Why did William F. Buckley Jr. talk like that?

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Feb. 28 2008 7:05 PM

Why Did William F. Buckley Jr. Talk Like That?

The origins of his "preposterously mellifluous" voice.

William F. Buckley, Jr. with George W. Bush. Click image to expand.
William F. Buckley Jr. (left) with George W. Bush

Conservative writer William F. Buckley Jr., who founded the magazine National Review and once ran for mayor of New York City, died Wednesday at the age of 82. Buckley was famous for his idiosyncratic way of speaking and was described in obituaries as having a "High Church accent," a "patrician accent and a polysyllabic vocabulary," and a voice "so preposterously mellifluous that it seemed that, even as he was speaking, he had some brandy in the back of his mouth that he needed to evaluate before swallowing it." How did Buckley end up talking like that?

He was an upper-class prep. English was not Buckley's first language: His nanny taught him Spanish, and he attended university in Mexico for some time. But there's little evidence of any Spanish influence in his Connecticut lockjaw sound. Instead, his aristocratic drawl, quasi-British pronunciations, and fondness for Latinate vocabulary seem to have originated at the schools he attended as a boy: St. John's Beaumont in England, when he was 13, followed by the Millbrook School in upstate New York. According to Buckley biographer Sam Tanenhaus, few of the writer's siblings shared his peculiar way of speaking. Tanenhaus also points out that Buckley picked up elements of a Southern drawl from his parents, both of whom were from the South.

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But if you listen to Buckley's many debates—with Gore Vidal, Noam Chomsky, and others—the first thing you'll notice is a distinctly British rhythm and melody. His pronunciation was likewise British-influenced in its lack of rhoticity—meaning he drops his "r"s. (An American "r" is generally pronounced with a tongue curled about 45 degrees; the Brits leave their tongues flat. Buckley is often somewhere in the middle.) This style of speech was thought to characterize upper-class New Englanders as a whole, perhaps because many of the region's earliest settlers hailed from (old) England. * (Fewer "r"s were dropped among the more diverse mix of immigrants in New York.) There's also the yod, which is the "ew" sound in music and usual—like our friends across the pond, Buckley keeps the yod for words like news and pursue. He also pronounces the "t" in words like writer.  And for vowels in words like thought and wrong, he rounded his lips, not unlike the English. Meanwhile, he stressed few words when he spoke but would pounce on an important one, every once in a while. (Contrast with John Wayne, who tended to stress every single word, in exactly the same way.)

Buckley's old-fashioned way of speaking wasn't too far from the British-influenced mid-Atlantic accent, which the Hollywood studios taught to actors in the 1930s and '40s. You'll pick up some of the same pronunciations and cadences from recordings of Franklin D. Roosevelt *, as well as Katharine Hepburn—who was, after all, from a wealthy Connecticut family, like Buckley.

The conservative thinker may have shared an accent with some other men of the same age and social class, but his mannerisms and gestures made him entirely unique—and occasionally prone to caricature. He tended to pause for long stretches, wag his tongue, and open his mouth in an exaggerated way. To emphasize a point, he would make a tent with his fingers or grin as he spoke a key word. Toss in his wit, his blue-blooded accent, and his affinity for fancy words, and Buckley had created his own personal language, or idiolect.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks David Bowie of the University of Central Florida, Jack Chambers of the University of Toronto, John Fought, formerly of the University of Pennsylvania, Joel Goldes of the Dialect Coach, and Paul Meier of International Dialects of English Archive.

Correction, Feb. 29, 2008: This article originally misspelled Franklin D. Roosevelt's name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Correction, March 12, 2008: This article originally said that upper-class New Englanders dropped their r's because the region's original settlers came from England. Some evidence, however, suggests that most British speakers didn't start dropping their r's until later on. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Michelle Tsai is a Beijing-based writer working on a book about Chinatowns on six continents. She blogs at ChinatownStories.com.

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