Mid-Atlantic accent

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

The mid-Atlantic accent, or Transatlantic accent,[1][2][3] 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".[4] The accent is therefore best associated with the American upper class, theater, and film industry of the 1930s and 1940s,[5] largely taught in private independent preparatory schools especially in the American Northeast and in acting schools.[6] The accent's overall usage sharply declined following World War II.[7]

Generally a North American phenomenon, the terms "Transatlantic" and "mid-Atlantic accent" are sometimes used alternatively, in Britain, to refer (often critically) to the speech of British public figures (often in the entertainment industry) who affect quasi-American pronunciation features.[citation needed]

Historical use[edit]

Elite use[edit]

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."[7] 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[citation needed] 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.,[8] Gore Vidal, Franklin D. and Eleanor Roosevelt, George Plimpton,[9][10] Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (who began affecting it while at Miss Porter's School and maintained it lifelong),[11] Norman Mailer,[12] Diana Vreeland,[13] and Cornelius Vanderbilt IV,[14] 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,[15] John Brooks Wheelwright,[16] George C. Homans,[17] McGeorge Bundy,[18] Elliot Richardson,[19] George Plimpton (though he was actually a lifelong member of the New York City elite),[20] and John Kerry,[21] 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.[22] The related term "boarding-school lockjaw" has also been used to describe the prestigious accent once taught at expensive Northeastern independent schools.[22]

Excerpt of FDR's "Fear Itself" speech

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.[23] "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".[24]

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,[5] 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[edit]

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.[25] 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,[4][25] best known for her 1942 instructional text Speak with Distinction.[3] Skinner, who often referred to this accent (or register) as "Good (American) Speech" or "Eastern Standard", described it as the appropriate American pronunciation for "classics and elevated texts".[26] A linguistic prescriptivist, she vigorously drilled her students in learning the accent at the Carnegie Institute of Technology and, later, the Juilliard School.[4]

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 the elevated stage pronunciation of the mid-Atlantic accent.[citation needed] 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,[27] Bette Davis,[27] Katharine Hepburn,[28] and Vincent Price;[3] Canadian actor Christopher Plummer;[3] and Cary Grant, who arrived in the United States from England aged 16,[29] 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.[30]

Contemporary use[edit]

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.

Phonological features[edit]

Mid-Atlantic accents were 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).[31] A version codified by voice coach Edith Skinner was once widely taught in acting schools of the earlier twentieth century. This traditional standard of the mid-Atlantic accent is noticeably non-rhotic, or "drops" the r sound whenever not before a vowel (a feature imitating the London norm and still typical today of both upper- as well as lower-class London English). The mid-Atlantic accent's vowel sounds attempt to approximate a middle-ground between standard broadcasting accents of the United States and England.


Short monophthongs[32]
Front Central Back
Close ɪ ʊ
Mid e ə* o*
Near-open æ ʌ
Open a ɒ

* only occurs in unstressed syllables

Long monophthongs[32]
Front Central Back
Mid ɜː ɔː
Open ɑː
Closing diphthongs[32]
Front Back
Close-mid eɪ̯ oʊ̯
Open-mid ɔɪ̯
Open aɪ̯ aʊ̯
Centering diphthongs[32]
Front Back
Close ɪə̯ ʊə̯
Open-mid ɛə̯ ɔə̯
Front Back
Open aɪ̯ə aʊ̯ə


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.[33] /h/ may be voiced ([ɦ]) between two vowel sounds. Linking R is used, but intrusive R is not permitted.[34] 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.[35]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Drum, Kevin. "Oh, That Old-Timey Movie Accent!" Mother Jones. 2011.
  2. ^ a b Queen, Robin (2015). Vox Popular: The Surprising Life of Language in the Media. John Wiley & Sons. pp. 241-2.
  3. ^ a b c d e f 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. 
  4. ^ a b c Hampton, Marian E. & Barbara Acker (eds.) (1997). The Vocal Vision: Views on Voice. Hal Leonard Corporation. pp. 174-77.
  5. ^ a b Tsai, Michelle (2008-02-28). "Why Did William F. Buckley Jr. talk like that?". Slate. Retrieved 2008-02-28. 
  6. ^ Fallows, James. 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, June 7, 2015. http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2015/06/that-weirdo-announcer-voice-accent-where-it-came-from-and-why-it-went-away/395141/
  7. ^ a b "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. 
  8. ^ Konigsberg, Eric (2008-02-29). "On TV, Buckley Led Urbane Debating Club". The New York Times. Retrieved 2011-06-18. 
  9. ^ New York City Accents Changing with the Times. Gothamist (2008-02-25). Retrieved on 2011-06-18.
  10. ^ [1] Archived May 17, 2008, at the Wayback Machine.
  11. ^ Jacqueline Kennedy: First Lady of the New Frontier, Barbara A. Perry
  12. ^ With Mailer's death, U.S. loses a colorful writer and character – SFGate. Articles.sfgate.com (2007-11-11). Retrieved on 2011-06-18.
  13. ^ Empress of fashion : a life of Diana Vreeland Los Angeles Public Library Online (2012-12-28). Retrieved on 2013-11-25.
  14. ^ Greenhouse, Emily. "The First American Anti-Nazi Film, Rediscovered". The New Yorker. Retrieved 2014-04-01. 
  15. ^ Barbara W. Tuchman (31 August 2011). Proud Tower. Random House Digital, Inc. p. 115. ISBN 978-0-307-79811-4. Retrieved 3 April 2012. 
  16. ^ 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 3 April 2012. 
  17. ^ A. Javier Treviño (April 2006). George C. Homans: history, theory, and method. Paradigm Publishers. p. vii. ISBN 978-1-59451-191-2. Retrieved 11 September 2012. 
  18. ^ Jacob Heilbrunn (6 January 2009). They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons. Random House Digital, Inc. p. 85. ISBN 978-1-4000-7620-8. Retrieved 3 April 2012. 
  19. ^ William Thaddeus Coleman; Donald T. Bliss (26 October 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 3 April 2012. 
  20. ^ 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 3 April 2012. 
  21. ^ Bill Sammon (1 February 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 11 September 2012. 
  22. ^ a b "On Language", by William Safire, The New York Times, January 18, 1987
  23. ^ 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. 
  24. ^ Pearl Harbor speech by Franklin Delano Roosevelt (sound file)
  25. ^ a b Mufson, Daniel (1994). "The Falling Standard". Theater. 25 (1): 78. doi:10.1215/01610775-25-1-78. 
  26. ^ Skinner, Monich & Mansell (1990:334)
  27. ^ a b Kozloff, Sarah (2000). Overhearing Film Dialogue. University of California Press. p. 25.
  28. ^ Robert Blumenfeld (1 December 2002). Accents: A Manual for Actors. Hal Leonard Corporation. p. 171. ISBN 978-0-87910-967-7. Retrieved 3 April 2012. 
  29. ^ Philip French's screen legends: Cary Grant | Film | The Observer. Guardian. Retrieved on 2011-06-18.
  30. ^ Lane, Hamlisch among Theater Hall of Fame inductees. Post-gazette.com (2009-01-28). Retrieved on 2011-06-18.
  31. ^ Coalson, Robert (2011-08-08). "Language Mystery: When Did Americans Stop Sounding This Way? - James Fallows". The Atlantic. Retrieved 2014-04-01. 
  32. ^ a b c d e Skinner, Monich & Mansell (1990)
  33. ^ Skinner, Monich & Mansell (1990:335)
  34. ^ Skinner, Monich & Mansell (1990:102)
  35. ^ Skinner, Monich & Mansell (1990:336)

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]