May 30, 2004

Flat Yanks, sharp Brits?

On May 14, when Bob Mondello reviewed Troy on NPR, he said:

"As with most sword-and-sandal epics, go indoors and everything's suddenly about statuary, and torches, and an international cast that's trying to reach common ground on accents; here the kings hail from Scotland and Ireland, and the followers from London's West End and Australia. Happily this makes Pitt's Achilles sound like the outsider he's supposed to be, even when he remembers to round his vowels..."

On the same date, when Carrie Rickey reviewed Troy in the Philadelphia Inquirer, she wrote

"Just because Pitt is a hair actor, tossing highlighted tresses for emphasis, doesn't mean he's a bad actor... But when Pitt opens his mouth, the voice that emerges is prairie-flat, lacking the thunder-on-the-palisades sweep and resonance of O'Toole and Bana. When Pitt speaks, you don't think Troy; you think, as a friend says, Troy Donahue."

There seems to be some sort of dialect=shape metaphor in the background here: American voices are flat, British (and Scottish and Australian) voices are not.

Although I suggested in an earlier post that Mondello might have been referring to Pitt's artificial r-lessless, that's probably not it. There a whole complex of inter-related semi-synesthesias going on here, several different metaphorical extensions of "flatness" -- to sounds, to articulations, and especially to social evaluation.

An IMDB review of the 1955 movie Seven Cities of Gold complains about Richard Egan as "Jose Mendoza" that

Egan is about as Spanish as William Bendix!! His flat American accent and obviously non-Latin coloring create a sensory paradox when he is onscreen.

A bit of Googling will turn up hundreds of other examples of this sort of thing. But what is flat about American accents, exactly?

A flat voice might be one that is emotionless or uninflected, and American speech is stereotypically uninflected by comparison to British speech. It's easy to find lists of (empirically unsupported) national stereotypes that depict Americans (especially men) as using little intonational modulation, for example this one:

These are some of the more commonly-held ideas about different cultures: German men speak fairly slowly, with a deep voice; everything sounds serious! Scandinavians appear more quiet and modest: soft, gentle tones but with clearly varied intonation. Italians, Spanish and Greeks always seem to be excited about something. Americans “chew” their words and frequently have very deep voices with “flat” intonation.

However, often it's the vowels or consonants rather than the intonations that are perceived as "flat", as in Mondello's review, or this Wired article about call centers in Bangalore:

"You try to place the accent. Iowa maybe? No, the "a" sound is too flat. California? Maybe it's a crowded call center in some business park in Kansas City.

But Betty is actually calling from Bangalore, and her real name is Savita Balasubramanyam. ... And her perfect American accent is the result of rigorous training and an employer-encouraged addiction to Ally McBeal."

Then again, this interview with Tom Friedman about his visit to call centers in Bangalore features a clip of an "accent neutralization class" in which the instructor uses the phrase "flat the 'tuh' sound" to mean "flap and voice prevocalic non-pre-stress /t/":

INSTRUCTOR: All right, class. I want you to take out your books and I'm going to give you a passage. Remember, the first day I told you that the Americans flat the "tuh" sound. You know, it sounds like an almost "duh" sound, not keep it crisp and clear like the British. So I would not say "Betsy bought a bit of better butter" or "insert a quarter in a meter." But they would say "insert a quarder in the meder," or "'Beddy bought a bit of bedder budder."

So I'm just going to read it out for you once, and then we'll read it together. All right? "Thirty little turtles in a bottle of bottled water. A bottle of bottled water held 30 little turtles. It didn't matter that each turtle had a round metal ladle in order to get a little bit of noodles." All right, who's going to read first?

Friedman explains that the same instructor

...also does British accents, American accents. That was actually for a Canadian call center. They were actually working on a sort of flat North American Canadian accent.

where he is not talking about T's but about some overall impression of flatness.

A discussion of accents in Hebrew suggests that American R's are "very flat":

"Don't worry about how you sound" was my mother's advice. She had heard a political talk in Hebrew on the radio, by someone whose masculine sounding voice spoke with a heavy American accent, including very flat "r"s. After the speech, the announcer said: "You have just heard Golda Meir speak." My mother suggested: "Listen to how she speaks. She's prime minister of Israel and her Hebrew sounds so American."

Flat vowels, flat T's, flat R's, flat accents. What are these people talking about?

As usual, reading the OED helps us to trace the metaphor back to its sources, which turn out to be multiple. Among the OED's senses for flat (the adjective) are:

4.b. Engraving. Wanting in sharpness...
4.c. Of paint, lacquer, or varnish: lustreless, dull.
4.d. Photogr. Wanting in contrast.

7. Wanting in points of attraction and interest; prosaic, dull, uninteresting, lifeless, monotonous, insipid. Sometimes with allusion to sense 10. a. of composition, discourse, a joke, etc. Also of a person with reference to his composition, conversation, etc.

9.a. Wanting in energy and spirit; lifeless, dull.

10. Of drink, etc.: That has lost its flavour or sharpness; dead, insipid, stale.

11.a. Of sound, a resonant instrument, a voice: Not clear and sharp; dead, dull. Also in Combs., as flat-sounding, -vowelled.
11.b. Music. Of a note or singer: Relatively low in pitch; below the regular or true pitch.

There are several different metaphors here: "flatness is lack of variation"; "flatness is lack of some (desired) feature"; "flatness is lack of attractiveness"; "flatness is lack of resonance"; "flatness is pitch lowered relative to a reference value". All of these can be applied to sound.

There is a tradition (now obsolete) in phonetics of using "flat" (usually as opposed to "sharp") to describe certain differences in sound quality. For example, the OED cites

1874 R. MORRIS Hist. Eng. Gram. §54 B and d, &c. are said to be soft or flat, while p and t, &c. are called hard or sharp consonants.

This is the sense of "flat" as "voiced" (i.e. accompanied by vocal-cord vibration) that the call-center instructor in Bangalore employed, carrying on the tradition of 19th-century British phonetics, which was developed largely in order to help teach "commercial millionaires" and colonial subjects to speak "properly."

The OED also references two other similarly-abandoned traditional uses of "flat" in phonetics. One, due to Henry Sweet, refers to vowels made with a level or "flat" tongue shape, not raised or lowered in either the back or front:

1934 H. C. WYLD in S.P.E. Tract XXXIX. 609 The tongue may be so used that neither back nor front predominates, but the whole tongue, which lies evenly in the mouth, is raised or lowered. Vowels so formed are called ‘mixed’ by Sweet, but I owe to him also the term ‘flat’ which I prefer as more descriptive. The vowel [ʌ] in bird is low-flat.

The other one is due to Jakobson, Fant and Halle. This one refers to sound rather than tongue shape, invoking the contrast with "sharp" again, but in terms of physical measurements of frequency rather than subjective impressions of sound quality:

1952 R. JAKOBSON et al. Prelim. Speech Analysis 31 Flat vs. Plain...Flattening manifests itself by a downward shift of a set of formants.

However, I think it's clear that the references to "flat American accents" don't describe anything at all about the intrinsic quality of the sounds, but are pure social evaluation: "wanting in points of attraction and interest; prosaic, dull, uninteresting, lifeless, monotonous, insipid". The American middle classes have always had self-esteem problems.

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 30, 2004 11:27 AM