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.
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.
- 1 Historical use
- 2 Phonology
- 2.1 Monophthongs
- 2.2 Distinctions
- 2.3 Bath-Trap split
- 2.3.1 Bath vowel
- 2.3.2 Trap vowel
- 2.3.3 Ah, short o and aw vowels
- 2.3.4 father set [ɑː]
- 2.3.5 cot, cloth and watch vowel [ɒ]
- 2.3.6 thought set [ɔː]
- 2.3.7 Moon vowel [u]
- 2.3.8 Look vowel [ʊ]
- 2.3.9 Happy vowel [ɪ]
- 2.3.10 Lennon-Lenin distinction
- 2.3.11 Mary-marry-merry distinction
- 2.3.12 Distinctions before /l/
- 2.3.13 Hurry-furry distinction
- 2.3.14 Oregon-organ distinction
- 2.3.15 From-rum distinction
- 2.3.16 Tour-north-force distinction
- 2.3.17 Pronunciation of /aɪ/
- 2.3.18 Pronunciation of /ɑʊ/
- 2.3.19 Pour-poor distinction
- 2.3.20 Syllabic consonants
- 2.3.21 /ɑɹ/ and /ɔɹ/ before a vowel
- 2.3.22 Polysyllabic words ending in -ary,-ery,-ory,-mony,-ative,-bury,-berry
- 2.4 Vowels before /r/
- 2.5 Consonants
- 3 See also
- 4 References
- 5 Bibliography
- 6 Further reading
- 7 External links
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", 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, 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; 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.
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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 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, Malefecient, Cruella de Vil, Lady Tremaine, Vincent Price's voiced Professor Ratigan and Jafar).
- 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.
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). 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. 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.
* only occurs in unstressed syllables
|IPA||WR||Example||List of words||IPA||WR||Example||List of words|
|/ɑː/||ah||father & palm||/ɑr/||ar||start listen|
|/ɪ/||i(h)||kit & happy||/ɪr/||irr||mirror listen|
|/iː/ or /i/||ee||fleece||/ɪər/||eer||near listen|
|/ɔː/||aw||thought||/ɔr/||awr||north listen or war|
|/oʊ/||oh||goat||/ɔər/||ohr||force listen or wore|
|/juː/||ew||ewe, dew||/jʊər/||ewr||cure listen|
The Mid-Atlantic does not have the cot-caught merger or the father-bother merger so the vowels in father [ɑ:], cot [ɒ] ( listen) and caught [ɔː] ( listen) are all distinguished. However it lacks the lot-cloth split, so words spelled with short "o" are all pronounced with the [ɒ] vowel, including words like "cloth", "long", and "chocolate", with the exception of words spelled with "ought" like "bought" which use the same vowel as in caught [ɔː]. ( listen) The vowel in trap [æ] is distinguished from the vowel in bath [a] ( listen), which is distinguished from the vowel in father and palm [ɑː].
In some words, the "a" vowel (as in bath) is pronounced as [a] ( listen) in the "bath" set, and as [æ] ( listen) in the "trap" set. The list of words which use [a] rather than [æ] must simply be learned, because the spelling of the word does not indicate which vowel to use. They are the words in Kenyon's American pronunciation dictionary that have the use the [a] symbol given as the educated Northeastern American pronunciation of that era, or in any British dictionary (different dictionaries use different symbols, but words that use the same transcription symbol as "bath" are pronounced as [a] in the Mid-Atlantic accent, and words that use the same symbol as trap, are pronounced as [æ] in the Mid-Atlantic accent.) In general, less commonly used words are more likely to be part of the trap set, as well with words with more than one syllables. The trap vowel is almost always used in open syllables, except where closely derived from another word with /a/. Thus passing is closely derived from pass, and so has /a/; passage is not so closely derived, and thus has /æ/ (/ˈpæsɪdʒ/).
The vowel [a] is used for the "broad A" (the "pass" vowel) which is contrasted with the father vowel [ɑː]. It is the same as the [a] in the Spanish word "casa".
The vowel sound in the "trap" /æ/ ( listen) set does not undergo Æ tensing before nasals (n, m, ng) or other consonants, and does not raise before [ɡ]. Thus, "bad", "bag", "ban", and "bank" all have the same vowel. This can be learned by practicing saying [æ] without anticipating the following sound and then adding the consonant to prevent the vowel from changing when it is followed by different consonants. The Mid-Atlantic accent does not nasalize vowels before nasal consonants, so by saying [æ] without anticipating the following sound, will also prevent the vowel from being nasalized .
