WATCHING THE DARKNESS DESCEND.

Everyone knows that YouTube is where Americans go to have their brains sucked out through their eyeballs. Today we’ll examine one YouTube informational video in detail, and show you why it will inevitably leave you stupider unless you counter it with actual information. It’s called “Why Do Americans In Old Movies Sound British?” and it comes from a channel with 2.2 million subscribers, which goes to show how far stock footage and a nodding acquaintance with Wikipedia will get you.


(You have to make the explicit decision to activate that video because Dr. Boli believes you might not want Google following you everywhere just because you landed on his front page.)

The video is a feast of stock footage, and it is sponsored by a supplier of stock footage. The research was done mostly in the Wikipedia article on “Mid-Atlantic Accent,” also called the “Transatlantic Accent.”

Our narrator (after some preliminary self-congratulation) starts off proposing to answer the question, Why does Cary Grant speak with what sounds to us like an English accent? One satisfying answer would be, “Because he was born and raised in England.” That this answer is not suggested, and that the fact is not even mentioned, may give us our first hint that the hours of research that went into this video have been misplaced. Sometimes truly in-depth research requires more than one Wikipedia article.

The next hint comes right afterward, when our narrator says that “nearly all actors in old movies talk like that.” We’ll refute that statement later. Meanwhile, the video breezes along, telling us that the Transatlantic Accent is “not real, fake, synthetic, artificial, contrived, false, phony.” The multiplication of adjectives, though played as a joke, seems to betray some considerable anger, as if the “Transatlantic Accent” had beaten our narrator and stolen his lunch money every day in the eighth grade. This is not likely, because the accent was already extinct by the time our narrator was in the eighth grade. But there is some lingering resentment here: perhaps a memory of some pedantic English teacher who forced the children to pronounce the T in often. There are English teachers who do that, and an entire wing of purgatory is set aside for them.

Or perhaps it is because the idea that any pronunciation could be correct is “racist,” which comes up in a little burst of sarcasm (“super-not-racist idea”) seconds later. This is an interestingly American point of view. In America, it is commonly (though not universally) possible to distinguish Black speakers by their accents. This is a curious fact of American culture; if you turn on a British television show and close your eyes, you cannot distinguish the races of the speakers. But Americans are so used to the distinction that many of us seem to believe that African ancestry causes the accent. (Dr. Boli remembers one very painful conversation in which a gentleman who was certainly not a racist explained in detail how the shape of the African head caused the Black American accent.) So, oddly, it would be racist to propose that everyone should speak a “proper” English that, according to the video, neither White nor Black Americans naturally speak. It would be racist to suggest that there should not be a linguistic distinction by race. —But Dr. Boli is bored with this particular absurdity, so we’ll move on to another.

The videomakers’ Wikipedia research seems to have failed them when they trace the Transatlantic Accent to the 1920s. If they had read the Wikipedia article more carefully, they would have seen that it was already the American prestige accent in the 1800s, as evidenced by the earliest recordings. Dr. Boli will now add to the sum of human knowledge by connecting the accent with Worcester’s Dictionary, the most popular American dictionary of the middle 1800s. Worcester was preferred by educated Americans over Webster, and it was Worcester’s belief that there was and should be no essential difference between educated American and English speech. Many editions of Worcester’s Dictionary incorporated the pronunciations from Walker’s Pronouncing Dictionary, the famous English guide to pronunciation, so Americans who turned to Worcester would get the same pronunciation guidance that English readers relied on.

So the elite boarding schools of the 1920s were simply doing what the elite boarding schools of the 1860s or any other arbitrary period in American history were doing. They were teaching their pupils to speak properly, and “properly” was defined with an English bias.

But “why did nearly everyone in old movies use a Transatlantic Accent regardless of whether or not their character would have attended an elite Northern boarding school?”

Oddly, these words are spoken over a clip of Jimmy Stewart. If you know who Jimmy Stewart is, you are already astonished. If you do not know who Jimmy Stewart is, search on YouTube, listen to him talking for fifteen seconds, and then come back here.

