Emily Post on Accents

In the mid-1880s the distinguished architect Bruce Price designed the plan for Tuxedo Park, New York, which would serve as a model for high-end gated communities built around lakes. (This village of thoroughbreds also lent its name to the formal piece of attire known as the tuxedo.) Some 40 years later Price’s daughter Emily wrote America’s first bestselling book of etiquette under her married name: Emily Post. Etiquette, with the subtitle “In Society, In Business, In Politics, and at Home,”* was published in 1922, and the rest is history. Happily, in her guide to better living (no matter one’s background) Mrs. Post held forth on the word usage, pronunciation, and accents considered “proper” at the dawn on the Roaring Twenties.

Over the years this daughter of the Gilded Age would change with the times, and since her death in 1960 her descendants have done so as well (the 18th Edition of Emily Post’s Etiquette came out in 2011). As the hundredth anniversary of the 620-page book that would eventually put Mrs. Post’s face on a postage stamp nears,** the following excerpt from its first edition should be of interest to word lovers far and wide — so herewith half a page from the “Words, Phrases and Pronunciation” chapter of that hefty tome, revealing Post’s perception of various American accents:

Traits of pronunciation which are typical of whole sections of the country, or accents inherited from European parents must not be confused with crude pronunciations that have their origin in illiteracy. A gentleman of Irish blood may have a brogue as rich as a plum cake, or another’s accent be soft Southern or flat New England, or rolling Western; and to each of these the utterance of the others may sound too flat, too soft, too harsh, too refined, or drawled, or clipped short, but not uncultivated.

The New York ear, which ought to be fairly unbiased since the New York accent is a composite of all accents. English women chirrup and twitter. But the beautifully modulated, clear-clipped enunciation of an Englishman, one who can move his jaw and not swallow his words whole, comes as near to perfection in English as the Comédie Française comes to perfection in French.

The Boston accent is very crisp and in places suggestive of the best English, but the vowels are so curiously flattened that the pitch has a saltless affect. There is no rhyming word as flat as they way they say heart—“haht.” And bone and coat —“bawn,” “cawt,” to rhyme with awe!

Then South, there is too much sugar… Every one’s mouth seems full of it, with I turned into “ah” and every staccato a drawl. But the voices are full of sweetness and music unknown north of the Potomac.

The same chapter includes sections headed “How to Cultivate Agreeable Speech” and “Phrases to Avoid in Good Society”—and you can be sure that a few more bon mots from a woman whose advice was directed as much to the average American as the privileged few will pop up again in this website for Wordies.

*In the next few editions the subtitle was “The Blue Book of Social Usage,” and the book was often spoken of as such.

**In 1950 Pageant magazine’s list of  “The Most Powerful Women in America” ranked Emily Post second only to Eleanor Roosevelt, and in 1990 Life magazine put her among “The Most Important Americans of the 20th Century.” But the unpretentious Mrs. Post never let such plaudits go to her head. In Emily Post, biographer Laura Claridge wrote,“From the frequency with which she retold the story, Emily’s keenest pleasure would still have to come from the statistic citing Etiquette second only to the Bible as the book most stolen from public libraries, an honor it would hold through the end of the twentieth century.”

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