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. Although it became fashionable in Hollywood and related media, 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.
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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 of the local elite of the late 1800s and early 1900s: 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.
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 contemporary 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 mid-Atlantic accent to suggest his position of high authority, as do Princess Leia (played by Carrie Fisher) and Queen Amidala (played by Natalie Portman) when switching to a formal speaking register in political situations.
- Christopher Sabat spoke with a mid-Atlantic accent when portraying Vegeta in the FUNimation dub of Dragon Ball Z.
- 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).
- 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).
Mid-Atlantic accents were carefully taught at American boarding schools and also intentionally for use in the American theater prior to the 1960s (after which it fell out of vogue). 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 prestige 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 both the United States and England.
* only occurs in unstressed syllables
|Plosive||p b||t d||k ɡ|
|Fricative||f v||θ ð||s z||ʃ ʒ||ʍ||h|
/ʍ/ is used in most words spelled wh. /h/ may be voiced ([ɦ]) between two vowel sounds. Linking R is used, but intrusive R is not permitted. 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.
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- Skinner (1990:102)
- Skinner (1990:336)
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