can you hear me now?

Oh, it's taking me forever to write my next post!
In the mean time
, a repost, with updates:
Recently I said to a friend that I found the recorded subway stop voices disappointing. Granted, the announcements are audible and intelligible but still. The hyper-enunciating, the shaky emphasis: these are not New York voices! Each time the "Q" and "B" woman in Brooklyn swallows "'DEE-kulb' Avenue" I grit my teeth. (It's "de-KALB" or "DEE-KALB" for emphasis.) Its like the staff of some mid-West hotel got into the control room. Keep local color in NYC!

Does anyone remember when taxis started playing announcements in the mid-nineties? The very first debut recording of these was in circulation for only a few months but it was a doozy. It
incorporated a voice of such stupendous color, such unaffected Outer Boroughness, such unintended hilarity that it is seared into my brain. (I regret there isnt an audio file I could find):

"Please make shoo-aw ta take awl of yaw belawngings, and dohn fuget to get a receipt frum tha dry-vuh.

The woman behind the voice (a secretary at the place that made
taxi meters) was pressed into service in a move of stunning naivete and sheer serendipitous brilliance. She became a brief pre-social media celebrity. If that happened today she'd have fan pages, followers and a reality series contract. //

I was barely reading an article in the Wall Street Journal about cell phone problems when, in a section about sound quality, I came across the intriguing term “Harvard sentences.” Evidently cellular systems engineers actually travel around the country testing signal quality-- somewhat like the familiar Verizon "can you hear me now" guy-- by sending out aural snippets known as Harvard sentences:

a collection of phonetically balanced sentences that measure a large range of different qualities in the human voice. These were originally published in 1969 as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers recommended practice for speech quality measurements.
The sentences go a little something like this (in random selection):
"She has a smart way of wearing clothing. These days a leg of chicken is a rare dish. Cars and buses stalled in snow drifts. Both lost their lives in the raging storm. The pencils have all been used. The stale smell of old beer lingers. The beetle droned in the hot June sun. A gold ring will please most any girl. When the frost has come it is time for turkey..."
Sort of open-mic beatnik free verse, no? I have the mental image of someone in a fluorescent-lit cubicle reciting all 200 sentences with overly precise diction into a large reel to reel tape recorder. No indication as to how they were named but I would guess Harvard is the stand-in for the concept of a precise ideal.

So I started thinking about pronunciation and the classic tone and phrasing found in movies and newsreels of the 1930s and 40s. Listen to
Katherine Hepburn, William Powell, Cary Grant, and notably, FDR whose "fear" was rendered as "fee-ah." Where did that manner came from, and more importantly, where did it go? I've found that what I've been talking about here is called "Mid-Atlantic English" according to wikipedia:
a style of speech formerly cultivated by actors for use in theatre, and by news announcers...institutions cultivated a norm influenced by the Received Pronunciation of southern England as an international norm of English pronunciation. According to William Labov, the teaching of this pronunciation declined sharply after the end of World War II.
It's a little New England, a little gin & tonic at the yacht races, with a dash of "thee-ay-tuh."

Little Edie Beale in Grey Gardens and any appearance by William F Buckley were
probably the last times I heard a version of this pronunciation. And what about its socio-economic and narrative opposite, the Toity-toid an' Toid /James Cagney New York Gangsterese? Hearing them creates as much a sense of temporal distance ("This is not now, I'm listening and watching something from the past") as the b/w of old footage or the style of period clothes...///

Amazing sound resource here

A civil war soldier remembers his experience on the morning Abraham Lincoln died.


Mark H said...

The sound of voices, and that suffocating mid-Atlantic accent in particular, is also a preoccupation of mine. One area where the tradition is still alive, or was until very recently, is in High Poetry. If you can find any recordings of readings by W. S. Merwin or Silvia Plath on the internet (and I know they exist), you'll see what I mean. CU tonight.

angela said...

"High Poetry" is that like High Martha?

I will need to google.

As I said, Little Edie Beale was enunciating this way in '74-75 when the Maysles were filming... Perhaps William F. Buckley is the last hold-out?

Susanna said...

Ah yes, the mainline Philadelphia accent. Isn't that what it was always associated with? I kind of miss it. Wouldn't it be nifty if some of the young 'uns spoke like this? Only possible in some Whit Stillman universe, perhaps.

angela said...

oh maybe yr right, Susanna-- Mainline Philadelphia, Isnt that "Bringing Up Baby" and all that?

I dont have any direct experience with anyone from there— or speaking like that.

Hearing some of these accents would be like a fossil come to life.


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