»  The Straggler, No. 29

March 13th, 2005

  Vox Humana


"With that voice," the lady gushed, "you can always get what you want!"

If only it were true! The mis en scène, I hasten to say, was far from intimate. There were half a dozen of us sitting round a restaurant table in Washington DC, and the ladies, who were a clear majority, were all of the most respectable sort. In any case, I hear this a lot. It seems counterintuitive to me, given this nation's origins, but native — sorry, one is nowadays driven to pleonasm here: I mean native-born — Americans just love a British accent. And yes, the temptation to swing matters in one's favor a bit by laying on that accent is occasionally irresistible. Contra my lady dining companion, I can't always get what I want, and there are of course some places — certain bars in Boston or New York — where the effect might be dramatically the opposite of what is intended; but it is a fact that having a British voice gives one an edge in most of the USA.

It took me longer than usual to get wise to this because I have always thought my own voice very unsatisfactory. I was raised in a rustic English county where nothing much had happened for a millennium or so. The nearby prominence that official maps showed as Hunsbury Hill was known to us as Danes' Camp, a name it must have acquired in King Alfred's time; and people still argued about which route Thomas à Becket had taken when fleeing the county seat in 1164. The local people, who did not venture from home any more than necessary, had developed their own dialects. There were at least two in the county proper — three if you included the Soke of Peterborough, which we generally didn't, and where the plural of "house" is "housen." The playmates of my childhood dropped their initial aitches and the terminal "g" from "-ing," formed the regular perfect tense with "be" instead of "have," pronounced the "oh" and "eye" diphthongs as "oo" and "oy" respectively, spoke of the world about them with a variety of dialect words like "jitty" (an alley) and "mardy" (ill-tempered), addressed friendly strangers as "Duck," and used metonymy to refer to London, sixty miles away: "the Smoke."

None of this sat well with my parents, who both came from further west and north, and had washed up in the county as part of that great shuffling the English population underwent during WW2. My mother in particular thought dialect speech uncouth, and corrected us ceaselessly when we were in her presence. Cowed by this relentless pressure at home, yet unwilling to be scoffed at by my coevals for putting on airs, I reached my teens in a state of bilingual confusion. Then my secondary school, which demanded high standards in all things, laid my vowels and consonants on the anvil, so that I emerged into the adult world speaking a nondescript non-dialect: Oikish, the flat, characterless, locality-less diction of working-class lads and lasses trained up to be acceptable in polite society. "You can take the boy out of the Bronx, but not the Bronx out of the boy," New Yorkers say. The English know better.

Alas, the adult world I had been trained into was disappearing just as I arrived. By the time I graduated from university, not only was it no longer the case that local dialects were looked down upon; they were positively celebrated. The old style of news announcers on British radio and television, whose perfectly standard speech might have been learned from scratch out of Professor Daniel Jones's great 1918 classic Outline of English Phonetics, had been put out to pasture in the BBC World Service. Their replacements on the home front flaunted the abrupt vowels of the north, the buzzing fricatives of the southwest, Cockney glottal stops, Ulster snarls, and the soporific cadences of Wales. These were their blazons of individuality, of authenticity. I had no such. My escutcheon was blank. I could have got a job with the World Service, I suppose, but I came to America instead.

It is a fact well known to phoneticists, but of which the larger public is quite unaware, that the United States is a nation of astounding uniformity in speech. England has, or until recently had, villages twenty miles apart whose speech differs more than that of any two places in the entire breadth of the U.S.A. This takes some getting used to. Professor C.K. Thomas (The Phonetics of American English) identifies ten speech areas in this nation. After 20 years' residence I can distinguish only four: Southern, Yankee, Noo Yawk, and Other. The ears of native — darn it, native-born — Americans are finer tuned.

One consequence is that American humor is often lost on me. Some New York friends, after a lady from Pennsylvania had left the room, let forth long-suppressed giggles at the way she had said: "My husband and I enjoy bowling." I could not see the point, and had to have it explained. In my researches into the late President Coolidge, I several times encountered references to his hilarious Vermont accent: he could get four syllables out of the word "cow," etc., etc. When I finally tracked down some recordings of the man speaking, he sounded to me merely Other, with a touch of Yankee. (His son John, with whom I had the pleasure of conversing, was perfectly Other.)

There is, in fact, a doctoral thesis to be written — perhaps it already has been — on the phonetics of presidential politics. I nurse a private suspicion that nobody with a squeaky voice can rise to very high office in a democracy. Newt Gingrich attained House Speakership, it is true, but he could never be President. You just can't be taken altogether seriously if your voice squeaks. It's unfair, but there you are. Gore Vidal, who grew up among Washington gossip, claims that Theodore Roosevelt had a squeaky voice, but surviving recordings do not, it seems to me, bear this out. Our current President is, like myself, a baritone. Lincoln's normal voice was in the tenor range, as is Bill Clinton's — one reason the latter can get such striking effects by descending into huskiness.

Perhaps, along with the nips and tucks and injections that are, I am told, now routine among candidates for the highest office, there might be included some minor surgery on the vocal chords. In the matter of getting what you want, having the right voice is rarely decisive, but it can shorten the odds.