Translation and Interpreting in 150+ Languages
Lights, Camera, Accent! Part 1: The Silver Screen
August 29, 2011 - By: - In: Language - 12 comments

Quiet on the set, and . . . accent!

The accents we all use are not strictly an accident of local birth and social position. Our affect, the way we act, the tone we take, is under our control, and just as language shapes our thoughts, our conscious thoughts shape our language, in the way we choose to present ourselves. See my most recent post, “English as a Lava Lamp,” for a look at how identity rapidly and radically transforms the languages we speak.

I’ve been thinking about presentation ever since Vince, my social media consigliere, told me that video posts are the way to go in our desperate effort to monetize the Translation Guy Blog. By going to video, we figure we’ll capture all those language lovers who can’t be bothered to read language about language.

So I’ve been practicing how to read my blog in front of my video cam, and it’s been a revelation. See, I’m pretty much like this in real life too, and thanks to years of feedback from friends and family, I know that my affect is pretty over the top, but I had only an inkling of just how New Yorkistic my affectations were. And not quite what I intended when I first dreamed of these bright lights back when I was a kid in Pennsylvania.

Before I came to this town, as a kid glued to old movies on the idiot box, I aspired to be a different kind of New York style, with all the effortless elegance of that posh transatlantic accent in common use on the silver screen. Bette Davis sounded so classy, although Gary Cooper was probably a more appropriate gender role model. I was reminded of this while reading a recent post by my favorite journalist, James Fallows, in which he points out that many describe this as an artificial accent, imposed by boarding-school peer pressure and Broadway acting coaches, a transatlantic mockery of the Queen’s Received English.

Fallows writes that “you cannot imagine a present-day American using it with a straight face. It’s not faux-British, but it’s a particular kind of lah-dee-dah American diction that at one time was very familiar and now has vanished. . . . I wonder who the last person was who sounded this way. I wish someone still did. Maybe I’ll try.”

I share Fallows’ affection for this affectation, and I am happy to report that Roger, my downstairs neighbor, is a native speaker of this dialect. And if it is an affectation, then all the better, since that is the purpose of dialect in allowing us to assert our identity. And to me at least, the sharp-edged elegance of this particular dialect is no laughing matter.

So not quite a lost language, although certainly endangered.  I don’t personally know of any other male speakers of this dialect, although I still hear echoes of it among certain lovely East Side neighbors of a certain age.

No doubt this transatlantic movie dialect inspired, consciously or not, thousands of small-town emulators with immeasurable effect on word and deed, now fading away to be replaced by linguistic porno of Jersey Shores and Jersey Wives. In the lava lamp that is language, most melt away to rise again. Which invites the question of how entertainers talked before the talkies. A few tantalizing snippets provide some clues, which we’ll examine in upcoming posts.

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