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Listening to old recordings, there is a distinct accent that radio and television announcers used that is different from a modern-day "Standard American" or neutral accent. It seems that over the course of fifty years pronunciation has shifted. Is this a documented phenomenon? Or is it more a function of broadcast media being less focused on proper enunciation and diction?

(Possibly related, I've noticed some old books spell "Hello" as "Hullo". Is this a reflection of the same thing?)

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5 Answers 5

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You might find this article in Wikipedia to be elucidating, though I don't like the term itself, as "Mid-Atlantic English" to me signals the accents spoken between New Jersey and Washington, D.C.

Anyway, it's true that there's a now-largely-disappeared dialect that was spoken both by the upper classes of the Eastern Seabord and by Hollywood actors and actresses wanting to appear upper class.

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I just heard Kathleen Turner interviewed on the radio the other day - when I read your comment, her accent came to mind. –  mskfisher Nov 11 '10 at 13:48
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This is similar to a question that I asked my father 15 years ago. (I was born in the early '50s, he in the mid '20s.) "The speech of Lowell Thomas on recordings sounds very different from our present day speech. Have things changed that much, and did people really speak as he did?"

My father's answer was that indeed people did speak (or try to speak) in the same way as Lowell Thomas did at important times, and that Mr. Thomas's speaking was never made fun of because it was so "normative".

Indeed, the "mid-Atlantic" accent was encouraged in all mass media in the U.S., because it was a true compromise of U.S. accents: the New Englander found it just as understandable and believable (and attainable) as the Californian or Okie (listen to Will Rogers).

It is important to put this all in a context.

From the time of the invention of the phonograph through the time that the children of television had grown up, there had been a movement in the United States for increasing the education (and common sense) of the people.

By about 1970, most people from all regions of the U.S. had been influenced (often subliminally) to modify their speech toward a "norm". Educators from all levels of society had pushed the norm with zeal. Booker T. Washington, Norman Thomas, Thomas Dewey, Walter Cronkite and Richard Nixon all spoke in public with a similar accent in spite of their very different upbringing and position.

As the broadcast media gained more and more penetration into the daily hearing of people, so did the art of rhetoric and formal oratory decay... if a pretty or handsome face brought more advertising dollars than a clarion voice, the choice was clear.

Concurrently, there were vast upheavals going on socially. The mid-Atlantic accent was often viewed as the voice of the rich and the white. (After all, who had the power in the country?) There was a strong movement, starting in the late '60s, to "democratize" many things, including speech.

It is no coincidence that the man of the 70s considered Richard Nixon's "expletive deleted"s to be important to be printed in their full glory, when 30 years earlier the same words of Gen. McAuliffe were edited by every American newspaper to read "Nuts!"

So yes, speech has changed. Especially public speech... which always influences the speech of the man on the street. And yes, the speech of the '50s, at all of its levels (colloquial, informal, and formal) was different from that of our day.

Need an example from history? Just look at the Great Vowel Shift in English, where a massive change in pronunciation (vowel lengthening and diphthongization) took place for about 100 years before 1450, followed for the next 250 or so years with more changes.

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On a tangent, McAuliffe's "Nuts" quote appears to have been accurate. A eyewitness reports that "nuts" is what he said, and "nuts" is what he wrote in the note to the Germans. There doesn't seem to be any evidence that he actually said anything else, only speculation. –  Nate Eldredge Apr 8 '13 at 3:18
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I have an example not from the broadcast industry. I found an old wire recorder that had a wire of recordings loaded on it, which I found contains recordings from the 1950s. The first recording is a telephone conversation, talking about building foundations for a house. I noticed there was a different style of speaking that sounded "of that time period". I'm of course talking about the accent, not the sound quality of the mike (carbon microphone). The style of speaking of the businessman on the other side of the line does posses an accent comparable to what's heard in the movies. The (then) owner of the wire recorder had less of the "old time" accent, but there is still a slight "old time" accent, but not much.

I may post the recordings on YouTube at some time, the wire runs for almost an hour, containing the telephone conversation, a child saying some different words (for school I take it), some dictated letters, and a recording (from the radio I believe) about salesmen and prayer.

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I'd guess that the "50's accent" you hear had much to do with the technology of AM and shortwave radio. Precise diction and a somewhat clipped style for words and phrases helped to overcome the crackle and hiss of static in radio reception.

As microphone and broadcast technology improved, it became less crucial to speak distinctly. If you spoke like a 40s or 50s newscaster in ordinary conversation today, people would think you were being overly formal or precise.

Also remember that many movie and television stars of that era got their start in theater. (Many still do!) And on stage without a microphone you speak differently so that your voice will carry.

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Good points. Though I do think two other influences are: 1) an increasingly casual culture and 2) a media that increasingly emphasis real, gritty, and things like reality TV. In the 50's you'd have had murderous gang members depicted in a movie as not using profanity, while in the 1990's you'd be hard-pressed to find an ordinary businessman depicted not using profanity. –  Wayne May 17 '11 at 20:12
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Pronunciation in America certainly has changed a lot since the 1950s, but to identify exactly what has changed depends on where you are (see my answer here). It's also probable, but I don't know the solid facts, that standards of "house pronunciation" at broadcasting companies have also changed. What was once considered good pronunciation is no longer, so they have changed with the times.

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The changing pronunciation is also evident in the changing speaking styles. Just look at any old movie and you'll see that people used a speaking style completely unlike anything a normal human would actually say. I think as the media matured the broadcast speech became more "normal". –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Aug 25 '10 at 19:24
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