Ah, short o and aw vowels
Words in the cloth set are followed by the fricatives /f/, /θ/ and /s/.
father set [ɑː]
The "ah" [ɑː] vowel as in "ah" or "father" is pronounced without any lip rounding, and is held for twice as long as the short o vowel in words such as "cot", It is distinguished from the vowel used in "cot", because in the Mid-Atlantic accent the "cot" vowel is rounded and pronounced for half the duration.
cot, cloth and watch vowel [ɒ]
Words spelled with "o" as in "cot" [ˈkʰɒt] ( listen) are pronounced with rounded lips. "Cot" is pronounced with the same vowel that is used in "cloth", and "off". (but not in words spelled with "ought" like bought which uses the same vowel as in caught [ˈkʰɔːt] ( listen). This vowel is also used in words like "watch" and "quad".
thought set [ɔː]
Words spelled with "aw" (as in caw), "au" (as in "caught" [ˈkʰɔːt] ( listen), and "ought" (as in "bought") are pronounced with the [ɔː] vowel, and thus are distinguished from words like "cot". This vowel is pronounced with the back of the tongue higher in the mouth than the "cot" vowel, and the lips are rounded. It is also pronounced for a longer duration. Words spelled with an "o" such as "cloth", and "off" do not use this vowel. It is also used when "a" is followed by "l", such as in all, salt, and malt.
Moon vowel [u]
The "oo" vowel as in "moon", is pronounced with protruded rounded lips ( listen) rather than with spread lips ( listen). It is pronounced the same as the vowel in the Spanish word "un". The corners of the mouth are drawn together and the lips protrude like a tube, with their inner surface visible. The tongue is positioned as close as possible to the roof of the mouth, as far back as possible in the mouth without creating a constriction.
Look vowel [ʊ]
Happy vowel [ɪ]
Mid-Atlantic English lacks "happy tensing". That means that the vowel /i/ at the end of words such as "happy" [ˈhæpɪ] ( listen), "Charlie", "sherry", "coffee" 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 remark, and because, serious, variable.
The -day suffix (e.g. Monday; yesterday) can either be pronounced as [dɛɪ] or as [dɪ] ("i" as in "did").
The vowels in "Lennon" and "Lenin" are distinguished. "Lennon" has the vowel in the [ə], and Lenin has a shorter version of the vowel in "it", often transcribed as [ɪ] or [ɨ]. Usually if the word is spelled with an unstressed "e", that would be pronounced with either the "e" in "the" or the "e" in roses, it is pronounced with the "e" in roses in Mid-Atlantic; but if it is spelled with an unstressed "a" or "o" and would be pronounced with either the "e" in "the" or the "e" in roses, it is pronounced with the "e" in "the" in Mid-Atlantic.
|Lennon set [ə]||Lenin set [ɪ]|
In the Mid-Atlantic accent, the vowels in "Mary", "marry" ( listen), and "merry" are all distinct. Words in the Mary set are pronounced with the vowel in "met", followed by "e" in "the": [ɛəɹ]; words in the "marry" set use the vowel in "mat" [æ]. Words in the "merry" set use the vowel in "met" [ɛɹ].
In general, words containing -are (not including the word "are"), -ary, -air, ear (not including the word "ear") are in the Mary set. Otherwise an "a" followed by two rs, or an "a" followed by one r (not including the word "are") followed by another vowel besides "y" or "e", is part of the marry set and in the Mid-Atlantic accent is pronounced with the vowel in "mat". There are some exceptions, especially with names.
Distinctions before /l/
The "up" vowel [ʌ] is used in "gulf", "hull", "dull". This can be learned by practicing saying the "uh" vowel [ʌ] without anticipating the following sound and then adding the "L". The vowel in "look" [ʊ] is used for the "bull" vowel.
- /ʊl/ and /ol/ (bull vs bowl)
- /ʌl/ and /ɔːl/ (hull vs hall)
- /ʊl/ and /ʌl/ (bull vs hull)
- /ʌl/ and /ol/ (hull vs hole)
The vowel in words like "hurry" is the same vowel in up, and thus words in the hurry set do not rhyme with words in the furry set. ( listen)
In some American dialects, an unstressed /ɹəC/ or /ɹɪC/ can elide the /ə/ to become /rC/ (where capital "C" represents a consonant), deleting a syllable as a result. The most common is /ɹəɹ/ or /ɹɪɹ/ reducing to [ɹ] anywhere in a word. Other sequences of /ɹəC/ usually reduce non-word-finally, producing possible homophones like coroner-corner, Morrigan-Morgan and Oregon-organ. In Mid-Atlantic, Oregon is pronounced with three syllables [ˈɒrɪɡ(ə)n], whereas "organ" is pronounced with two syllables [ˈɔːɡ(ə)n].
