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

 

 

One thought on “The mid-Atlantic accent: blame it on Edith

  1. Joona

    This is kind of coming late, but I have to correct a lot of common misinformation here.

    First of all, the name of this accent is no “mid-atlantìc” or “transatlantic” accent, anymore than the medieval Roman Empire was “Byzantium”. These are fake names born out of certain biases, but have become the standard ways of referencing certain phenomena for convenience. The real names used at the time refer to “Good American Speech”, “Eastern Standard”, “Standard American” (which is why the modern prestige accent is “General” American instead), or the already mentioned “American Theater Standard”.

    Edith Skinner was preceded by one Margaret McLean, who had previously codified the same accent in the 1920’s. It’s the exact same accent, except McLean allows (optionally) the tapped intervocalic R, and gives more freedom with the NORTH-FORCE lexical sets. Surely the Old Hollywood accent would have been based on her, initially?

    It is false that this accent is some “blend” of British and American accents. Skinner or McLean mention nothing of the kind. If you compare the vowel system in McLean’s or Skinner’s books to Conservative RP (as described by Daniel Jones a century ago), its almost the same with only mild differences. It’s more akin to “Cultivated Australian” or “Canadian Dainty”, that is to say, a slight American variant on RP. Modern RP obviously has far greater differences.

    The differences to Conservative RP include:
    – Wine-Whine distinction mandatory, not optional.
    – Intermediary vowel [a] for BATH, distinct from TRAP and PALM-START. RP-style PALM-START-BATH merger also permitted as an option.
    – CLOTH=LOT over CLOTH=THOUGHT. Both were acceptable in older RP (the former became standard eventually).
    – GOAT diphthong has a rounded back starting point. RP varied between that and a central starting point (the latter became standard eventually).
    – Old RP allowed you to either distinguish or merge pairs like horse-hoarse, for-four, war-wore, aural-oral. If distinguished, the first word in these pairs would have the THOUGHT monophthong, the latter a diphthong. Eastern Standard has neither system: All these vowels have the monophthong, but it becomes a diphthong in pause-preceding and utterance-final positions. So “war” and “wore” would be monophthongal in “war powers” and “I wore a yellow dress”, but diphthongal in “there will be war!” or “this is what I wore”.

    Most importantly of all, this accent precedes both Skinner and McLean, and was a real accent spoken by East Coast aristocratic families. Pretty sure that Teddy, Eleanor, and Franklin Roosevelt were born in the 19th century, and didn’t just stumble into McLean’s book in the 1920’s and suddenly speak it perfectly. So its nothing “fake”, contrary to what you may hear.

    What happened is that the aristocratic groups in the East Coast and coastal South imitated upper-crust English speech patterns over the course of the 19th century, and this adoptive RP (with regional variations) developed certain differences to the old world equivalent. So once Daniel Jones codified RP a century ago, there arose two schools of thought among American speech prescriptivists: One wanted to teach the Daniel Jones system to Americans, while the other sought to codify the more “naturally American” East Coast aristocratic pattern. The likes of William Tilly or Marquerite DeWitt represent the former approach (their differences amount to certain clarifications on speech features Jones considered optional), whereas Skinner and McLean represented the latter.

    There were actually two phases in the use of upper crust accents in old Hollywood. In the pre-code era (up to 1934), they spoke fake RP (the Tilly/DeWitt approach), but this was mocked in the media, so they moved over to using Eastern Standard instead. The use of it became somewhat gender-based, because American culture regarded refinement as un-manly and effeminate. Thus, most actresses were trained to sound like high society New York ladies, whereas a significant portion of male actors retained some regional accent.

    I should incidentally note that the commercially available edition of Skinner’s book contains some changes that differentiate it from classic upper-crust speech patterns. These include a contrived diphthong for the START set, plus a diphthongal merger for NORTH-FORCE. These features were not present among American aristocrats or Classic Hollywood actors. Please avoid it.

    Yours Truly, from an adoptive speaker of this accent (though somewhat imperfectly)

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