The Mid-Atlantic accent, or Transatlantic accent, is a cultivated accent of English blending together prestigious American and British English (Received Pronunciation) ways of speaking. Adopted in the early 20th century mostly by American aristocrats and actors, it is not a native vernacular or regional American accent. Instead, according to voice and drama professor Dudley Knight, it is an affected set of speech patterns whose "chief quality was that no Americans actually spoke it unless educated to do so". Primarily fashionable in the first half of the 20th century, the accent was embraced in private independent preparatory schools, especially by members of the Northeastern upper class, as well as in schools for film and stage acting. The accent's overall use sharply declined following the Second World War.
A similar accent, known as Canadian dainty, was also known in Canada in the same era, although it resulted from different historical processes. More generically, the term "mid-Atlantic accent" refers to any accent with a mixture of American and British characteristics.
At the start of the 20th century, formal public speaking in the United States focused on song-like intonation, lengthily and tremulously uttered vowels, and a booming resonance, rather than the details of given words' phonetic qualities. However, since the 19th century, upper-class communities on the Eastern seaboard increasingly adopted many of the phonetic qualities of educated, non-rhotic (sometimes called "r-less") British accents based around London and southeastern England, at least as evidenced in recorded public speeches of the time. Sociolinguist William Labov et al. describe that such "r-less pronunciation, following Received Pronunciation", the standard accent of London and much of Southern England, "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".
Early recordings of prominent Americans born in the middle of the 19th century provide some insight into their adoption or not of a cultivated non-rhotic speaking style. President William Howard Taft, who attended public school in Ohio, and inventor Thomas Edison, who grew up in Ohio and Michigan of modest means, both used natural rhotic accents. Yet presidents William McKinley of Ohio and Grover Cleveland of Central New York, who attended private schools, clearly employed a non-rhotic, upper-class, Mid-Atlantic quality in their speeches; both even use the distinctive and especially archaic affectation of a "trilled" or "flapped r" at times whenever 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 accent but with the addition of the coil–curl merger once notably associated with New York accents, as did his non-trilling distant cousin, Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Vocal coach and scholar Dudley Knight describes that the Australian phonetician William Tilly (né Tilley), teaching at Columbia University from 1918 to around the time of his death in 1935, introduced a phonetically consistent American speech standard that would "define the sound of American classical acting for almost a century", though Tilly himself actually had no special interest in acting. Mostly attracting a following of English-language learners and New York City public-school teachers, Tilly was interested in popularizing his version of a "proper" American pronunciation for teaching in public schools and using in one's public life. Linguistic prescriptivists, Tilly and his adherents emphatically promoted this invented type of English, their own non-rhotic variety, which they called "World English":
World English was a speech pattern that very specifically did not derive from any regional dialect pattern in England or America, although it clearly bears some resemblance to the speech patterns that were spoken in a few areas of New England, and a very considerable resemblance ... to the pattern in England which was becoming defined in the 1920s as "RP" or "Received Pronunciation." World English, then, was a creation of speech teachers, and boldly labeled as a class-based accent: the speech of persons variously described as "educated," "cultivated," or "cultured"; the speech of persons who moved in rarified social or intellectual circles and of those who might aspire to do so.
Now sometimes identified as a Mid-Atlantic accent, this consciously-learned pronunciation was advocated most strongly from the 1920s to the mid-1940s and was particularly embraced in this period within Northeastern independent preparatory schools mostly accessible to and supported by aristocratic American families. However, by 1950, following and presumably due to the Second World War, the accent's influence had largely ended. Wealthy or highly educated Americans known for being lifelong speakers of the Mid-Atlantic accent include William F. Buckley, Jr., Gore Vidal, H. P. Lovecraft, Franklin D. and Eleanor Roosevelt, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Averell Harriman, Dean Acheson, George Plimpton, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (who began affecting it permanently while at Miss Porter's School), Louis Auchincloss, Norman Mailer, Diana Vreeland (though her accent is unique, with not entirely consistent Mid-Atlantic features), C.Z. Guest, Joseph Alsop, Robert Silvers, Julia Child (though, as the lone non-Northeasterner in this list, her accent was consistently rhotic), and Cornelius Vanderbilt IV. Except for Child, all of these example speakers were raised, educated, or both in the Northeastern United States. This includes just over half who were raised specifically in New York (most of them New York City) and five who were specifically educated at the private boarding school Groton in Massachusetts: Franklin Roosevelt, Harriman, Acheson, Alsop, and Auchincloss.
