Mid-Atlantic accent

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This article is about the cultivated accent blending American and British English. For the mid-Atlantic dialect of American English, see Mid-Atlantic American English.

A Mid-Atlantic accent, or Transatlantic accent,[1] is a cultivated or acquired accent of the English language once found in the American upper class and taught for use as a standard in American schools for actors as late as the early 1900s. It is not a vernacular accent typical of any location or any natural variety, but a consciously learned blend of American English and British English, intended to favor neither.

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. It was formerly used by American actors who adopted some features of British pronunciation until the mid-1960s. 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 effect a quasi-American accent.

International media tend to reduce the number of mutually unintelligible versions of English to some extent,[2] and Mid-Atlantic English tends to avoid Britishisms and Americanisms[citation needed] so that it can be equally understandable and acceptable on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.


Mid-Atlantic English was the dominant dialect among the Northeastern American upper class through the first half of the 20th century[citation needed]. As such, it was popular in the theatre and other forms of elite culture in that region. 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, voice was first heard in motion pictures. It was then that the majority of audiences first heard Hollywood actors speaking predominantly in Mid-Atlantic English. Some had been raised with it, many adopted it starting out in the theatre, and others simply affected it to help their careers. Among those from Hollywood's Golden Era of the 1930s associated with the accent are British-born Cary Grant,[3] and Americans Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Joan Crawford and Irene Dunne.

British expatriates John Houseman, Henry Daniell, Anthony Hopkins, Elizabeth Taylor, Camilla Luddington, and Angela Cartwright exemplified the accent,[citation needed] as did Americans Eleanor Parker, Grace Kelly, Jane Wyatt, Eartha Kitt, Agnes Moorehead, Patrick McGoohan, William Daniels, Vincent Price, Clifton Webb, John McGiver, Jonathan Harris, Roscoe Lee Browne,[4] and Richard Chamberlain; Canadians Christopher Plummer, John Vernon, Norma Shearer, Lorne Greene, and Australian Rod Taylor.

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.[citation needed]

Figures outside the entertainment industry known for speaking Mid-Atlantic English include William F. Buckley, Jr.,[5] Gore Vidal, Franklin D. Roosevelt, George Plimpton,[6][7] Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Wallis Simpson, Norman Mailer,[8] Diana Vreeland,[9] Maria Callas, Cornelius Vanderbilt IV,[10] and Brad Friedel.[11] The monologuist Ruth Draper's recorded "The Italian Lesson" gives an example of this East Coast American upper class diction of the 1940s.

Use of the Mid-Atlantic English accent declined rapidly after World War II.

Elite use[edit]

Mid-Atlantic English was cultivated by American elites 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 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.

Recordings of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who came from a privileged New York 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.[12] "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."[13]

According to William Labov, teaching of this pronunciation declined sharply after the end of World War II.[14] 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. were vestigial examples.[15]

Contemporary use[edit]

  • 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.
  • U.S.-based British infomercial host Anthony Sullivan (also known for the show PitchMen with Billy Mays), speaks with a Mid-Atlantic accent which is a combination of his native Devon accent and an American accent. As a result, it doesn't sound distinctly British or American, but was cultivated so he could be understood by U.S. viewers and yet still appeal to those who wanted to buy something from a Brit. As a result, he pronounces such words as 'potato' and 'tomato' in the American way in his infomercials, but still used some Briticisms.
  • Former U.S. international soccer goalkeeper Brad Friedel, now a commentator on the sport, developed a Mid-Atlantic accent thanks to his long tenure as a player in England. In a story for NBC Sports published shortly before Friedel's retirement in 2015, journalist Joe Prince-Wright said about Friedel's speech, "Due to the decades spent in Britain, he has seen his accent become one of the finest examples of a “not quite British, not quite American” accents known to mankind, something he laughs off with a shrug."[11]
  • 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.



Mid-Atlantic English is usually learned in one of five ways:[citation needed]

  • 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.[16] A version codified by voice coach Edith Skinner, American Theater Standard, is widely taught in acting schools.
  • By non-native Anglophones, from different British and American sources.[clarification needed]
  • Mid-Atlantic English was required for New York City schoolteachers in the 1930s.



