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May 14, 2006


Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards:

* I keep hoping I'm wrong, but I have the impression that the "Valley Girl" accent is spreading across the country from its LA home. I tend to blame television, perhaps those "reality" shows, for this unfortunate trend.

On the other hand, I can't recall having heard a guy speaking Valley. Not that are no such guys -- there must be at least a few.

Can anyone explain why it is that gals tend to talk Valley and guys don't?

* Speaking of accents and puzzlements, consider the way people in Philadelphia and Baltimore speak (or did back in the Sixties when I was stationed at Fort Meade and later attended Dear Old Penn).

The salient sound is the diphthong. The phrase "let's go" sounds like "let's geh-ah-oh" for example.

My memory is pretty fuzzy regarding this detail, but I seem to recall that I thought the Philadelphia accent was the Baltimore accent with slight New York City overtones.

The puzzling thing to me is why Philadelphia and Baltimore accents are much more similar than New York and Philadelphia accents. True, Baltimore is trivially nearer to Philly than New York. Baltimore was originally settled by Roman Catholics and Philly by Quakers. Did both groups come from the same part(s) of England?

Perhaps it's because New York started as a Dutch colony, which might make it different. But I have to strain to find links between a New York accent and Dutch. Add to that the fact that the Hudson Valley was settled by the Dutch, and the only local accents I heard there seemed to have touches of regional England usages ("draw" instead of "drawer").

* Might as well end this with yet another accent observation. Many movies made in the Thirties that were set in New York or thereabouts featured actors with "Mid-Atlantic" accents -- American with English overtones such as broad A's and dropped R's.

Perhaps this was actually a commonly-used theatrical accent because the introduction of sound to movies created a demand for actors who didn't sound awful.

Or maybe not. If you've listened to old newsreel clips of Franklin Roosevelt ("We have nothing to fee-ah but fee-ah itself!"), you'll likely think he sounded a lot like those movie actors. So perhaps that accent was once common in the wealthier parts of the mid-Hudson Valley and the North Shore of Long Island and isn't really theatrical or "Mid-Atlantic" after all.

But I don't come from that neck of the woods (or Long Island Sound) and might well be totally wrong. Can someone set me straight?



posted by Donald at May 14, 2006


-I think you're right about the spread of Valley Girl accent.

-Is there not a class dimension to the NY accent?

Posted by: Jonathan on May 14, 2006 09:13 PM

Reliable sounding Wiki article on the New York / New Jersey accent.

Here is a free login for a demo version of the Atlas of North American English. It may be of interest.

These questions of regional speech variation are very, very heavily studied phenomena. You will be able to get very complete answers to these questions with a little bit of research.

Posted by: Lexington Green on May 14, 2006 11:11 PM

Being from Philelfia myself, I'm always amazed by the singularly distinct accent. J'eet yet? Tirsty? Wanna glass a wooder? It's safe, it's from Kinga Prussia. I bot it from the maul after the Iggles game! If you're curious, UofP has been studying the accent for the last 30 odd years. There's been apparently significant degradation during that time, which is a little unusual.

Posted by: Spoonman on May 15, 2006 08:19 AM

Gosh---Valley Girl talk spread across the country at least twenty years ago--like, I mean, c'monnn! Where you been, pal?

However, gay> men talk Valley Girl all the time. I think gay men are now its biggest practitioners!

Posted by: annette on May 15, 2006 10:03 AM

The 'theatrical' accent? That appears in early talkies because of the speech teachers the studios hired to bring their actors up to speed. Proper speech at the time was Mid-Atlantic English, so that's the accent that was taught.

BTW, according to Greg Ferguson (a Glaswegan Scot expatriate with a very late night TV show) Scottie (original Star Trek) doesn't have a Scottish accent, he has a Pakistani accent. Apparently the Paki's picked up English from Scottish engineers during the Days of Empire.

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on May 15, 2006 10:15 AM

Accents aside, one thing that really strikes me about old movies (pre-WWII, basically) is that the actors all seem to speak so _fast_. They rattled off words at a pace that leaves today's methodical, drawling actors in the dust, so to speak.
I don't know whether the fast talking in old movies was due to technological issues regarding sound recording or to different theories of acting.

Posted by: Peter on May 15, 2006 12:04 PM

The actor who played Scottie was actually from Vancouver. Granted, comparing his accent to that of my mother (she is a Glaswegian as well), it is not that bad.

Posted by: Ian Lewis on May 15, 2006 12:57 PM

Oh, one more things on accents.

I have often heard people joke about people from "Joyzey" (Jersey). Having been born and raised in New Jersey and having lived in North, Central and South Jersey, I have never heard a single person say that.

I mean, I am not offended...I think it is funny. But I do get confused by it.

One more thing...have you ever heard someone from the Newark, New Jersey area say Newark? The way they pronounce it, it rhymes with "Cork".

When my best friend says it, I ask him to spell it for me. His reply, "N - O - R - K". I stand corrected.

Posted by: Ian Lewis on May 15, 2006 01:01 PM

Since the beginning of the valley girl days til the present, the boys have been speaking "surfer" in case you hadn't connected the two. Surfer, beginning filmwise, probably, in the "Fast Times At Ridgement High" through and including anything Keanu Reeves (sigh) is in. Dewd, ya know, Dewd? Like toadally rad.

Posted by: bridget on May 15, 2006 03:08 PM

That Philadelphia diphthong attracts linguists from all over the world by its weirdness. It's apparently shared with one tiny village in Holland (or Wales or some such place), and no where else. I can't even imitate it, though I grew up only forty miles north of there. My cousin from New York had a Philly roommate in college; the first wordsout of the roommate were "I need the pho-oon to call ho-oom." This accent is also used in parts of southern New Jersey, especially "down the shoo-er".

