“BBC English” was once a byword for the poshest British accent, the one that featured all the old vowel gliding (hee-eh for hair), along with the bits and bobs that many of us forget when trying to simulate classy British. Like the intrusive R. Champagne supernovar in the sky.
But now—hoo boy. Strange and wondrous pronunciation pervades Death in Ice Valley, a BBC podcast about a mysterious woman whose body was found burned, in 1970, in a desolate valley in Norway’s Seven Mountains, with a handful of phenobarbital and a half-bottle of St. Hallvard, an 80-proof herbal liqueur. They call her the Isdal Woman. I keep hearing this as the “Easter Woman.”
Virginia Heffernan (@page88) is an Ideas contributor at WIRED and the author of Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art. She is also a cohost of Trumpcast, an op-ed columnist at the Los Angeles Times, and a frequent contributor to Politico.
Listening to Death in Ice Valley, in headphones at the Y, I’m straining like a safecracker to hear every whisper and pop in the voices. In the Norwegian words, names, and place names comes the obvious: This Ice Valley stuff is far away. As always, I envy the ease with which Europeans from across the continent speak French, German, and English. I also savor Scandinavian twists on English figures of speech. (“A spy is a lonely wolf,” one man says.) The plot of the Isdal Woman, thick already, thickens further with the accents of the old detectives and witnesses, many over 70, as they reminisce in their second, third, and fourth languages.
Regional accents are what glue me to podcasts. I’m on the internet all the damn time—and it’s so quiet here. So much unaccented, soundless text. Twitter only seems noisy. It’s silent as the tomb. No wonder in off hours—shushing back and forth on the tedious rowing machine, say—so many of us now glut our ears on the puzzling regional voices of documentary podcasts, including Death in Ice Valley, where in the voice of the old Scandinavian spycatcher can be heard the actual Cold War, when a femme fatale with a suitcase full of wigs, perhaps bent on espionage, might have burned up in the glaciated valleys of Norway’s west coast, virtually among the Vikings.
The series stars Marit Higraff, a Norwegian investigative journalist, whose English dialect is especially glorious. “Whyyyy?” she asks, stretching her very favorite forensic word, pulling on the vowel as a note of insistent curiosity. She wants to know why in the world the police, out of nowhere, gave some average Joe a knife and gun “for protection” in the 1970s. “Whyyyy did he give him theess?” Higraff’s wonderment never ceases.
And then: those Baltimoreans on Serial! Remember them? Ten years since The Wire wrapped, and four years since the first Serial season started the true-crime-podcast ball rolling, that Balmer Bawdamoor Baldimor accent still keeps you guessing. Gwynns Falls Leakin Park, where the body in Season 1 of Serial was found, is not coarsened in speech. Instead, it’s upgraded. People say “Lincoln” for “Leakin.”
“I never really felt as though, you know, Hae is turring me away from mah religion,” says Adnan Syed about Hae Min Lee, whom he was convicted of killing. Syed is an American of Pakistani descent, who speaks some Pashto and Arabic. In his jailhouse interviews with Sarah Koenig, with her own This American Life accent—rhythmic midsentence vocal fry—he shows the same easy polyglotism you can hear in Higraff on Death in Ice Valley.
Farflung accents, untrained by CNN, throw into relief the weirdness of people, which is one of the themes of every true-crime podcast. In short: There’s nowt so quare as folk, as they say in Yorkshire. The great Yorkshire accent happens to be on full-color display in episode 40—“The Yorkshire Ripper”—of True Crime All the Time.
In the engrossing West Cork, about the 1996 murder in Ireland of French filmmaker Sophie Toscan du Plantier, four accents in English jostle for dominance—and, with them, world views. Jennifer Forde, one of the narrators, speaks British English that sounds superposh to my admittedly provincial American ear. Her gorgeous, crisp rendition of “This is Oohwdible” should be used for all of Audible’s shows.
The voices of Forde and her slightly less refined co-narrator Sam Bungey bring tender skepticism, as well as a note of exhaustion and even rolled-eyes, to the proceedings.
Their attitude marks a far cry from the insistent why of Higraff’s Norwegian-English, which makes her seem more detective than narrator. And of course all of these accents are a world apart from Sarah Koenig’s amused, self-aware American English with its adolescent “likes,” which often makes her sonically blend in with the high schoolers she’s reporting on. Forde’s aloofness, Hargiff’s Sherlock Holmes approach, and Koenig’s immersion—three kinds of reporting, told in accents.
The voices of locals in West Cork remind us that the Anglosphere is fractured into a million pieces by a common language. Unable to render the West Cork accent phonetically, I turned to the Irish comic Tommy Tiernan for a description of it. “The Cork accent is something else, it’s a bit special,” he says. “It sounds a bit like Tinkers trying to speak French.” That clears it up.
In the great S-Town, accents and characters were also one. Propelled by the chewy Deep Southern melodies of John B. McLemore, its rural Alabaman protagonist, S-Town allows McLemore to slip into satirical renderings of the crude racist idioms of the s-townspeople he despises. In these performances, his own literary elocution stands out.
Stranglers, about the murders by the so-called Boston Strangler in the early 60s, showcases not only the signature Boston accent—which seems, like all regional accents, to be almost exaggerated in cops—but also, in recordings, how pronounced the accent was 50 years ago.
But then there is the anodyne Orange County dialect in Dirty John. This one might be my favorite. The chronic low-keyness of the voices on that podcast stands in stark contrast to the terrifying history chronicled on the show. In particular, Terra Newell, who has a quintessentially laid back, OC rhythm, takes an action so transcendently audacious, heroic, and violent, I still can’t believe she barely seems to break a sweat. (Hide your eyes if you can’t bear a spoiler: Newell managed to turn the tables on an extremely dangerous man who attacked her with a knife, killing him instead.)
When she recounts her derring-do in tones of SoCal serenity, the show becomes a revelation. “It turns out he was stabbing me?” she recalls, in upspeak. “One of my automatic reflexes was to put my arm up.” Her account of her physically ingenuity as merely automatic jibes with her unflappable that’s-the-way-life-goes voice. “I called my mom and I said, ‘I’m really, really sorry, I think I killed your husband,’” she further remembers. She might as well be apologizing for breaking someone’s phone.
In 2017, 42 million Americans listened to podcasts weekly, according to Edison Research, and the number continues to rise. That’s five times more Americans than go to weekly movies. Some have suggested that podcasting and the true-crime genre—hugely popularly since Serial—are singularly well matched because the intimacy of a podcast works well to both touch and contain the vulnerability we all feel to violent crime.
Maybe. Or maybe when we tune in to chatty Alabamans, Bostonians, Baltimoreans, Californians, Corkonians, and Norwegians trying to sort out what the hell happened in their towns, we’re just listening to what we’ve always listened to through our headphones: music.
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