The Mid-Atlantic accent, or Transatlantic accent, is a consciously acquired accent of English, intended to blend together the "standard" speech of both American English and British Received Pronunciation. Spoken mostly in the early twentieth century, it is not a vernacular American accent native to any location, but an affected set of speech patterns whose "chief quality was that no Americans actually spoke it unless educated to do so". The accent is, therefore, best associated with the American upper class, theater, and film industry of the 1930s and 1940s, largely taught in private independent preparatory schools especially in the American Northeast and in acting schools. The accent's overall usage sharply declined following World War II.
According to sociolinguist William Labov, "r-less pronunciation, following Received Pronunciation, was taught as a model of correct, international English by schools of speech, acting and elocution in the United States up to the end of World War II." Mid-Atlantic English was employed by some American elites in the Northeastern United States. Prior to World War II, some American elite 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 (raised in Central New York) and Ohio-native William McKinley show their oratory employed a Mid-Atlantic accent. Theodore Roosevelt, McKinley's successor and a native of New York, had a more natural non-rhotic, upper-class accent.
Upper-class Americans (outside the film industry) known for speaking with a consistent Mid-Atlantic accent include William F. Buckley, Jr., Gore Vidal, Franklin D. and Eleanor Roosevelt, George Plimpton, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (who began affecting it while at Miss Porter's School and maintained it lifelong), Norman Mailer, Diana Vreeland, and Cornelius Vanderbilt IV, all of whom were raised, partly or primarily, in the Northeastern United States (and some additionally educated in London). The monologuist Ruth Draper's recorded "The Italian Lesson" gives an example of this East Coast American upper-class diction of the 1940s.
The Mid-Atlantic speaking style among the educated wealthy was associated with white Americans of the urban Northeast. In and around Boston, Massachusetts, for example, the accent was characteristic, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, of the local elite: the Boston Brahmins. Examples of people described as having a "Boston Brahmin accent" include Charles Eliot Norton, John Brooks Wheelwright, George C. Homans, McGeorge Bundy, Elliot Richardson, George Plimpton (though he was actually a lifelong member of the New York City elite), and John Kerry, who has noticeably reduced this accent since his early adulthood. In the New York metropolitan area, particularly including its affluent Westchester County suburbs and the North Shore of Long Island, other terms for the local Mid-Atlantic pronunciation and accompanying facial behavior include "Locust Valley lockjaw" or "Larchmont lockjaw", named for the stereotypical clenching of the speaker's jaw muscles to achieve an exaggerated enunciation quality. The related term "boarding-school lockjaw" has also been used to describe the prestigious accent once taught at expensive Northeastern independent schools.
Recordings of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who came from a privileged New York City family and was educated at Groton, a private Massachusetts preparatory school, had a number of characteristic patterns. His 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 fear is fear itself"; compare also Roosevelt's delivery of the words "naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan".
After the accent's decline following the end of World War II, this American version of a "posh" accent has all but disappeared even among the American upper classes. The clipped, non-rhotic English of George Plimpton and William F. Buckley, Jr. were vestigial examples, though subtle traces can be detected to this day, mostly among older generations hailing from wealthier pockets around East Coast cities such as Boston, New York City and Philadelphia.
Theatrical and cinematic use
Being spoken by the American social elite in the early 1900s, this accent consequently also became a popular affectation in the theater and other forms of high culture in North America. As used by actors, the Mid-Atlantic accent is also known by various other names, including American theater standard or American stage speech. The codification of the Mid-Atlantic accent in writing, particularly for theatrical training, is often credited to American elocutionist Edith Warman Skinner in the 1930s, best known for her 1942 instructional text Speak with Distinction. Skinner, who often referred to this accent (or register) as "Good (American) Speech" or "Eastern Standard" (both names now dated), described it as the appropriate American pronunciation for "classics and elevated texts". A linguistic prescriptivist, she vigorously drilled her students in learning the accent at the Carnegie Institute of Technology and, later, the Juilliard School.