Short monophthongs[17]
Front Central Back
Close ɪ ʊ
Close-Mid e o*
Open-Mid ə*
Near-open æ ʌ
Open a~ä ɒ

* only occurs in unstressed syllables

Long monophthongs[17]
Front Central Back
Mid ɜː~ɐː ɔː
Open ɑː
Closing diphthongs[17]
Front Back
Close-mid eɪ̯ oʊ̯
Open-mid ɔɪ̯
Open äɪ~aɪ̯ aʊ~äʊ
Centering diphthongs[17]
Front Back
Close ɪə̯ ʊə̯
Close-mid ɛə̯ ɔə̯
Front Back
Open aɪ̯ə~äɪə̯ äʊə̯~ɑʊ̯ə


Bilabial Labio-
Dental Alveolar Post-
Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal m n ŋ
Plosive p  b t  d k  ɡ
Affricate t͡ʃ  d͡ʒ
Fricative f  v θ  ð s  z ʃ  ʒ ʍ h
Approximant r j w
Lateral l

/ʍ/ is used in most words spelled wh.[18] /h/ may be voiced ([ɦ]) between two vowel sounds. Linking R is used, but intrusive R is not permitted.[19] The consonant clusters /tj/, /dj/, /nj/, /sj/ and /lj/ (as in tune, due, new, pursue, evolution) are all present, as found in Received Pronunciation, but in few North American dialects (see yod-dropping). In /sj/ and /lj/, yod-dropping is optional.[20]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Drum, Kevin. "Oh, That Old-Timey Movie Accent!" Mother Jones. 2011.
  2. ^ "How could accent reduction change your life?". accentbootcamp.com. Auckland, New Zealand: Auckland English Academy Ltd. Archived from the original on 2008-09-30. 
  3. ^ Philip French's screen legends: Cary Grant | Film | The Observer. Guardian. Retrieved on 2011-06-18.
  4. ^ Lane, Hamlisch among Theater Hall of Fame inductees. Post-gazette.com (2009-01-28). Retrieved on 2011-06-18.
  5. ^ Konigsberg, Eric (2008-02-29). "On TV, Buckley Led Urbane Debating Club". The New York Times. Retrieved 2011-06-18. 
  6. ^ New York City Accents Changing with the Times. Gothamist (2008-02-25). Retrieved on 2011-06-18.
  7. ^ [1] Archived May 17, 2008 at the Wayback Machine
  8. ^ With Mailer's death, U.S. loses a colorful writer and character – SFGate. Articles.sfgate.com (2007-11-11). Retrieved on 2011-06-18.
  9. ^ Empress of fashion : a life of Diana Vreeland Los Angeles Public Library Online (2012-12-28). Retrieved on 2013-11-25.
  10. ^ Greenhouse, Emily. "The First American Anti-Nazi Film, Rediscovered". The New Yorker. Retrieved 2014-04-01. 
  11. ^ a b Prince-Wright, Joe. "Still Chasing That Ball of Tape". SportsWorld. NBCSports.com. Retrieved August 21, 2015. 
  12. ^ 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 18 June 2011. 
  13. ^ Pearl Harbor speech by Franklin Delano Roosevelt (sound file)
  14. ^ "Chapter 7. The Restoration of Post-Vocalic /r/". Web.archive.org. 2005-11-18. Archived from the original on November 18, 2005. Retrieved 2014-04-01. 
  15. ^ Tsai, Michelle (2008-02-28). "Why Did William F. Buckley Jr. talk like that?". Slate. Retrieved 2008-02-28. 
  16. ^ Coalson, Robert (2011-08-08). "Language Mystery: When Did Americans Stop Sounding This Way? - James Fallows". The Atlantic. Retrieved 2014-04-01. 
  17. ^ a b c d e Skinner (1990)
  18. ^ Skinner (1990:335)
  19. ^ Skinner (1990:102)
  20. ^ Skinner (1990:336)

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]