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.
A similar accent, known as Canadian dainty, was also known in Canada in the same era, although it resulted from different historical processes.
The term "mid-Atlantic accent" may, in some cases, also be used to refer to an accent heard in speakers who have spent large amounts of time in both North America and the United Kingdom, resulting in both dialects exerting a natural and not consciously affected influence on their speech patterns; however, this accent is not identical to the traditional mid-Atlantic accent.
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". Prior to World War II, some American elite institutions, particularly in the Northeast, cultivated a norm influenced by the "r-less" (or non-rhotic) standard English of Southern England as an international norm of English pronunciation. Early recordings of prominent Americans born in the middle of the nineteenth century provide some insight into their adoption or not of the Mid-Atlantic speaking style. President William Howard Taft, who came from an Ohio family of modest means, and inventor Thomas Edison, who grew up in Ohio and Michigan, both used natural rhotic accents. Presidents William McKinley of Ohio and Grover Cleveland of Central New York, however, clearly employed a non-rhotic, upper-class, Mid-Atlantic quality in their speeches; both even use the distinctive affectation of a "trilled" or "flapped r" at times when r is pronounced. This trill is less consistently heard in recordings of Theodore Roosevelt, McKinley's successor from an affluent district of New York City, who also used a cultivated non-rhotic Mid-Atlantic accent but with the addition of the New York accent's once-notable coil–curl merger.
Other upper-class Americans known for speaking with a consistent Mid-Atlantic accent include William F. Buckley, Jr., Gore Vidal, H. P. Lovecraft, Franklin D. and Eleanor Roosevelt, George Plimpton, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (who began affecting it while at Miss Porter's School and maintained it lifelong), Louis Auchincloss, Norman Mailer, Diana Vreeland, Joseph Alsop, Julia Child, 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 Henry Cabot Lodge, 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 Transatlantic 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"; this pronunciation of r is also famously recorded in his Pearl Harbor speech, for example, in the phrase "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.
Theatrical and cinematic use
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. It is also possible that the clipped, nasal, "all-treble" quality associated with the Mid-Atlantic accent arose out of technological necessity in the earliest days of radio and sound film, which ineffectively reproduced normal human bass tones. 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 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, Laird Cregar and Vincent Price; Canadian actor Christopher Plummer; and arguably Cary Grant, who arrived in the United States from England at age of sixteen, and whose accent was likely a more natural and unconscious mixture of both British and American features. Roscoe Lee Browne, defying roles typically cast for African American actors, also consistently spoke with a Mid-Atlantic accent.
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 historical or stylistic effect.
- 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.
- Many Disney 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 Professor Ratigan, Jafar, and Eartha Kitt's Yzma).
- 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.
- 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).
- Actor John Houseman employs a Mid-Atlantic accent on The Paper Chase (as Professor Charles W. Kingsfield Jr., a Professor of Contract Law at the Harvard Law School),
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|
|/ɒ/||[ɒ]||lot, top, wasp, what|
|dog, loss, cloth|
|/ɔː/||[ɔː]||all, bought, taught, saw|
|/ɛ/||[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/||[äɪ]||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|
|/ɛər/||[ɛə]||fare, pair, rare|
|/ʊər/||[ʊə]||poor, sure, tour|
|/oər/ and /ɔːr/||[ɔə]||bore, torn, short|
|/ɜːr/||[ɜː~əː]||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 (and often in some other environments as well), 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. The lot vowel is also used in words like "watch" and "quad".
- 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.[nb 1] However, the thought vowel is used in 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 than 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 is thus 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 cities, remark, 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 undergo advancing, being pronounced as [oʊ], [uː] and [ɑʊ], respectively.
- No weak vowel merger: The vowels in "Rosas" and "roses" are distinguished, with the former being pronounced as [ə] and the latter as either [ɪ] or [ɨ]. This is done in General American, as well (E. Flemming & S. Johnson. Rosa’s Roses: Reduced Vowels in American English, http://web.mit.edu/flemming/www/paper/rosasroses.pdf), but in the Mid-Atlantic accent, the same distinction means the retention of historic [ɪ] in weak preconsonantal positions (as in RP), so "rabbit" does not rhyme with "abbot".
- Lack of mergers before /l/: Mergers before /l/, which are typical of several accents, both British and North American (Labov, Ash & Boberg: The Phonological Atlas of North America; Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary: Pronuncation Guide https://assets2.merriam-webster.com/mw/static/pdf/help/guide-to-pronunciation.pdf; A. C. Gimson: An Introduction to the Pronunciation of English), do not occur. For example, 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. In Mid-Atlantic, intervocalic /r/'s and linking r's undergo liaison. In other words, they are put in the onset in the following syllable rather than a part of the coda of the previous syllable.
When preceded by a long vowel, the /r/ is vocalized to [ə], commonly known as schwa, while the long vowel itself is laxed. However, when preceded by a short vowel, the /ə/ is elided. 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]. Mary also has an opener variant of [ɛ] than merry.
- "marry" is pronounced with a different vowel altogether. See further in the bullet list below.
Other distinctions before /r/ include the following:
- Mary–marry–merry distinction: Like in RP, New York City, and Philadelphia, "marry" is pronounced as //, which is distinct from the vowels of both Mary and merry.
- Cure–force–north distinction: The vowels in "cure" and "force"/"north" are distinguished, the former being realized as [ʊə] and the latter as [ɔə].
- Hurry-furry distinction: The vowels in "hurry" and "furry" are distinguished, with the former pronounced as // and the latter pronounced as //.( listen)
- 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).
- 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].
- A similar but unrelated feature occurred in RP. As one attempt of middle-class RP speakers to make themselves sound polished, words in the cloth set were shifted from the thought vowel back to the lot vowel. Also see U and non-U English for details.
- "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."
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- Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006), chpt. 7
- "Some Canadians used to speak with a quasi-British accent called Canadian Dainty". CBC News, July 1, 2017.
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