American cinema began in the early 1900s in New York City and Philadelphia before becoming largely transplanted to Los Angeles beginning in the mid-1910s. With the evolution of talkies in the late 1920s, a voice was first heard in motion pictures. It was then that the majority of audiences first heard Hollywood actors speaking predominantly in the elevated stage pronunciation of the Mid-Atlantic accent. Many adopted it starting out in the theatre, and others simply affected it to help their careers on and off in films.
Among exemplary speakers of this accent from Hollywood's Golden Era are American actors like Tyrone Power, Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, and Vincent Price; Canadian actor Christopher Plummer; Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant, who arrived in the United States from England aged 16, and whose accent is arguably a more natural and unconscious mixture of British and American features. Roscoe Lee Browne, defying roles typically cast for African American actors, also consistently spoke with a Mid-Atlantic accent.
|This section needs additional citations for verification. (February 2015) (Learn how and when to remove this template message)|
Although it has largely disappeared as a standard of high society and high culture, the Transatlantic accent has still been heard in some recent media for the sake of stylistic effect. It is occasionally affected by contemporary American actors, especially when playing characters intended to be regarded as authoritative, privileged, timeless, or vaguely non-American.
- Elizabeth Banks uses the Mid-Atlantic accent in playing the flamboyant, fussy, upper-class character Effie Trinket in the futuristic Hunger Games film series, and also for her character, Pizzaz Miller, on the Comedy Central show Moonbeam City.
- A comedic example of this accent appears in the television sitcom Frasier used by the snobbish Crane brothers, who are played by Kelsey Grammer and David Hyde Pierce.
- In the Star Wars film franchise, the character Darth Vader (voiced by James Earl Jones) noticeably speaks with a deep bass tone and a Mid-Atlantic accent to suggest his position of high authority; Princess Leia (played by Carrie Fisher) and Queen Amidala (played by Natalie Portman) also use this accent when switching to a formal speaking register in political situations.
- A classic Mid-Atlantic accent in a film was the "lockjaw" speech pattern affected by Joanna Barnes in her portrayal of anti-Semitic, pretentious, spoiled rich socialite, Gloria Upson in the 1958 film, Auntie Mame. Barnes' entertaining parody earned her a Golden Globe nomination for "New Star of the Year." As a stockbroker's daughter born and raised in a Boston socialite family, as well as educated at Milton Academy and then a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Smith College, Barnes was naturally familiar with the accent which she assumed for many of her film and television roles.
- One of the classic Mid-Atlantic accents on television was the "lockjaw" speech pattern affected by Jim Backus in his portrayal of millionaire Thurston Howell III on the situation comedy Gilligan's Island.
- In 1983's film, Trading Places, Dan Aykroyd's character Louis Winthorpe III affected a Mid-Atlantic accent as he said of Eddie Murphy's Billy Ray Valentine, "He was wearing my Harvard tie--can you believe it? My Harvard Tie! Like, oh sure, HE went to Harvard!"
- David Tench (played by Drew Forsythe), who was a fictional animated Australian TV host from David Tench Tonight, often used a Transatlantic accent. Although, most of the time, he had a cultivated Australian accent which vacillated into the Transatlantic accent.
- Harry Shearer's vocal portrayal of Mr. Burns, Kelsey Grammer's vocal portrayal of Sideshow Bob, and Dan Castellaneta's vocal portrayal of Sideshow Mel in The Simpsons.
- Jon Lovitz spoke in a highly theatrical Mid-Atlantic accent for his character Master Thespian on Saturday Night Live.
- Tabitha St. Germain uses a Mid-Atlantic accent for the voice of Rarity in My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic.
- For her role as Amelia Earhart, Amy Adams spoke with a Mid-Atlantic accent in Night at the Museum 2 (2009), probably to give the character a confident air but would otherwise seem an odd choice for a portrayal of the famous flier who was a "midwesterner" - born (and spent her first twelve years) in Aitchison, Kansas, next five years in Des Moines, Iowa, and high school in Chicago, Illinois. Film clips of the real "tomboy" Earhart reveal a midwestern accent.
