John McWhorter meditates on how people actually spoke roughly 45 years ago in "Mad Men In a Good Place: How Did People Sound in 1963?" The New Republic blog, Sept 1, 2009. Easy, right? Yet . . . If we only took the lavish films of the 1930s, we'd assume that all Kansans in the Dirty Thirties sounded like Ivy League grads, untutored rubes, or cartoonish rakes. Or, if we took FDR's fireside chats as the standard, we'd think that Americans, or at least New Yorkers, spoke like well-healed sophisticates.
I like how McWhorter thinks about this by using Mad Men. "[T]he writers at Mad Men seem to have an idea that in the early sixties, people spoke more 'properly' than they do now. And they did, in formal and public settings. Until the late sixties, there was a sense that language was to be cossetted and dressed up in public in the same way that one wore deodorant. Think of the old gesture of clearing your throat before Making a Speech, the speech having been carefully written out and practiced, as opposed to today when we prefer looser 'talks.'" How individuals presented themselves in public and in private, on stage and off stage, matters here. McWhorter ventures, "Relevant here would be how a similarly minded American aristocrat spoke in that same year of 1963. In recordings of John F. Kennedy speaking off-the-cuff with Robert McNamara in October of that year, not long after Pete and his wife did that nifty dance routine at that party, we hear someone talking the way, basically, we talk. Listen here."
I've always thought that Robert MacNeil's Story of English documentary captured some of the questions of language recovery extremely well. It's fun to use part of the Story for my American survey classes. Following accents from the English West Country to the American South, and tracing East Anglian dialects to New England gives students an "a-ha" moment. (See the embedded clip here, The Story of English episode 2 - The Mother Tongue - Part 6 / 7, which deals with Chaucer and branches of English.)
There was a story in the national and international news that made the rounds in 2008, which I don't know how I missed. What if we could hear how people spoke even before Thomas Edison invited his amazing phonograph in 1877? Well, we can now, sorta . . . "For more than a century," wrote Jody Rosen in the NYT, "since he captured the spoken words 'Mary had a little lamb' on a sheet of tinfoil, Thomas Edison has been considered the father of recorded sound. But researchers say they have unearthed a recording of the human voice, made by a little-known Frenchman, that predates Edison’s invention of the phonograph by nearly two decades." That other inventor was "Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, a Parisian typesetter and tinkerer who went to his grave convinced that credit for his breakthroughs had been improperly bestowed on Edison." Scott's surprisingly simple phonautogram captured the vibrations of speech with the scratches of a hog's hair onto lamp-blackened paper. But he had no way of playing back what had been recorded. And no one heard these recordings until 2008 and 2009. (They bring new meaning to Lo-Fi. Call it Paleo Lo-Fi.) New computer technology has helped researchers rebuild these antique recordings. You can listen to samples of the Scott's phonautogram experiments on the US News and World Report site.