So clearly Jimmy Stewart was the wrong example to pick. But most Hollywood actors of the time would have been the wrong example to pick. Some certainly were known for the “Transatlantic Accent.” Cary Grant’s Wikipedia article notes specifically (in the second sentence) that he was “known for his transatlantic accent.” But he would not have been “known” for it if every other movie star in Hollywood spoke that way—it would be like saying Tom Cruise was known for speaking English in his film roles. Clark Gable, Ginger Rogers, Dick Powell, Judy Garland, Joseph Cotton, Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Ruby Keeler, Orson Welles, Fred Astaire, Van Johnson, Joan Blondell—these were some of the biggest names in Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s, and they are not Transatlanticists. None of them regularly spoke with that fake, synthetic, artificial, contrived, false, phony accent. Some could code-switch, as the linguists say today: Ginger Rogers and Una Merkel get a lot of comic mileage out of switching between Park Avenue and street-smart chorus girl in 42nd Street. But the idea that almost all movie stars spoke like products of a Northeastern prep school could be held only by someone who knows old movies from four-second clips on YouTube.

There is more misinformation to come. Dr. Boli will only note in passing, for example, that Carnegie Mellon did not exist when Edith Skinner was teaching (doubtless our narrator meant to say “Carnegie Tech”), and anyway Edith Skinner was certainly not responsible for all the actors who adopted the Transatlantic Accent—some of them, in fact, came from elite Northern boarding schools.

Then we come to why the Transatlantic Accent vanished. Why did World War II make Americans want to be more differentiated from the British, the allies we fought with (not against, it may be necessary to explain to younger folks)? It’s just obvious, apparently. So, “having learned from our mistakes”—

What was the mistake? What did we learn? Was it that pronunciation is not a skill that can be taught? That sounds so absurd when we hear it stated that we would wonder whether anyone could be fool enough to believe it, but it seems to be current educational dogma anyway. If pronunciation is not a learned skill, then where does it come from? Dr. Boli is reminded of the old story of the young couple who were taking a crash course in Russian so they could understand their newly adopted baby when she started to talk.

Oh, yes, you say to Dr. Boli, but do you have a better explanation?

We could, in an optimistic moment, say that educated Americans no longer speak this way because fashions have changed. If we were feeling more pessimistic, we could say that educated Americans no longer speak this way because there are no more educated Americans.

But we have already pushed this article past the limits of our readers’ patience. Let us therefore press toward the conclusion and compile a list of hidden assumptions in this video, so deeply hidden that the makers are certainly not aware of them.

  1. Educated is fake. Real means uneducated.
  2. Pronunciation cannot be taught. It grows naturally, like warts.
  3. Midwesterners are real Americans. East-coasters from New England or New Jersey or South Carolina who speak with a non-rhotic accent are not really American at all.
  4. If people spoke differently from us eighty or ninety years ago, it was because they put on a fake accent for show; at home they talked like us.

But the real point of this long essay (we explain to the two or three readers who made it this far down) is not to mock a random video into which its creators put a lot of research (by reading an exceptionally long Wikipedia article) and a lot of work. The real point is to show that the new Dark Age has already begun. There has been a complete and irreparable break in cultural tradition.

Now cultural archaeologists are forced to comb through the ruins for clues to what civilization was like eighty or ninety years ago, before the darkness descended. Naturally their conclusions are mostly wrong. Archaeologists are usually wrong in their first attempts at reconstructing an ancient civilization. But they are making those first attempts. They deserve praise and encouragement. This is how science works: by proposing a hypothesis, working it up into a theory, and then finding that the facts don’t fit and the theory is rubbish. We call that progress. Our videomakers have completed the first two steps, and Dr. Boli has kindly filled in the third for them. Now they can get back to work on a new and better hypothesis.

Comments

  1. von Hindenburg says:

    Half as Interesting is a premier example of the ‘explainer’ type of Youtube channel, which attempts to be an expert at everything and tell you all about it with absurd frequency (twice a week!). This leads to research that, as you say, rarely goes past a partial Wikipedia article or the front page of Google.

    There are plenty of very useful presenters on Youtube, but they generally stick to a single subject, quote direct sources or interview experts, and avoid clickbait titles and fancy graphics. The problem, of course, is that dour videos on niche subjects, coming out once a month or so, each requiring a journal article’s worth of research are rewarded neither by most viewers or the almighty algorithm.

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