Via The Atlantic, James Fallows raises a question I've wondered about too: Language Mystery: When Did Americans Stop Sounding This Way? Excerpt:
The Atlantic's wonderful new Video Channel has a lot of great material, and it is invidious to point to any one offering rather than another. But this clip, "Wings Over the Golden Gate," which I started watching because of the irresistible aviation + California combo (I have flown over exactly the scenes shown here) got my attention for another reason. Watch for about 60 seconds and you'll see what I mean.
The language that the narrator, one Gayne Whitman, uses is florid enough. But his accent! It's instantly familiar to anyone who's seen old movies and newsreels from the 1930s and 1940s.
But you cannot imagine a present-day American using it with a straight face. It's not faux-British, but it's a particular kind of lah-dee-dah American diction that at one time was very familiar and now has vanished. Margaret Dumont, in the Marx Brothers movies, was maybe the most familiar and caricatured female equivalent.
Even Katharine Hepburn's very arch accent (eg in Philadelphia Story) seemed a step closer to "modern" American usage.
I wonder who the last person was who sounded this way. I wish someone still did. Maybe I'll try.
Click through to the Fallows post to watch the clip and learn (from a Fallows reader) what the accent was all about. (The clip is worth watching for its own sake: 1930s San Francisco in colour!)
You can certainly hear the accent in many movies and radio recordings from the 1930s and 40s, and it began to fade out in the 1950s. As the clip shows, it's notable for its "swallowed" r's ("empiah," "Mahket Street," "wuhk," "Fishamen's Woff").
I speak a kind of 1950s California English with a fairly hard r, but I often hear younger Canadian and American English speakers who don't just sound their r's—they practically choke on them: "PURR-fect!" "CoRRneRR." It's not wrong, just yet another sound shift in an ever-changing language.