With a Nasal Drawl

What do Mark Twain, W.C. Fields, Neil Diamond, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Joseph Mascis Jr. have in common?

A nasal drawl.

Or so they say.

From a Boy’s Life of Mark Twain:

By and by there was another report–this time that Mark Twain was dead. A reporter found his way to Tedworth Square, and, being received by Mark Twain himself, asked what he should say. Clemens regarded him gravely, then, in his slow, nasal drawl, “Say–that the report of my death–has been grossly–exaggerated.”

From a biography of Fields:

Because of his special comedic persona, his slow, nasal drawl in particular, Fields became one of the most mimicked and impersonated of performers in 20th-century American comedy.

From the Manila (Philippines) Bulletin:

Another proof why we think he is cool? Six words: “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” (remember “Pulp Fiction?” And all this time we thought this was an Urge Overkill song). Here, Diamond just plain sounds seductive in his thick, low, nasal drawl.

From the “Lainey Gossip” blog:

Gwyneth’s voice, that privileged nasal drawl, people hate that voice.

And from the Anchorage Daily News:

Joseph Mascis Jr., better known to indie-rock fans as J Mascis, embodied the Generation X slacker anti-hero in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Fronting the seminal, ear-splitting alternative-rock band Dinosaur Jr., Mascis pushed air through a wall of amplifiers, but when he stepped to the microphone, his nasal drawl sounded detached and unaffected by the cacophony surrounding it.

Twain grew up in Hannibal, Mo.; Fields in Philadelphia; Diamond in Brooklyn; Paltrow in Southern California, and Mascis in Amherst, Mass. No matter, you can tell them all by their nasal drawl. Or can you?

If you want to say something specific about a person’s pronunciation but aren’t too comfortable with phonetic terminology, you can say “nasal drawl” and people will understand. It means—well, it’s hard to say what it means, but it means the person’s pronunciation is a little funny and not particularly high class.

That interpretation comes through in this comment on the name “Tawny” from the Web site Behind the Name:

I can’t say I find this name very pretty or pleasant-sounding, especially with a Southern drawl that makes it sound nasal and like ”TAAH-nee”. I’ve gotten the impression that this is actually more of a redneck name anyway, and it makes me picture a worn-out-looking young woman in far too youthful and tight clothes who speaks in an annoying nasal drawl.

For fiction writers, saying “nasal drawl” seems much more erudite than “funny accent.” One example is Arthur Hailey, author of Airport. His characters include one with a “nasal Texas drawl” and another with a “nasal California drawl.”

In Ragtime, E.L. Doctorow writes of “several family groups from Philadelphia, who could be placed quickly by the nasalities of their speech.”

In The Witches of Eastwick, John Updike writes that young Jennifer Gabriel “had acquired in Chicago a touch of Midwestern nasality in her pronunciation.”

Less renowned authors also have their drawling characters. “Do You Speak English?” by Simon Collings has an American woman in a Spanish-speaking country who “spoke with a lazy, nasal drawl.”

For authors not trained in linguistics, there are more picturesque possibilities. For example, in Gillian Flynn’s recent best-seller, Gone Girl, a New Yorker notes in her journal, “He talks to me in his river-wavy Missouri accent.” “He” in this case is from a small town near Hannibal, Mo.

But the nasal drawl is so conveniently at hand that it’s hard for some to resist. Fan fiction, for example, is generous with nasal drawls. Here are some examples:

Her accent was similar to Ziva’s but there were marked differences. Ziva’s was lighter and less defined; it had morphed into a more American sounding nasal drawl.

The redheaded woman laughed, hugging Mom back. She had sort of a Brooklyn nasal drawl.

It’s not the tone of his voice—changed from the timid, nervous whisper to one that’s half insolent and half bored—that makes me freeze mid-step, or sends a gush of ice water through my system. It’s not the sudden change in expression on his face, the rabbity look transformed to a gaze filled with disdain, a half-smirk playing on his lips. It’s the fact that Mr. Lewis’s proper English accent has completely transformed to the nasal drawl of a Boston accent.

So: Speak nicely, or you may be pegged with a nasal drawl.

And don’t get me started about “twang.”…

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