dialect differentiation going on there, but it definitely appears that, despite myths of dialects getting closer together, North American English dialects are actually quite rapidly differentiating with respect to phonology. There are already multiple major chainshifts occurring in the vowel systems of different groups of North American English dialects, the most notable probably being the Northern Cities Vowel Shift and the California Vowel Shift, which are particularly interesting in that they are very similar except in that they are going in opposite directions, making them even more pronounced relative to each other.

>>Only the people of 2200 can look back and say, "Wow, listen to how they spoke way back in the 2000's. It's quite different than how we speak now."<<

The major thing that is likely to be the case is that there will be far more dialect differentiation within English-speaking North America than there is today, and there will no longer be the idea of one universal "General American", as such is just an artifact of how English-speaking North America was so rapidly settled by an overall mix of English-speaking people or by non-English-speaking people who later learned English, having had no dialects of their own of it.
Damian in Edinburgh   Wed Nov 09, 2005 7:59 am GMT
I really think that SOME English people (as distinct from the rest of the United Kigdom) did speak differently from the way they do today. I do not mean actors in all those old b&w films who mostly went to drama school or whatever they were called in those days. As has been stated in here they were trained for the theatre, and in their training they had all regionalisms smoothed out of their speech pattern and were trained in that sort of cut-glass marble-in-mouth style of English which sounds so weird and comical today. I mean middle or upper class people of the period in they days before the much more democratic, unified social structure which exists in England today (it was never quite the same class divide in Scotland and Wales...it was much more of an English issue, especially in the South).

If you listen to some old b&w documentaries, up to about the 1970s, then people from that social class..again nearly always Southern English....had that same way of speaking. Coal was never stored in sacks....it was stored in sex. :-)

Whenever those old films are shown on whatever TV channel it can be fun watching them not so much for the action or the storyline but more for the opportunity to laugh at the way they spoke. The women particularly always seemed to be in a state of strident strangulation as they ever so primly enunciated their varls.....sorry.....vowels.
Yorick   Wed Nov 09, 2005 8:47 am GMT
Very interesting topic. Many old (fifties) NA films and TV display little or no rhoticism, and very little more is apparent in sixties' shows. The nasalised, shortened and generally "shifted" vowels were evident, but not to the point of being off-putting.

By the late sixties, mild rhoticism could be heard, but the vowels were still in check.

I cannot help wondering if NA speech was generally similar, forty or fifty years ago, to that of today, or whether efforts were made in those days by TV- and film-makers to, say, reduce the rhoticism or the vowel swapping.

I once enjoyed watching NA films and television, but finally had to give it away.