Most people think it all started with Madonna. It was subtle: She’d take the stage at an awards show, and before the clapping even died down you could hear it: “Thank kyeew . Thank kyeeew .” Suddenly she wasn’t some naughty Catholic girl from the Motor City. She sounded sort of … continental. All proper, with flourishes thrown in, in unexpected places.
Take her speech at the 1998 VH1- Vogue Fashion Awards where Donatella Versace and Sting presented her with the Gianni Versace Personal Style Award. She was dressed in a sari and was barefoot. “Gianni Versace was a great man and a great talent, and it’s an honor to receive this award in his name. Especially from two people I’m so very fond of.”
She was hyper-enunciating. Until she came to the end. Then it almost sounded translated–like she said ” vahhry fohnd .”
“If I hadn’t known that she started out as an American, I would’ve said she was an English person who wanted to sound like an American and made it part of the way,” said George Jochnowitz, a professor of linguistics at City University’s College of Staten Island, when asked to explain the Material Girl’s dialect.
Some have taken to calling it mid-Atlantic English, by which they don’t mean the language of Pennsylvania. “It’s like you’ve spent so much time on the Concorde you’re all caught up in the middle,” explained Hannah Lawrence, director of public relations at Helmut Lang who really is from London. Picture Gwyneth Paltrow over international waters–with Emma , Sliding Doors, Shakespeare in Love and countless cover photo shoots behind her–not exactly sure how to pronounce the word “really.”
As far as anyone can tell, the Concorde accent was picked up on the faah-shion show circuit and brought to America. It has quickly spread through the mastheads of the fashion books–where in the lower ranks they’re trying to make you think they went straight from Vassar to Vogue via a year abroad in Venice–and beyond. Very Institut Le Rosey.
It says, “I’m interesting–or at least you’re not sure that I’m not.” And it’s fun. With her Audrey Hepburn affectation–part leftovers from being cast British, part proof that she’s a serious actress–Ms. Paltrow never shows up out of character. With Madonna’s dialect from nowhere–part imitating the Italians who dress her, part ” I can act !”–she gets some kind of mysterious-woman-without-a-language mystique.
It’s Grace Kelly or Katharine Hepburn cross-pollinated with double-cheek-kissing Ingrid Bergman. It’s ending sentences with an innocent little Italian ” no? ” Or using words like ” shall ” and ” quite ” and giving them a rhythm.
“It’s probably because of the way I was brought up,” lilted freelance fashion consultant Polly Mellen–who is always being told she sounds somewhat British. “Probably because I always went to private school and had a really, sort of, very, how can I say it, priv-i-leged education and life. I was really sort of packed in cotton.”
Candy Pratts Price, creative director of the 1999 VH1- Vogue Fashion Awards, said her biggest offense is saying ” taahsel ” instead of “tassel.” “I didn’t go to public school, you know,” she said.
Some claim it’s an accident. “Every now and then I’ll catch myself,” admitted Lee Carter, editor of Hint , an on-line fashion magazine. “Like one time I said ‘ claahhs ,’ when I meant to say ‘class.’ And I was like, ‘Oh no!’ It just happened. It was definitely not conscious. I was like, that’s so fake and phony, I’ve got to stop doing this! I think it has to do with wanting to sound professional.”
But it always sounds affected. “It’s certainly not the case that most people beyond teenage automatically shift their English very fast if they go to another area,” said Bill Stewart, a professor of linguistics at City University. “They would have to make a conscious effort to do so. And they would often not get it right.”
“You can tell when it’s put on because people think it’s chi-chi,” said Ms. Mellon. “I mean, there’s a woman in a very, very big, big job, and she never used to talk like that . That’s easy to spot, and that’s usually younger people who are learning.”
Sam Chwat, director of New York Speech Improvement Services, usually works with actors preparing for a role. But nowadays, he said, some of his clients are just preparing for their roles in life. “There’s snob appeal … Since this whole Madonna thing started, we’ve had a few more clients looking for British accents. We try and warn people if they’re American and adopting British accents, it’s going to sound phony. And they’re going to be found out.”
Nonetheless, the clients know what they want. “I had a client who was a man in his 50′s, a c.e.o. in the fashion industry,” said Mr. Chwat, “and he had a very, very strong New York accent which he felt was an industry joke, that here he was, Armani-clad and otherwise elegant and powerful, and his speech was belying his image: He had an Italian-based, Tony Danza-type accent. Now if you met this guy, you would swear that he was vaguely continental. That he did not go to school in this country.”
In other words, he just sounds sort of expensively confused. It’s the occasional–but not uniform–” cahn’t ” instead of ” can’t ,” or ” rilly ” instead of ” really .” But it’s there. It’s a softening of vowels, it’s keeping T’s as pinpointed little T’s instead of allowing them to morph into thudding D’s. “One of the most consistent differences between British and American speech is what you do with a T in between two vowels,” said Mr. Jochnowitz. “Like ‘nom-i-na-ted.’ Most Americans use a sound that’s closer to ‘D.’”
