I’ve been trying to concentrate on writing so I haven’t been posting very often. But something has been on my mind for a while and I thought this would be the best way to resolve it — in my head, at least.
If you have read this weblog for any length of time you’re most likely aware that I was a professor of linguistics for twelve years before I started writing full time. Linguistics is a huge field — everything from the neurology of speech production to reconstruction of ancient languages to universals in syntax. My field has to do with the sociocultural aspects of language, or sociocultural anthropological linguistics (how’s that for a mouthful?).1 The Santa Barbara campus of the UC system has what I consider to be the best program in the field, and this is part of their short description:
Encompassing research traditions including sociolinguistics, linguistic anthropology, discourse analysis, and others, sociocultural linguistics focuses on how discourse mediates the enactment of social life and the construction of the social world.
A couple more basic points: all spoken language changes; all spoken language varies over different kinds of social space. All that just to preface what I’m about to say.
When they started doing the audiobook recordings for the Wilderness novels, it never occurred to me to worry about the varieties of English (or, more simply, the accents) spoken by the characters, and therefore, by the reader. Simply because we don’t know enough about the way English was spoken on the New York frontier in 1792. But we do know more about the sounds of spoken English in 1883 — primarily because some of the people born in the mid 19th century were still around into the 1960s or longer, and their voices have been preserved on tape.2
My point (and I do have one) is that in my mind, I have an actual sense of the way Anna Savard spoke English. In late 19th century Manhattan, the accent was much like the current day New England accents. The most tangible feature is the loss of /r/ after a vowel — as in John F. Kennedy’s infamous “Paak the caah in Haaavad yaad” (this is referred to as rhoticity). There’s a very good short video on Youtube on the history and evolution of urban accents over time that provides good examples of rhotic and non-rhotic pronunciations.3 And here’s an example of the way linguists have fun: an article about a study of rhoticity in Hollywood films over time:
Elliott, N. (2000) “A Study in the Rhoticity of American Film Actors.” In R. Dal Vera (ed.) Standard Speech and Other Contemporary Issues in Professional Voice and Speech Training. New York: Applause, pp. 103–130.
Anna would sound more like Katherine Hepburn or Bette Davis, who were both born to upper class families in Massachusetts. The videos below were recorded when they were both quite old, but the accent still comes through, primarily the loss of /r/ after a vowel, the raising and backing of some vowels, and intonation.
So if I had been able to dictate how Cassandra Campbell voiced Anna — and other women of that time and place — in the recording of The Gilded Hour, I might have said “Do your best Katherine Hepburn.” And that would have been a disaster, because unless you’ve studied the evolution of American English on the east coast, it would sound utterly wrong to you. Technically closer to fact, yes. But not a good idea.
There are no audio recordings of Edith Wharton’s voice, which is a shame, because while she was of a higher social class than Anna Savard, an argument could be made that they would have been very close in the way they spoke.
I’m very happy with the unabridged audio recording of The Gilded Hour, but when I listen to it, this issue always comes up for me. Some days it would be good to be able to forget my education.
- My best-known publication is English with an Accent: Language, Ideology and Discrimination in the U.S. and here’s a pdf excerpt if you’re so inclined. ↩
- There are a few recordings of the human voice around this time, but the technology was in its infancy and the quality is very poor (for example, this recording of President Benjamin Harrison whose term ran from 1889 to 1892). ↩
- Some of the explanations I would quibble with, but all in all it’s a good overview. Less serious but a lot of fun: Shit Boston Girls Say and Shit Italian Moms Say. The accents are right on target. ↩