Having recently decided to stop buying DVDs and give in to streaming, I currently don't have anything new to play on the DVD player for the TV I ride my exercise bike in front of. I have gone back, as a result, to my cherished Looney Tunes DVDs and am noticing something that has always struck me as charmingly odd.
Example: A 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 a 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, with old people talking like the Beverly Hillbillies while the people around them use mainstream standard American.
In the old radio hit Fibber McGee and Molly, a cherished character was "The Old Timer," who popped by telling tall tales ushered in by his catchphrase, "That ain't the way I heerd it!" He sounded like an antique gold prospector — but everyone else on the show, which took place in generic small town Wistful Vista, Illinois, spoke generic Midwestern whatever.
The 1949 Looney Tunes The Windblown Hare is a parody of the Little Red Riding Hood tale. Bugs talks like Bugs, the Wolf talks like Bluto in the Popeye cartoons, but Granny talks like she grew up in the fastnesses of West Virginia. As the Wolf, anxious to keep the story going, hastily shoves her out of the house, Granny exclaims "Land sakes, ain'tcha gonna eat me? Can't a body get her shawl tied?" And this was a standard joke with the Looney Tunes squad, who had pulled the same thing in an earlier Red Riding Hood parody in 1937, Little Red Walking Hood. Red talked like Katherine Hepburn, but Granny again had an Ozark accent.
This kind of thing was so common in American pop culture before 1950 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 I grew up. Yet one afternoon in high school in 1980, joking with some friends, I passingly slid into such an accent depicting a person in their old age — you know, "Sonny" and such — and one guy joshingly objected "How come when he got old he would start talking in a Southern accent?" He was right — what kind of sense did this make?
In fact, this way of depicting seniors' speech in the old days reflected a demographic reality. The 1930 census was the first revealing more Americans living in cities than in the country. Until then, for Americans, rural life was default. The City was the challenging, debauched setting depicted in tragic novels by Theodore Dreiser. The Country was the real America, such that Sinclair Lewis could write Main Street about Carol Kennicott relocating to little Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, and be feted as capturing "America" itself. If Sherwood Anderson wrote about the underbelly of small town America in Winesburg, Ohio, this was news.
In 2011, however, the notion of the city as unhealthy for one's morals is antique. If urbanites, we cherish the occasional escape, and it is common to pity urban residents dealt a bad hand. But we hardly suppose that they would be best off relocating to Gopher Prairie — we assume that The City should be made a better place for them.
But for Americans in the 30s and 40s, America's transition from a rural nation to an urban one was as recent as the Internet is to us. It would have been common that old people had grown up in the country, but had moved to cities to raise their kids. Speech patterns would have reflected this. As such, it would have struck an intuitive chord to American audiences for age to be indexed with a backwoods accent, shorthand-style, in pop culture depictions.
Today this would make no sense. We do not spontaneously sense a person past 60 in Philadelphia or Chicago as talking like Dolly Parton or Jeff Foxworthy. The Mona mother character on the '80s sitcom hit Who's the Boss did not talk like Granny Clampett, and today old characters on TV shows like Modern Family do not have "hick" accents unknown to their children.
But the demographic tipping point in 1930 helps make sense of a tendency in the entertainment of the era that, otherwise, is intriguingly mystifying.s
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John McWhorter is a renowned linguist and the author of more than a dozen books, including the New York Times bestseller Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue. He teaches at Columbia University, is a contributing editor at the New Republic, and has appeared widely in the media. He lives in New York.
Books mentioned in this post
John McWhorter is the author of What Language Is: And What It Isn't and What It Could Be