Mid-Atlantic English (less ambiguously known as a Transatlantic accent) is a cultivated or acquired version of the English language once found in certain aristocratic elements of American society and taught for use in the American theatre. It is not a vernacular typical of any location, but rather blends American and British without being predominantly either. Mid-Atlantic speech patterns and vocabulary are also used by some Anglophone expatriates, many adopting certain features of the accent of their place of residence.
Mid-Atlantic English was popular in Hollywood films from the 1930s to the early 1960s, and is associated with such people as Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, Irene Dunne, Calvin Coolidge, William F. Buckley, Jr., Gore Vidal, George Plimpton, Roscoe Lee Browne, Norman Mailer, Diana Vreeland, Maria Callas, Patrick McGoohan, Cornelius Vanderbilt IV, John Houseman, Angela Cartwright, and Jonathan Harris. The monologuist Ruth Draper's recorded "The Italian Lesson" gives an example of this East Coast American upper-class diction of the 1940s.
The terms "Transatlantic" and "Mid-Atlantic" are sometimes used in Britain to refer, often critically, to the speech of British public figures (often in the entertainment industry) who affect a quasi-American accent. The fictional Radio Norwich DJ, Dave Clifton, from the BBC television comedy series I'm Alan Partridge, speaks with a Transatlantic accent.
International media tend to reduce the number of mutually unintelligible versions of English to some extent, and Mid-Atlantic English tends to avoid Britishisms or Americanisms so that it can be equally understandable and acceptable on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
Mid-Atlantic English was usually learned in one of four ways:
- Naturally, by spending extended time in various Anglophone communities, typically in North America.
- At a boarding school in America prior to the 1960s (after which it fell out of vogue).
- Intentionally for stage practice or other use. A version codified by voice coach Edith Skinner, American Theater Standard, is widely taught in acting schools.
- For non-native Anglophones, by learning English from different British and American sources.
Mid-Atlantic English was cultivated by the upper classes in some areas of the Northeastern United States. Prior to World War II, some of their institutions cultivated a norm influenced by the Received Pronunciation of Southern England as an international norm of English pronunciation. Recordings of American presidents Grover Cleveland (born in New Jersey, raised in Central New York) and Ohio-native William McKinley show their oratory reflected a Mid-Atlantic accent. Theodore Roosevelt, McKinley's successor and a native of New York, had a more natural non-rhotic, upper-class accent.
Recordings of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who came from a privileged New York family and who was educated at Groton, a private Massachusetts preparatory school, had a number of characteristic patterns. Roosevelt's speech is non-rhotic; one of Roosevelt's most frequently heard speeches has a falling diphthong in the word fear, which distinguishes it from other forms of surviving non-rhotic speech in the United States. "Linking R" appears in Roosevelt's delivery of the words "The only thing we have to fea ris fea ritself"; compare also Roosevelt's delivery of the words "naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan."
According to William Labov, the teaching of this pronunciation declined sharply after the end of World War II. As a result, this American version of a "posh" accent has all but disappeared even among the American upper classes. The clipped English of George Plimpton and William F. Buckley, Jr. may also serve as vestigial examples.
Mid-Atlantic English was formerly used by American actors who adopted some features of British pronunciation until the mid-1960s. Orson Welles notably spoke in a mid-Atlantic accent in the 1941 film Citizen Kane, as did many of his co-stars, such as Joseph Cotten.
British expatriates Cary Grant, Anthony Hopkins or Camilla Luddington, Americans Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Elizabeth Taylor, Eleanor Parker, Grace Kelly, Jane Wyatt, Eartha Kitt, Agnes Moorehead, Jonathan Harris, William Daniels, Vincent Price and Richard Chamberlain, and Canadians Christopher Plummer, John Vernon and Lorne Greene have also exemplified the accent.
Use of this accent declined rapidly after World War II. Actors such as Humphrey Bogart, Henry Fonda and John Wayne portrayed serious roles speaking in various American-English accents, and the export of American cinema familiarized the rest of the world with their features.
A contemporary comedic example of a Mid-Atlantic accent appears in the television sitcom Frasier used by the Crane brothers played by Kelsey Grammer and David Hyde Pierce, as well as the aristocratic accent spoken by Pete Campbell in the drama series Mad Men. Mark Hamill's vocal portrayal of Batman villain the Joker adopts a highly theatrical Mid-Atlantic accent throughout the character's many animation and video game appearances.
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