According to Mr. Jochnowitz, Americans trying to sound British tend to first soften their A sounds into “ah” sounds, and then drop their R’s. “People in fashion have to speak about their product all the time,” he said, as he watched a tape of Vogue editor at large André Leon Talley commentating on last summer’s couture collections in Paris. Mr. Talley was speaking loudly and clearly. Each word was distinct. He rarely pronounced the letter R, “again” was “a-gain.” ” Sweat-ah ,” ” trouse-ah .” And his voice rose up and down like a song or a chant.
“He starts with an R-less dialect,” the professor explained. “Which sounds like part of a native Southern accent. [Mr. Talley is, in fact, from the South.] The fact that he’s R-less but doesn’t sound like a Southerner is what gives the suggestion that he’s British. He also speaks very precisely, which is, I guess, a professional thing, but has a British association, whereas we think of Southerners as being somewhat relaxed. But fashion people are always describing, making a point. You have the necessity to be clear in order to make your point. And that might explain why you would make sure you have all your differences in pitch, and why you keep all your consonants.”
In the travel-heavy fashion industry, it’s easily explained away time and again: “After traveling different places, especially when you go to London and you’re in that environment and you’re around fashion in that area, you definitely pick up words and things like that,” said April Hughes, an editor at Elle . “And living in New York, you pick up a little from everything. It’s an influence from old-school fashionistas like Diana Vreeland, it’s what designers are saying this season–like Michael Kors is saying ‘Palm Bitch,’ so suddenly you’re into that. And it’s an influence that’s definitely European. Mostly British.”
Once the accent and rhythms are down, the fashion lexicon becomes very important. “At one time, certainly, French words had cachet,” said Old Navy spokesman Carrie Donovan, whose voice warbles up high like a schoolteacher. Provided that school is Brearley and the year is 1949. “Like something having chien meant something.” Ms. Donovan’s voice turned wistful. (F.Y.I.: It means it was chic.) “But I think that phase is sort of gone.”
Right now, it’s pretty much unanimous that–unless you’re ordering coffee or being sort of ironic –foreign phrases are out. But “genius” and “brilliant” don’t seem to be budging in popularity. The royal ‘we’ is an important part of the dialect. “It’s, you know, ‘We’re loving pink this year.’ I think it’s gracious. You don’t come back as a reporter and say, ‘I saw pink.’ It means Vogue says stilettos, not Missy so-and-so says stilettos. Vogue did, and that’s a bible,” said Ms. Price.
Also important is the nearly constant use of the present progressive tense. ” It’s working ,” ” I’m loving it .” “It’s a dance,” said Ms. Price, “and it’s not finished until you’re finished saying it.”
“It shows that it’s more immediate,” explained Mr. Jochnowitz. “Not simply that it works all the time, but it works at this very minute.”
Elizabeth Saltzman, the fashion director of Vanity Fair , favors word shortening. ” Gorge ” instead of “gorgeous,” “faboo ” for “fabulous.” She also likes ” flawless .” The collection? ” Flawless .” Michael Kors? ” Flawless .” Tom Ford? “Looks–and is –flawless.” Which leads to another of Ms. Saltzman’s favorites–” Full Gooch ,” which means head-to-toe Gucci.
Ms. Mellen worries about precision, about the most efficacious way to use words in such a visual profession, which is, Mr. Jochnowitz explained, one likely explanation for a tendency toward a more European accent. “[In fashion people] you have more marked variations in pitch. Americans have a tendency to skip consonants, jump right over them, hardly pronounce them. Maybe people in fashion have to speak about their product all the time, and you have the necessity to be clear in order to make your point. Which would explain differences in pitch.”
“I think that when I was younger I used too many adjectives,” said Ms. Mellen, who is told she’s not shy about the word ” divine .” “I saw Annie Leibovitz today, for instance, and I wanted to express to her what I felt about her book [ Women ], and I didn’t use flowery language. I tried to use words that she would understand and might mean something to her, as she’s a very intelligent and visual person.”
“Maybe that has a lot to do with being creative,” offered Ms. Lawrence, who happens to think Madonna just sounds American. “That’s why we’re in the fashion industry: because we’re creative. And maybe the creative qualities that one has might mean a tendency toward a more musical ear. Especially in somebody like Madonna. She’s so talented creatively and musically. And probably her ear is very, very sensitive to sounds and pitches.”
And the fashion industry–with its British editors such as Anna Wintour; Grace Coddington; the Sykes sisters, Plum and Lucy; Liz Tilberis; Gabé Doppelt and too many publicists to name–has always had a little accent fetish. “I always think it sounds really nice,” said Mr. Carter, “but I also know that a lot of British people are hired because of their accents, and that’s the first thing I think of. I’m always like, ‘I wonder if this person knows what she’s doing or she was just hired because of her accent.’ Because I’ve heard that from so many people. Especially in p.r. Because it just sounds better. Like they can get their way more often.”
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