In the 1940s and 50s, actors in major American films, like Katharine Hepburn and Jimmy Stewart, spoke with a kind of faux British accent as a way to sound “upper class.” This pronunciation spread across the country as a kind of standard to imitate. The problem was, this way of talking left out nearly all actual American voices, says Tom McEnaney, a UC Berkeley professor who teaches a class called “Sounding American.”
While the class talks about the generational differences of sound — no one today really speaks like movie stars of the 40s — they also discuss how today’s filmmakers, like Boots Riley in “Sorry to Bother You,” are pushing back against the racial norms concealed in what we might say sounds American. McEnaney says the film, about a young black telemarketer who uses his “white voice” to be successful at sales, takes the sense that many people have — that whiteness is a kind of invisible standard against which all other cultures are judged in the U.S. — and makes the audience think about how whiteness is audible, and is another kind of difference.
Following is a written version of the podcast episode:
[Music: “The Zeppelin” by Blue Dot Sessions]
You’re listening to Fiat Vox, a podcast that gives you an inside look at why people around the world are talking about UC Berkeley. It’s produced and hosted by me, Anne Brice, a reporter for Berkeley News in the Office of Communications and Public Affairs.
Clip from 1940 film “Philadelphia Story:”
“You can’t marry that guy.”
“George, I’m going to.”
This is American actress Katharine Hepburn and actor Jimmy Stewart in the 1940 film Philadelphia Story. The way they talk is distinct — it’s kind of a faux British accent.
“Snob,” says Hepburn.
“What do you mean, snob?,” asks Stewart.
“You’re the worst kind there is,” she says. “An intellectual snob.”
In the 1940s and ‘50s, these were the dominant voices in the media — actors spoke like this, as well as newscasters like Walter Cronkite. Even President Franklin Delano Roosevelt adopted this way of speaking over the radio.
“These voices were thought of to be the standards of American identity because they were the major figures in the major media channels.”
Tom McEnaney is a professor at UC Berkeley. He teaches a class called “Sounding American.” This is the second part of a two-part series that explores ideas in his class.
“There are some great articles about this in The Atlantic magazine tracing the invention of this voice and it was a voice that came actually from the aspirations of U.S. speakers to sound British to sound ‘upper class,'” says McEnaney.
[Music: “Dirty Wallpaper” by Blue Dot Sessions]
But when it entered the movies, this pronunciation spread across the country as a kind of standard to imitate. The problem was this way of talking left out nearly all actual American voices, something that McEnaney talks about in his class.
“So looking at that, we challenge and think about the way in which the United States is, of course, a polyglot country, and it’s made up of all of these different languages and speech forms,” he says. “And that to say that there is an American sound is to suppress 80, 90 percent of the way that most of us speak. And that is to say that we speak in all of these diverse ways.”
While McEnaney’s class discusses the generational differences of sound — no one really speaks today like those movie stars in the 40s — he also shows how today’s filmmakers, right next door in Oakland, are pushing back against the racial norms concealed in what we might say sounds American.
Filmmaker Boots Riley addresses the performance of “white voice” in his debut film, “Sorry to Bother You” — about a young black telemarketer named Cassius Green who uses his “white voice” to be successful at sales.
Here’s Danny Glover’s character Langston giving advice to the rookie telemarketer:
Clip from 2018 film “Sorry to Bother You:”
Langston: “Let me give you a tip. If you wanna make some money here, use your white voice.”
Green: My white voice?
Langston: “I’m not talking about Will Smith white. Like this young blood, ‘Hey Mr. Kramer, this is Langston from Regal View.’”
Langston goes on to say that this white voice is an ideal that not even the white man can attain. He says it’s what they wish they sounded like, what they’re supposed to sound like, so they can sell more products over the phone. This is the sound of whiteness, Riley suggests, but also the sound of capitalism.
Clip from “Sorry to Bother You:”
“As always, we’ll be getting that out to you right away.”
“You’re doing so good with the voice thing.”
McEnaney says the film takes the sense that many people have — that whiteness is a kind of invisible standard against which all other cultures are judged in the U.S. — and makes the audience think about how whiteness is audible, and is another kind of difference.
“This movie makes the audience think about, what is the sound of whiteness?” asks McEnaney. “That whiteness has its own features. That whiteness is all about difference. Different ways of speaking. And of course there are multiple versions of what a white voice might sound like. But part of the joke in the film is that there are these stereotypes applied to all non-white cultures and to think about whiteness as a speech that’s not from people of color. So that difference runs both ways and we don’t think about whiteness as the assumed power.”
[Music: “Dirty Wallpaper” by Blue Dot Sessions]
When we recognize whiteness as difference, McEnaney says, we stop hearing it as the standard against which to judge other voices. Instead, we start hearing all voices as the result of different histories of power.
The stereotype “white voice” that filmmaker Riley plays with in his film is no longer inaudible. It was just the most common voice in major media and in positions of authority because a majority of white people occupied those powerful roles. When Riley makes us hear whiteness, he suggests that this voice is no longer the majority standard, and that history is changing.
The vocabulary we use and the way we say phrases and words are never static. So, sounding American means sounding however you sound at any given time, but also participating in making history every time you speak. There are countless ways to sound American, and we can shape that sound when we use our voices.