Your Grannie’s Accent

Did your grandmother sound like “Grannie” from The Beverly Hillbillies? Or did your Grandpa talk like Walter Brennan in “The Real McCoys”? No? Well, consider this from Language Log, one of my favorite non-genealogy blogs:

When’s the Last Time You Heard an Old Person Say “Dadburn It”?

An old Bugs Bunny cartoon of 1944, THE OLD GREY HARE, depicts Bugs and Elmer Fudd as old men going through their usual antics with canes, gray beards, spectacles and the shakes. But these aren’t the only traits indicating their having reached their twilight years. Bugs, as an oldster, talks in a hillbilly accent.

But Bugs Bunny as a young “man” spoke in a Brooklyn/Bronx patois. Why would he have shifted into an alien moonshine dialect as he got older?

This was no random occurrence chez the Looney Tunes crew. One sees this kind of thing again and again in pop culture of that era. Old people are very often depicted as talking like the Beverly Hillbillies even when the people around them use mainstream standard American.

In a 1932 musical film STRIKE ME PINK with Eddie Cantor and Ethel Merman, in one song near the end they are transformed into oldster versions of themselves (never mind why), and suddenly they are cackling along in “Consarn it!” accents that neither of the urban characters they were playing in the film used.

In the old radio hit FIBBER MCGEE AND MOLLY, a cherished character in the late thirties and early forties was “The Old Timer,” who would always pop by telling tall tales ushered in by his catchphrase “That ain’t the way I heerd it!” The Old Timer sounded like an old-time gold prospector — but everyone else on the show, which took place in generic Wistful Vista, Illinois, spoke generic Midwestern Whatever.

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This kind of thing was so common in American pop culture before 1950 that I would venture that I got a sense of the contours of hillbilly dialect (in caricatured form, to be sure) from these depictions of old people in the cartoons and old movies that were still staples on UHF as a grew up. I recall an afternoon in high school in 1980 when, joking with some friends, I passingly slid into such an accent depicting a person in their old age — you know, “Sonny” and such. One guy joshingly objected “How come when he got old he would start talking in a Southern accent?” It struck me. He was right — what kind of sense did this make?

My favorite linguist, John McWhorter, goes on in this piece to offer a demographic explanation for this strange pop culture phenomenon. Read the rest from a May 2004 post on Language Log here.

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Craig


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