In the Mid-Atlantic accent, instead of using the vowel in "strut", the rounded cot [ɒ] ( listen) vowel is used in was, of, from, one, what, everybody, nobody, somebody, anybody. However the word "because" uses the "caught" vowel [ɔː]
|tour set||north set||force set|
Words belonging to the tour set are most commonly spelled with oor or our for example poor, tour,. Words in this set with an initial /j/ are often spelled ure, or eur; for example cure, Europe.
Pronunciation of /aɪ/
In the Mid-Atlantic accent, there is no Canadian raising of /aɪ/. Thus both the /aɪ/ in "tight" and the /aɪ/ in "tide" are pronounced as [aɪ].
Pronunciation of /ɑʊ/
In the Mid-Atlantic accent, there is no Canadian raising of /ɑʊ/. Thus both the /ɑʊ/ in "lout" and the /ɑʊ/ in "loud" are pronounced as [ɑʊ]. The diphthong starts with the [ɑ] vowel rather than [a] or [æ].
The final syllable in words such as "button" use syllabics [n̩] and [m̩], rather than a schwa or a schwi. Thus button is pronounced as [bʌtʰn̩] rather than [bʌtʰən].
/ɑɹ/ and /ɔɹ/ before a vowel
The Mid-Atlantic accent pronounces /ɑɹV/ and /ɔɹV/ the same as in England and the eastern coastal USA. Most American dialects use [ɑɹ] only in a few words.
Polysyllabic words ending in -ary,-ery,-ory,-mony,-ative,-bury,-berry
The first vowel in the endings -ary,-ery,-ory,-mony,-ative,-bury,-berry are all pronounced [ə] (the "e" in "the"). Thus inventory is pronounced [ˈɪnvɪntərɪ], rather than [ˈɪnvɪntɔrɪ].
Vowels before /r/
In the Mid-Atlantic accent /r/ is only pronounced when it is immediately followed by a vowel sound, either in the same word or in the next word. Where GA pronounces /r/ before a consonant and at the end of an utterance, Mid-Atlantic either has nothing (if the preceding vowel is /ɔː/ or /ɑː/) or has a schwa instead (the resulting sequences are diphthongs or triphthongs). Mid-Atlantic has plain vowels /ə/ or /ɜː/ rather than R-colored vowels. Linking R is used, but intrusive R is not permitted.
Vowels are pronounced differently when they come before r. Normally words that would normally have a long vowel (diphthong) are pronounced with a short (lax) vowel followed by a schwa (the "e" in "the").
The "ea" in ear would normally be pronounced as a long "ee" [i] (\ee\), as in the word "eat", but because it is before an /r/ it is pronounced as ɪə (\IH-uh\) (the "i" in "it" followed by the "e" in the). If it is followed by an vowel in the same word of the following word, an /r/ is added.
Words in the In mirror set are pronounced with the sit vowel [ɪ] with no schwa [ə]. The word "mirror" is pronounced as [ˈmɪɹə] (mih-ruh), rather than as one syllable [ˈmɪɹ].
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/). Both in American English and in Received Pronunciation, this distinction was more common in the early twentieth century than it is today.
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 a "t". It is not pronounced as a glottal stop if it comes before a syllabic nasal such as in button [ˈbʌ̈ʔn] ( listen). /t/ and /d/ do not become an alveolar flap, written [ɾ] ( listen), which is perceived as a "d" sound between vowels or liquids (l and r), as in water [ˈwɑɾɚ] ( listen), party [ˈpʰɑɹɾi] ( listen), community [k(ə)ˈmjunəɾi] ( listen). Winter [ˈwɪɾ̃ɚ] is not pronounced similarly or identically to winner [ˈwɪnɚ].
After alveolar consonants /tj/, /dj/, /nj/, and optionally /sj/ and /lj/ (as in tune, due, new, and optionally suit , pursuit, evolution ()), the "y" sound // is preserved in Mid-Atlantic. Thus new is pronounced [nju] ("nyoo") ( listen) and not ("noo") [nuː], duke is pronounced [djuːk] ( listen) and not [duːk] ( listen). Suit can be either ['su:t] or [sju:t] ( listen), and evolution can be either with [u:] or [ju:] ( listen). Mid-Atlantic also lacks palatalization, so duke is pronounced ['dju:k] ( listen) rather than ( listen). [u] is always used after two consonants such as "pl", "bl", or "r".
/h/ may be voiced ([ɦ]) between two vowel sounds.
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