"The flatter the landscape, the flatter the accent"
March 12, 2017 3:20 PM   Subscribe

Our understanding of Edwardian Britain is dominated by images from flickering footage and formal family portraits. But a remarkable discovery has been made which for the first time gives voice to the Edwardians. Hundreds of recordings have come to light which reveal the accents and dialects of British Prisoners of War held in German camps and recorded during World War One. This archive presents a unique glimpse into the way ordinary men spoke at the time.
Joan Washington, a voice coach and expert in British accents, sets out to tell the story of these recordings and piece together how the Edwardians spoke. She returns to the hometowns of some of the prisoners to meet their families and play them the recordings. Listening with an expert ear to the differences between the voices of the prisoners and their families, Joan explores how far all our accents have changed over the century.
Also, the above-the-fold video comes with sign-language interpretation.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey (11 comments total) 86 users marked this as a favorite
Oh this is wonderful! I wish the entire archive was available for listening.
posted by congen at 5:38 PM on March 12, 2017 [3 favorites]

What a fantastic post!

Joan Washington should be declared some kind of National Treasure, or something; I believe she must've teared up every time she played one of those old recordings; I can't really begin to understand the mind that could have such a sure and immediate grasp of that intractable complexity. I intended to watch only long enough to hear a few Edwardians, but it had me 'til the end.

The sign interpreter was quite distracting at first, but by the end I was looking to him as someone to share my feelings about the piece, and I was able to associate a few of the gestures and expressions with what was being said aloud, but I doubt I wpuld ever be able to understand it as a language.
posted by jamjam at 5:56 PM on March 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

The "these recordings" link above seems to lead to the actual archive but I can't get any of the clips to play. Any suggestions?
posted by Hey Dean Yeager! at 6:00 PM on March 12, 2017

The section starting at 18:02 starts in Macclesfield, and then moves to Alderley Edge, where the novelist Alan Garner grew up and where many of his stories are set. If you're a fan of his books, as I am, you'll probably enjoy hearing people speak the dialect that he reproduces so often. Also, Garner notes that the dialect of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is very similar to the dialect that he grew up with. I don't know enough to comment, but I thought that was interesting.
posted by Joe in Australia at 6:12 PM on March 12, 2017 [3 favorites]

At 11:30 in the first link the German archivist plays some of the actual recordings for her. Also, there is a cool part where he explains how he sets the speed of the record - the person who made the recording played a note at the beginning, and wrote "A" on the label, so he uses a tuning fork and adjusts the speed till the note is an A.
posted by selfmedicating at 6:13 PM on March 12, 2017 [10 favorites]

Wow, Charlie's sister at about minute 33 seems like she's in pretty good shape for a 98-year-old.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 6:31 PM on March 12, 2017

Wow, this is fascinating!

My grandfather lived to be 92, and for every round-number birthday he'd come back to Chicago for a big family blowout, and we'd invite all his friends from the "old neighborhood" (1920s Catholic immigrant neighborhoods in Chicago) he was still in touch with, and as a general thing when they came in they all sounded like men who'd been to war and watched national network television and so on for 70 years -- like pretty normal midwestern -- but then they started talking to each other and SUDDENLY IT IS 1920 CHICAGO ALL UP IN MY LIVING ROOM. It was such a delight.

This is delightful in the same way.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:50 PM on March 12, 2017 [26 favorites]

I would love to hear the impression of a sign language reader of this programme. On the face of it the topic of "accents" does not seem like a promising topic for signing. Is the signing itself able to convey something of those phonetic details that Joan Washington is talking about?
posted by rongorongo at 11:39 PM on March 12, 2017 [3 favorites]

On the face of it the topic of "accents" does not seem like a promising topic for signing.

This documentary is about more than just listening to people talk with accents. Whether or not this is a promising topic for people who are deaf seems like it should be left up to them.
posted by muddgirl at 8:20 AM on March 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

I thought it was funny too, initially, but I can see the signer conveying details of intonation through their hand and body movements, which probably makes this a very good resource for Deaf people working on their speech.
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:50 PM on March 13, 2017

This BBC film was originally FPP'd back in 2007, but it suffered link rot. Amusingly (to me) we both chose precisely the same pull quote for the title.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 8:25 PM on March 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

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