- Billy Zane spoke with a Transatlantic accent in James Cameron's Titanic (1997).
- Dodo Bellacourt in the series Another Period speaks with an exaggerated Mid-Atlantic accent.
- Asian films dubbed into English in Hong Kong often use Mid-Atlantic accents, most notably the English-dubbed versions of many entries of the Godzilla series, numerous films produced by Shaw Brothers and most of Bruce Lee's filmography. The accent was used in a somewhat utilitarian fashion as the dubbing casts featured English-speaking ex-pats living in Hong Kong from many different countries including Britain, the U.S. and Australia, and the dubs themselves were meant for all English-speaking territories so a neutral accent was preferred.
- Evan Peters employs a Mid-Atlantic accent on American Horror Story: Hotel (as James Patrick March, a ghostly serial killer from the 1920s), as does Mare Winningham (as March's accomplice, Miss Evers).
- In the 2015 film The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Henry Cavill speaks with a Mid-Atlantic accent for his character Napoleon Solo.
- In the 1994 Coen Brothers comedy, The Hudsucker Proxy, Amy Archer, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, is a brassy Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the Manhattan Argus who employs (to comedic effect) a Mid-Atlantic accent.
- Most Disney Animated Feature films' villains speak either with a British accent (e. g. Shere Khan, Prince John, the Horned King, Scar and Frollo) or a Transatlantic accent (notably, the Evil Queen from Snow White, Maleficient, Cruella de Vil, Lady Tremaine, Vincent Price's voiced Professor Ratigan, Jafar and Eartha Kitt's Izma).
- 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.
The Mid-Atlantic accent was carefully taught at American boarding schools and also for use in the American theater prior to the 1960s (after which it fell out of vogue). It is still taught to actors for use in playing historical characters. A version codified by voice coach Edith Skinner was once widely taught in acting schools of the earlier twentieth century. Her code is listed below:
|Pure vowels (Monophthongs)|
|English diaphoneme||Mid-Atlantic realization||Example|
lot, top, wasp, what
|dog, loss, cloth|
|/ɔː/||[ɔː]||all, bought, taught, saw|
|/ɛ/||[e]||dress, met, bread|
|/ə/||[ə]||about, syrup, arena|
|/ɪ/||[ɪ~ɪ̈]||hit, skim, tip|
|/iː/||[iː]||beam, chic, fleet|
|/ʊ/||[ʊ]||book, put, should|
|/uː/||[uː]||food, glue, flew|
|/aɪ/||[aɪ]||ride, shine, try
bright, dice, pike
|/aʊ/||[ɑʊ]||now, ouch, scout|
|/eɪ/||[eɪ]||lake, paid, rein|
|/ɔɪ/||[ɔɪ]||boy, choice, moist|
|/oʊ/||[oʊ]||goat, oh, show|
|/ɑːr/||[ɑː]||barn, car, park|
|/ɪər/||[ɪə]||fear, peer, tier|
|/ɜːr/||[ɜː]||burn, first, herd|
|/ər/||[ə]||doctor, martyr, surprise|
- Trap-bath split: The Mid-Atlantic accent exhibits the trap-bath split of RP. However, unlike in RP, the bath vowel does not merge with palm. It is only lowered from [æ] to [a̟]. (For details on the split in RP, see Trap-bath split.)
- No æ-tensing: While most dialects of American English have the "trap" vowel tensed in closed syllables before nasals at the minimum, known as æ-tensing, the Mid-Atlantic accent has no trace of æ-tensing whatsoever.
- Father-bother distinction: The "a" in father is unrounded and lengthened. On the other hand, the "bother" vowel is rounded and unlengthened. Therefore, the father-bother distinction is preserved.
- Lot–cloth assonance: Like contemporary RP, but unlike conservative RP and General American, words in the cloth lexical set use the lot vowel rather than the thought vowel. The lot vowel is also used in words like "watch" and "quad". However, the thought vowel is used words such as "all", "salt", and "malt".
