The mid-Atlantic accent: blame it on Edith

I’ve always thought the word “mid-Atlantic” is such a strange misnomer: doesn’t it conjure up images of boats tossing on vast ocean waves with no land in sight? But that’s just me, it seems: most people think of Katherine Hepburn or Cary Grant — and that’s because the term is most commonly used to describe an accent.

Here’s how the OED defines mid-Atlantic (and notice the first one is where my head goes):

1. Situated or occurring in the middle of the Atlantic ocean. ‘the mid-Atlantic fault line’
2. Having characteristics of both Britain and America. ‘mid-Atlantic accents’
3. Relating to states in the middle of the Atlantic coast of the United States, including New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, West Virginia, Delaware, and Maryland.

That last one seems even more of a misnomer than the second: how America-centric is that? To appropriate the use of an ocean separating continents to describe states bordering it: it’s like calling Sydney and Brisbane the “mid-Pacific” ….

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The mid-Atlantic accent — sometimes known as Transatlantic accent, American theater standard or American stage speech —  is a consciously acquired English accent that intentionally blends together the standard speech of American English and British Received Pronunciation; as Dan Nosowitz described it in Atlas Obscura, it’s “a vaguely British-y speech pattern meant to sound aristocratic, excessively proper, and, weirdly, not regionally specific.” Spoken mostly in the early 20th century in North America, it isn’t a vernacular American accent native to any location, but rather is an affected set of speech patterns whose “chief quality was that no Americans actually spoke it unless educated to do so”. It was taught mainly in private prep schools (especially in the Northeast) and in theater schools. Hence the accent is most closely associated with the American upper classes and with theater and film “speak” of the 1930s and ’40s. Its usage declined sharply after the second world war — once everyone realized it was fake and pretentious.

One of the most famous speakers of this Hollywood mid-Atlantic accent was Katharine Hepburn; Ingrid Bergman was another. A recent article called The Rise and Fall of Katharine Hepburn’s Fake Accent, published suitably in The Atlantic, described Bergman’s distinctive speech pattern in the great film Casablanca: “Staccato t’s and accordion-stretched a’s lend a musical flavor to Bergman’s lilt. ‘Early’ becomes ‘euh-ly’ and ‘perhaps’ unfolds as “peuh-haps’.” Other examples of Hollywood’s Golden era accent are in the voices of Tyrone Power, Bette Davis and Vincent Price, Canadian actor Christopher Plummer, and Cary Grant — often said to be the blueprint of Mid-Atlantic English, even though he was actually born in Britain. Other famous Americans who spoke consistently with a mid-Atlantic accent include William F. Buckley, Jr., Gore Vidal, Franklin D. and Eleanor Roosevelt, George Plimpton, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who was elocuted educated at Miss Porter’s School.

The spread of this pseudo-British “posh American” voice — especially into theater training and then into the movies — has been largely credited to a Canadian elocutionist, Edith Skinner, who became known for her 1942 instructional text Speak with Distinction: here’s an excerpt from it:

“Good Speech is hard to define but easy to recognize when we hear it. Good Speech is a dialect of North American English that is free from regional characteristics; recognizably North American, yet suitable for classic texts; effortlessly articulated and easily understood in the last rows of a theater.”

She prescribed her “Good Speech” vigorously when she taught drama at two prestigious North American theater schools: Carnegie Melon and the Juilliard School.

Blame it on Edith.

Further reading:

The AtlanticThe Rise and Fall of Katharine Hepburn’s Fake Accent

NPR: ‘Atlas Obscura’ Explores Roots Of The So-Called Mid-Atlantic Accent

Business Insider: How a fake British accent took old Hollywood by storm

 

 

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