And the accent in old films was indeed a theatrical mutation, a stage-born hybrid of English recieved pronunciation and mid-Atlantic American that doesn't quite sound like either. John Barrymore, frex, or William Powell or Edward Everett Horton don't really sound American, but they don't quite sound English either. They sound thespian.

Here is an NPR show on accents, with lots of samples and expert commentary.

Posted by: Brian on May 15, 2006 04:23 PM

Fun discussion! And lots of interesting info.

The input on guy versions of Valley talk was especially informative to me, since I don't travel in the packs mentioned and haven't seen the relevant flicks either.

Still, surfer talk seems to be far more localized than Valley Girl talk. When I was writing the post, I had in the back of my mind the thought that some candidate's daughter at one convention or the other back in '04 spoke in Valley. But I can't recall whose. Anyhow, it came as a slight shock that Valley had reached such levels.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on May 15, 2006 04:52 PM

Regarding the spread of the Valley Girl accent from Los Angeles: may I among the first to welcome you to the year 1985!

Posted by: Questioner on May 15, 2006 06:56 PM

I wonder how regional this all is. Actually, recently I'd been struck by the fact that chicks, er, young women showing up in my part of NYC no longer speak Valley, even in jest. For years it had looked like becoming the standard way for girls to speak -- and then they were carrying the mannerisms into the grownup office. But in the past couple of years I've seen/heard a lot less of that.

As for word-velocity in old films -- yeah, very true. A screenwriting teacher once told me that actors used to speak much more quickly than they do now. Evidently someone had done comparitive word-counting, and old-time screenplays had as many as 1/3 more words of dialogue in theme than modern screenplays do. And of course the movie usually ran shorter than contempo films do.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 15, 2006 09:06 PM

You can hear distinct traces of that same mid-Atlantic accent in movies and TV shows all the way up through the late 60's and early 70's. I've wondered before whether it was an affected, stagey accent, or if that's just how people talked then. But just watch any sitcom or movie from the mid-60's -- it can be set anywhere -- and pay attention to how the middle-aged males in it speak, and try to imagine someone talking like that today. You'll realize how different-sounding it really is.

Posted by: Alex on May 16, 2006 02:04 AM

Check out the accents on this page of Edison cylinders.

Teddy Roosevelt sounds surprisingly like William Powell. Are the American people fit to govern themselves? TR says "I believe they ah." He says "mattuh" for matter, "paht company" for part company, he talks about the history of "a century and a quawtuh", and he turns "at all" into one word: "atall". These are all typical traits of the thespian accent we hear in old George Cukor movies.

Also listen to the Secretary of the Navy with the grandly mid-Atlantic name of Josephus Daniels, born Washington, North Carolina, who says Edison is a "wonduh wuhking man" whose inventiveness "has made waw maw terrible".

Compare these two with William Howard Taft, born in Cincinnati, Ohio, who has a flat Midwestern accent with pronounced R's. Or William Jennings Bryan, born Salem, Illinois, who has bits of an upper Midwest accent. Listen to those almost Fargo-esque O's in the word railroad. Or Edison himself, another Ohio man, who has a bit of the orator in him with his bounding rhythmic speech patterns.

William Powell, by the way, was born in Pittsburgh PA, and by rights should share an accent with Jimmy Stewart and Mister Rogers. He should say pawcket for pocket, for instance. But being a stage actor, he adopted the speech of the mid-Atlantic upper crust. A sound clip of Powell is here. (Drunk, as usual.)

Posted by: Brian on May 16, 2006 02:55 AM

Glad to see someone else has noticed the spread of Valley Girl Speak, and that it isn't just my imagination. I live in Atlanta, and when I'm at the suburban shopping malls most of the teenage girls I overhear speak like California Valley Girls. I suspect it is a middle-class suburban teenage thing, because as you get further away from the 'burbs then you hear more teenagers who just sound like rednecks. It also seems to be a manifestation of a "being-an-airhead-is-cool" mystique; although I've noticed a disturbing number of non-airhead young women (not just teens but twenty- and even thirty-somethings) using that annoying Valley Girl up-talk--you know, where every sentence ends as if it's a question? And as you notice it seems to be gender related, although a lot of men under 40 seem to be favoring the California surfer use of "dude."

Posted by: Bilwick on May 16, 2006 08:44 AM

The New York accent doesn't come from Dutch, although a few local words have a Dutch derivation (e.g., "stoop" for "porch"). It was strongly influenced by the many Irish immigrants who fetched up in New York in the 19th century. The dentalized "t" and "d" (that is, spoken with the tongue on or near the upper teeth rather than the roof of the mouth) and "oi" sound for "i" ("What toime is it?") typical of a downmarket New York accent are similar to the dialect in parts of Ireland.

I too am amused at the upper-class Eastern accent that was de rigueur in '30s and '40s movies. Movie actors (especially women) being groomed for stardom were often given "elocution lessons." I do suspect that ordinary American speech, at least in New England and parts of the South, was slightly closer to what we think of as an English accent (although there are, of course, many varieties of English accent, not to mention Scottish and Welsh).

Posted by: Rick Darby on May 16, 2006 05:13 PM

What a great discussion! Haven't been here for a while, glad I came back again. This explains why nobody round here believes me that Vivien Leigh was English.

I've always found it amazing that accents are still evolving so fast. People used to inherit them with their location and (especially in the UK) their class; now they actually choose their own accent. This would have been regarded as a sign of untrustworthiness in the past. Like cosmetic surgery.

Posted by: Alice on May 17, 2006 10:35 AM

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