Endurance Performance Proposition #5: The Standard (American Accent)

By Maya Gurantz and Gwendolyn Schwinke

The Standard (American Accent) explores an accent of American English familiar to many of us.  

Invented by Australian linguist William Tilly at the turn of the 20th Century, Tilly (a student of Henry Sweet, the inspiration for Henry Higgins from Pygmalion and My Fair Lady), wanted create an accent for global English speakers that would “fix” language into a standard and elevated pronunciation.  

The accent was a pattern supposedly spoken by persons who were “cultured” or “educated.” But to American linguists of the time, the sounds and inflection were clearly recognizable as upper-class southern British. When adopting this accent, the American speaker shifted halfway toward England, which is why it is sometimes called the “Mid-Atlantic accent.” 

Tilly taught this accent to New York Public School teachers who were assimilating vast numbers of immigrant children; it was taught in rhetoric departments in colleges and was part of the curriculum at Historically Black Colleges and Universities training Black teachers in the first half of the 20th Century. Most famously, Tilly taught it to Drama teachers, which explains why actors “talk like that” in films from the first “talkies” through the 1970s. Though it has fallen out of fashion, this “standard” survives today in film and theaters across the country, particularly in period pieces. Even now we may think of it as “how people used to talk” – although it’s entirely constructed and ahistorical. 

Maya Gurantz and Gwendolyn Schwinke explore the impact of this accent on our ears and our psyches. We’re fascinated by how it reveals itself to be a tool of American assimilation. We question how an invented standard of correctness and perfection may shape our experience of ourselves and our own voices.  

This piece consists of a three-channel audio installation and performance.