08 Jun 2015

The Atlantic Wonders: Where Did Faintly British Broadcasting Accents Go?

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Edward R. Murrow (1908-1965) was a classic user of “Announcer Speak”

James Fallows, in the Atlantic, identifies a broadcasting convention, the use of a slightly Anglicized version of grammatically correct Standard Mid-Western English as the formal voice of news reader, announcer, or celebrity on the radio, which he contends has recently disappeared.

The narrator of [this] film [“Wings Over the Golden Gate” (1930s)](spoke in a way instantly recognizable to anyone who has seen footage of FDR-era newsreels, or for that matter listened to recordings of FDR himself. It was a style of phony-British “Announcer Speak” that dominated formal American discourse from the 1920s to maybe the 1950s—and now has entirely disappeared.

I mention this because today I was listening to a rebroadcast of a great 2012 Fresh Air interview with the musician and writer Michael Feinstein, which included a rare, brief interview that George Gershwin had done on Rudy Vallee’s hyper-popular radio show in 1933. The amazing thing was that even George Gershwin sounded this way!

The revolutionary genius of modern American music, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, the child of Brooklyn who moved to Hollywood, the epitome of whatever seemed jazzy about America of the Depression years—even he had that Voice of Time diction.

Here is what I asked four years ago, and would still like to know: Who was the last American to speak this way? And when and why did this accent disappear? We often think of language change as evolving over long historic periods. But this is something that has happened with comparative speed. By the time I became conscious of TV, radio, or movie voices in the late 1950s, the formal Announcer version of American English still existed. Now, no one would use it except as a joke.

When? How? Why?



I think the slightly more stressed consonants (British style) did tend to disappear, along with the last remnants of the British Empire, sometime in the course of the 1950s, but news broadcasters like Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley still, in my opinion, delivered the news in much the same carefully-articulated and artificially-elevated tones as 1930s announcers.

Perhaps, we can attribute a slightly more recent preference for a less formal and pretentious, a more natural kind of broadcasting diction to Culture Wars conflicts, and the wide American recognition that Voice-of-God news readers (like Cronkite) frequently served up atrociously biased reporting and outright misinformation (Cf. Cronkite’s misreporting on the supposed Viet Cong “victory” in the 1968 Tet Offensive) and that (despite those elevated accents) broadcasting talking heads had commonly in reality roughly the same I.Q. as your average box turtle.

The astonishingly dim but equally pretentious anchorman rapidly became an American comedy staple. After all that, it should not be surprising that the preferred broadcasting style has become more natural and less affected.

6 Feedbacks on "The Atlantic Wonders: Where Did Faintly British Broadcasting Accents Go?"


Coincidence makes that I have been regularly interested in this topic, which I holds as not as fortuitous as it seems at first glance. Not much as ever been said about it, except some articles and studies on political speeches, which we may hold as a different subject motivated by different objectives (the theatrical voices of the European politician and of the lawyer in action in a courtroom).

This accent (now particular to the point that no one would take it, as you says) is in fact the same you would hear from German, French and British broadcasters from, say, WWII to the early 60’s. French news’ guests and politicians all typically managed to have the same sophisticated, somewhat conspicuously inflated accent which was slightly different of the aforesaid broadcasters in the sense that it was less energetic. But, it was anything but “natural” in both ways, clearly self-controlled.
In Europe, you could still sometimes notice this accent from off voices in movies until the late 70’s.

My guess is that it began to be criticized as socialite and of the old school in this other region of the world, because a new liberal wave, mostly represented by people born in the immediate aftermath of WWII or during the WWII was on the rise. They found this accent of their fathers formal, and they wanted something more natural, least “affected”, as you say.
Well, something closer to the “common man”, so as to suggest the feeling (illusory obviously) of the disappearance of a social gap between the elite and the populace (the “small people”).

There has been another change, though slight this time, from the early 90’s on, which lasted until not long ago ; circa 2010-12, I observe in France more particularly. But, surprisingly or oddly enough, one would notice this change, dramatic this time, only in off voices during news broadcast, as if the anchorman conspicuously avoided from following this new trend. French speakers can easily recognize this new accent because it sound obviously dumb, pretty close to Tom Hanks’ in the film Forrest Gump. But, again, it is clearly practiced on purpose since more and more known TV journalists change their usual and known accent for this new one, without any warning, nor comments, always. The subtleties between Tom Hanks’ accent as Forrest Gump and those French TV journalists lie on slight differences suggesting a mix of discontent and helplessness as expressed by a simpleton. So, in the end, it appears as still much more artificial and played than the accent of the broadcasters of WWII, but in a completely opposed style, and aims as a deliberately searched effect.
Still more recently (that it to say no longer than few weeks ago), I noticed one French speaking Swiss journalist who adopted this very same style. Yes, why did this last one did it is perhaps a still more interesting subject.


However, the less affected accent hasn’t made the talking heads any less dim!

Phil M.

Good article. I used to wonder if normal people spoke that way. I read another reference to accents recently on the “Trans Atlantic” or Mid-Atlantic accent. It was even taught in prep schools at one time.


Other voices from the past.

Yuri Levatin, wartime voice of Radio Moscow (5/8/45):


Hans Firtzsche of the Deutschlandsender (6/4/40):


Lord Haw Haw (William Joyce, who actually was a US citizen):



The same thing happened to the BBC at about the same time. The official “BBC accent” receded and various regional accents made their debuts.

Estoy Listo

I came of age when the radio dial (AM) was roughly split between the classic broadcaster and the radio disk jockey. I always assumed the classic affect was to provide the illusion that the broadcaster was of national importance.

The disk jockey targeted his audience. It was just the listener and him. Consequently, the DJ naturally came to dominate as the audience became more self-centered.

In the last 10 it appears announcers have cultivated an unnatural sound. Eleanor Beardsley comes to mind here.


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