- Cot–caught distinction: The vowels in cot and caught are distinguished with the latter being pronounced higher and longer compared to the former.
- Lack of happy tensing: The vowel /i/ at the end of words such as "happy" [ˈhæpɪ] ( listen), "Charlie", "sherry", "coffee" is not tensed and thus is pronounced with the SIT vowel [ɪ], rather than the SEAT vowel [iː]. This also extends to "i", "y", and sometimes "e", "ie", and "ee" in other positions in words. For example, the sit vowel is used in a remark, and because, serious, variable.
- No Canadian raising: The diphthongs /aɪ/ and /aʊ/ do not undergo Canadian raising and are pronounced as [aɪ] and [ɑʊ], respectively, in all environments.
- Conservative //, //, //: Like in Northern American English, the vowels //, //, // do not undergoing advancing, being pronounced as [oʊ], [uː] and [ɑʊ], respectively.
- No weak vowel merger: The vowels in "Rosa's" and "roses are distinguished, with the former being pronounced as [ə] and the latter as either [ɪ] or [ɨ].
- Lack of mergers before /l/: More like in General American than contemporary RP, mergers before /l/ are non-existent. Thus, the vowels in "hull" and "bull" are kept distinct, the former as [ʌ] and the latter as [ʊ].
Vowels before /r/
In the Mid-Atlantic accent, the postvocalic /r/ is typically either dropped or vocalized. The vowels /ə/ or /ɜː/ do not undergo R-coloring. Linking R is used, but intrusive R is not permitted.
When preceded by a long vowel, the /r/ is vocalized to [ə], commonly known as a schwa, and the preceding vowel is typically lax. When the /r/ is intervocalic or a linking /r/ is used, then the /r/ is inserted after the schwa. However, when preceded by a short vowel, the /r/ is elided. When the /r/ is intervocalic or a linking /r/ is used, the /r/ is inserted after that vowel. Therefore, tense and lax vowels before /r/ are typically only distinguished by the presence/absence of /ə/. The following distinctions are examples of this concept:
- Mirror–nearer distinction: Hence mirror is [mɪɹə], but nearer is [nɪəɹə].
- Mary–merry distinction: Hence merry is [mɛrɪ], but Mary is [mɛərɪ].
- "marry" is pronounced with a different vowel altogether. See further in bullet below.
Other distinctions before /r/ include the following:
- Mary–marry–merry distinction: Like in RP, New York City, and Philadelphia, the "marry" is pronounced as //, being kept distinction from both the Mary and merry vowels.
- Cure–force–north distinction: The vowels in "cure" and "force" are distinguished, with the former being pronounced as [ʊə] and the latter pronounced as [ɔə].
- Hurry-furry distinction: The vowels in "hurry" and "furry" are distinguished, with the former pronounced as // and the latter pronounced as //.( listen)
- Distinction of intervocalic // and //: The Mid-Atlantic accent pronounces /ɒɹV/ and /ɔɹV/ the same as in Received Pronunciation. [nb 1]
- Wine-whine distinction: The Mid-Atlantic accent lacks the Wine–whine merger: The consonants spelled w and wh are pronounced differently; words spelled with wh are pronounced as "hw" (/ʍ/). The distinction is a feature found in conservative RP and New England English. However, it is rarely heard in contemporary RP.
- Pronunciation of /t/: /t/ is pronounced as a glottal stop (transcribed as: [ʔ]) only if it is followed by a consonant in either the same word or the following word. Thus grateful is pronounced [ˈɡɹeɪʔfɫ̩] ( listen). Otherwise, it is pronounced as [t]. Unlike General American, /t/ and /d/ do not undergo flapping. Likewise, winter [ˈwɪɾ̃ɚ] is not pronounced similarly or identically to winner [ˈwɪnɚ].[nb 2]
- Preservation of yod: Yod-dropping only occurs after two consonants, /r/, and optionally after /s/ and /l/. Mid-Atlantic also lacks palatalization, so duke is pronounced ['dju:k] ( listen) rather than ( listen).
