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Thursday 13 January 2011

Echoes of Voices

As startling as old film footage of people whom we admire from the past and suddenly glimpse for a moment, is the sound of old voice recordings. To quote, yet again, L.P. Hartley’s famous line, “the past is a foreign country...”, it often seems, on hearing original recordings that they even spoke a different language. The sounds of words were melodic and so different from how we speak today and, as someone who loves words, I find this so fascinating and listening to their voices is like eavesdropping in on a conversation or hearing an echo.

We have all heard the clipped tones of the broadcasters of the earliest BBC and Pathe news recordings and I used to think it was something to do with the recording equipment that made the accents sound so different from anything we hear now but now, having heard many more recordings, I think people really did speak differently even 100 years ago. Listening to this recording of Virginia Woolf, for example (rather like listening to the charming voice of Princess Alice of Athlone, to which someone kindly sent a link some post ago) it’s obvious that a voice/accent like this would not be heard today. The ‘a’ pronounced as ‘e’, (to say ‘a man’, you must say ‘a men’) the elongated vowels...how to describe it!


The Yorkshire accent is so different from this. We say castle not carsel, and bath, nor barth, but even audios of northerners from the past (not parst!) sound so different from how we speak today. The accent is more exaggerated – filled with expressions that no one really uses anymore and so much more pronounced than it is nowadays. It used to be – until very recently and well within my lifetime – a rather embarrassing thing to have a northern accent if you wanted to make anything of your life among southerners! Nothing but the standard southern accent was permitted on the BBC for many years....and it initially seemed strange to hear more familiar accents in newscasters’ voices. Nowadays it is all so different. Even Prince William speaks in such a different accent/tone from that of the Queen – perhaps because he has spent more time among people from different areas, or perhaps because the language is evolving so rapidly. I once read, though cannot vouch for the truth of it, that the American accent is very close to how people spoke in Elizabethan England and so the American pronunciation of Shakespeare is far closer to the original than anything produced by the R.S.C.

I actually believe that if we were all to travel back a hundred years, the accents and intonation around us would sound very different from what we hear today and would be very interested to learn of the development of the same phenomenon in other countries. I wonder what it would be like to hear Queen Victoria speak or to hear King Edward VII speak...in an ordinary room, without recording equipment. Did Hitler really sound so stark and mad? Did people really speak to one another in the clipped tones of those old recordings? How did Tsar Nicholas’ voice sound to the ear? What was the tone of Franz Ferdinand’s voice?...

Out of all the people I love from the past, the only voice I can really imagine is that of Prince Albert with his soft Coburg accent....


Anonymous said...


you can hear Nicholas II here

Queen Victoria (allegedly) here

This is Franz Joseph:

This is Willy:

And George and Mary:

And this is Florence Nightingale. A very different style, I think.

I hope you'll like them!

Christina said...

Thank you so much for these!! Thank you especially for the link to the recording of Nicholas II! For a long time I had hoped to hear his voice but thought no recording still existed - this is amazing!! Thank you so much! :-)