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The Transatlantic Larynx in Wartime

University of New England Press
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  • Musicology
  • Philosophy
  • Physics


The Transatlantic Larynx in Wartime Tom F. Wright University of East Anglia The most profound societal and cultural shifts are often audible. Of the many Anglo- American exchanges that energised the period covered by this collection, one of the more notable took place within the throat, through incremental but significant divergence of accent. Through the Revolution both nations inhabited relatively parallel acoustic worlds, and into the 1790s, New York naval officers reported difficulties in distinguishing American and English sailors. i By the middle of the next century, however, resemblance had given way to discord. In the popular imagination transatlantic distinctions in accent became a matter of fascination and comment. During the 1860s, the American temperance reformer and celebrity orator John B. Gough toured Union lecture halls playing these distinctions for laughs, in a series of impersonations of voices from „Street Life in London‟. Packed audiences across the Civil War North were reportedly transfixed by his outlandish vocal fluctuations, how his manipulations of vocal tract and articulators became resonant shorthand for recognizable places. Audiences were transported to Regent Street and Pall Mall by Gough‟s soft bilabial fricatives (“vewy good”) and aspirate onset (“horator”); his dropped consonants (“‟appiness”) delivered them to the slums of St. Giles and Bethnal Green. In these impersonations, Gough‟s throat operates as a space of transatlantic exchange: questions of affinity and dissonance were made audible in performances that thrilled wartime crowds seeking respite from harsher realities beyond the auditorium. Gough represented the popular lecturer as metaphysical interpreter. From the 1840s on, his speeches on the evils of drink managed to “hold audiences breathless on both sides of the Atlantic for nearly half a century”.ii Blending emotional testimony of his own dissolute youth with dramatic si

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