Features in the lexicon
- The -day suffix (e.g. Monday; yesterday) can either be pronounced as [dɛɪ] or as [dɪ] ("i" as in "did").
- Instead of the strut vowel, the rounded lot vowel ( listen) vowel is used in everybody, nobody, somebody, and anybody; and when stressed, was, of, from, what. At times, the vowels in the latter words can be reduced to a schwa. However, "because" uses the thought vowel.
- Polysyllabic words ending in -ary,-ery,-ory,-mony,-ative,-bury,-berry: The first vowel in the endings -ary, -ery, -ory, -mony, -ative, -bury, and -berry are all pronounced as [ə], commonly known as a schwa. Thus inventory is pronounced [ˈɪnvɪntərɪ], rather than [ˈɪnvɪntɔrɪ].
- While the remnants of the distinction is found the eastern coastal USA, some words in the traditional // class still are pronounced with the // vowel, and the resulting distinction is not as representative of the Mid-Atlantic accent as RP.
- "The t after n is often silent in American pronunciation. Instead of saying internet Americans will frequently say 'innernet.' This is fairly standard speech and is not considered overly casual or sloppy speech."
- Drum, Kevin. "Oh, That Old-Timey Movie Accent!" Mother Jones. 2011.
- Queen, Robin (2015). Vox Popular: The Surprising Life of Language in the Media. John Wiley & Sons. pp. 241-2.
- LaBouff, Kathryn (2007). Singing and communicating in English: a singer's guide to English diction. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 241–242. ISBN 0-19-531138-8.
- Hampton, Marian E. & Barbara Acker (eds.) (1997). The Vocal Vision: Views on Voice. Hal Leonard Corporation. pp. 174-77.
- Tsai, Michelle (February 28, 2008). "Why Did William F. Buckley Jr. talk like that?". Slate. Retrieved February 28, 2008.
- Fallows, James (June 7, 2015). "That Weirdo Announcer-Voice Accent: Where It Came From and Why It Went Away. Is your language rhotic? How to find out, and whether you should care". The Atlantic. Washington DC.
- Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006), chpt. 7
- Konigsberg, Eric (February 29, 2008). "On TV, Buckley Led Urbane Debating Club". The New York Times. Retrieved June 18, 2011.
- New York City Accents Changing with the Times. Gothamist (February 25, 2008). Retrieved 2011-06-18.
-  Archived May 17, 2008, at the Wayback Machine.
- Jacqueline Kennedy: First Lady of the New Frontier, Barbara A. Perry
- With Mailer's death, U.S. loses a colorful writer and character – SFGate. Articles.sfgate.com (November 11, 2007). Retrieved 2011-06-18.
- Empress of fashion : a life of Diana Vreeland Los Angeles Public Library Online (December 28, 2012). Retrieved 2013-11-25.
- Greenhouse, Emily (May 2013). "The First American Anti-Nazi Film, Rediscovered". The New Yorker. Retrieved April 1, 2014.
- Barbara W. Tuchman (August 31, 2011). Proud Tower. Random House Digital, Inc. p. 115. ISBN 978-0-307-79811-4. Retrieved April 3, 2012.
- Alan M. Wald (1983). The revolutionary imagination: the poetry and politics of John Wheelwright and Sherry Mangan. UNC Press Books. p. 93. ISBN 978-0-8078-1535-9. Retrieved April 3, 2012.
- A. Javier Treviño (April 2006). George C. Homans: history, theory, and method. Paradigm Publishers. p. vii. ISBN 978-1-59451-191-2. Retrieved September 11, 2012.
- Jacob Heilbrunn (January 6, 2009). They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons. Random House Digital, Inc. p. 85. ISBN 978-1-4000-7620-8. Retrieved April 3, 2012.
- William Thaddeus Coleman; Donald T. Bliss (October 26, 2010). Counsel for the situation: shaping the law to realize America's promise. Brookings Institution Press. p. 43. ISBN 978-0-8157-0488-1. Retrieved April 3, 2012.
- Larry Gelbart; Museum of Television and Radio (New York, N.Y.) (1996). Stand-up comedians on television. Harry N. Abrams Publishers. p. 14. ISBN 978-0-8109-4467-1. Retrieved April 3, 2012.
- Bill Sammon (February 1, 2006). Strategery: How George W. Bush Is Defeating Terrorists, Outwitting Democrats, and Confounding the Mainstream Media. Regnery Publishing. p. 103. ISBN 978-1-59698-002-0. Retrieved September 11, 2012.
- "On Language", by William Safire, The New York Times, January 18, 1987
- Robert MacNeil; William Cran; Robert McCrum (2005). Do you speak American?: a companion to the PBS television series. Random House Digital, Inc. pp. 50–. ISBN 978-0-385-51198-8. Retrieved June 18, 2011.
- Pearl Harbor speech by Franklin Delano Roosevelt (sound file)
- Mufson, Daniel (1994). "The Falling Standard". Theater. 25 (1): 78. doi:10.1215/01610775-25-1-78.
- Skinner, Monich & Mansell (1990:334)
- Kozloff, Sarah (2000). Overhearing Film Dialogue. University of California Press. p. 25.
- Robert Blumenfeld (December 1, 2002). Accents: A Manual for Actors. Hal Leonard Corporation. p. 171. ISBN 978-0-87910-967-7. Retrieved April 3, 2012.
- "Philip French's screen legends: Cary Grant". The Guardian. London. Retrieved June 18, 2011.
- Rawson, Christopher (January 28, 2009). "Lane, Hamlisch among Theater Hall of Fame inductees". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Retrieved 2011-06-18.
- Lane, James. "Aristocratic Villains And English-Speaking Nazis: Why Hollywood Loves Clichéd Accents". Babbel.com. Retrieved January 23, 2017.
- Fallows, James (August 8, 2011). "Language Mystery: When Did Americans Stop Sounding This Way?". The Atlantic. Washington DC. Retrieved April 1, 2014.
- Fletcher (February 1, 2013), p. 4
- Skinner, Edith (January 1, 1990). Speak with Distinction. Hal Leonard Corporation. ISBN 9781557830470.
- Fletcher (January 1, 2005), p. 339
- Skinner (1990), loc 1701 of 5800 (Kindle)
- Fletcher (January 1, 2005), p. 338
- Skinner, Monich & Mansell (1990)
- Skinner, Monich & Mansell (1990:102)
- Skinner (1990), loc 1384 of 5800 (Kindle)
- Mojsin, Lisa (2009), Mastering the American Accent, Barron's Education Series, Inc., p. 36.
- Skinner, Monich & Mansell (1990:336)
- Wells (1982a:247)
- Skinner (1990), loc 1429 of 5800 (Kindle)
- Skinner (1990), loc 1066 of 5800 (Kindle)
- Fletcher, Patricia (2013-02-01). Classically Speaking. Lulu.com. p. 339. ISBN 9781300594239.
- Fletcher, Patricia (February 1, 2013). Classically Speaking. Lulu.com. ISBN 9781300594239.
- Fletcher, Patricia (January 1, 2005). Classically Speaking: Dialects for Actors : Neutral American, Classical American, Standard British (RP). Trafford. ISBN 9781412041218.
- Labov, William; Ash, Sharon; Boberg, Charles (2006), The Atlas of North American English, Berlin: Mouton-de Gruyter, ISBN 3-11-016746-8
- Skinner, Edith; Monich, Timothy; Mansell (ed.), Lilene (1990). Speak with Distinction (Second ed.). New York: Applause Theatre Book Publishers. ISBN 1-55783-047-9.
- Skinner, Edith (1990-01-01). Speak with Distinction (Kindle ed.). Hal Leonard Corporation. ISBN 9781557830470.
- Robert MacNeil and William Cran, Do You Speak American? (Talese, 2004). ISBN 0-385-51198-1.
- Nosowitz, Dan (October 27, 2016). "How a Fake British Accent Took Old Hollywood by Storm". Atlas Obscura. Retrieved November 26, 2016.