In and around Boston, Massachusetts, such an accent, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, was associated with the local urban elite: the Boston Brahmins. Examples of individuals described as having a "Boston Brahmin accent" include Henry Cabot Lodge, Charles Eliot Norton, Harry Crosby, 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, 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, as Americans have increasingly dissociated from the effete speaking styles of the East Coast elite. The clipped, non-rhotic English of George Plimpton and William F. Buckley, Jr. were vestigial examples. Self-help author and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Marianne Williamson has a unique accent that, following her participation in the first 2020 presidential debate in June 2019, was widely discussed and sometimes described as a Mid-Atlantic accent. An article from The Guardian, for example, stated that Williamson "speaks in a beguiling mid-Atlantic accent that makes her sound as if she has walked straight off the set of a Cary Grant movie."
Theatrical and cinematic use
When the 20th century began, classical training for actors in the United States explicitly focused on imitating upper-class British accents onstage. From the 1920s to 1940s, the "World English" of Wiliam Tilly, and his followers' slight variations of it taught in classes of theater and oratory, became popular affectations onstage and in other forms of high culture in North America. The codification of a Mid-Atlantic accent in writing, particularly for theatrical training, is often credited to Edith Warman Skinner in the 1930s, a student of Tilly best known for her 1942 instructional text on the accent: Speak with Distinction. Skinner, who referred to this accent as "Good American Speech" or "Eastern Standard" (both terms now outdated), described it as the appropriate American pronunciation for "classics and elevated texts". She vigorously drilled her students in learning the accent at the Carnegie Institute of Technology and, later, the Juilliard School.
It is also possible that a clipped, nasal, "all-treble" acoustic quality sometimes associated with the Mid-Atlantic accent arose out of technological necessity in the earliest days of radio and sound film, which ineffectively reproduced natural 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.
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. Hollywood studios encouraged actors to learn this accent in the 1930s and 1940s.
Example actors known for publicly using this accent include Tyrone Power, Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Laird Cregar, Vincent Price, Christopher Plummer, Tammy Grimes, and Westbrook Van Voorhis. Cary Grant, who arrived in the United States from England at age of sixteen, had an accent that was often considered Mid-Atlantic, though with 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. Humorist Tom Lehrer lampooned this accent in a 1945 satirical tribute to his alma mater, Harvard University, called "Fight Fiercely, Harvard".
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,.
- 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.
- David Ogden Stiers used the accent in portraying Major Charles Emerson Winchester III on the TV series M*A*S*H.
- Jim Backus and Natalie Schafer portrayed Thurston and Lovey Howell, a millionaire couple on the 1960s TV series Gilligan's Island; they both employed the Locust Valley lockjaw and cartoonish caricature of this accent to great comedic effect.
- 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, Maleficent, 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).
- 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 as a model of "correct" English in American elocution classes, and it was also taught 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.
|Pure vowels (Monophthongs)|
|English diaphoneme||Mid-Atlantic realization||Example|
|/ɒ/||[ɒ]||lot, top, wasp|
|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|
|Vowels historically followed by /r/|
|/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 [a].
- 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, 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, 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 /ɹ/
In the Mid-Atlantic accent, the postvocalic /ɹ/ 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)
- Distinction of // and //.
- 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, as well as in some Canadian and Southern US accents, and sporadically across the Mid-West and the West. However, it is rarely heard in contemporary RP.
- Pronunciation of /t/: /t/ can be 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 can be pronounced [ˈɡɹeɪʔfɫ̩] (listen). Otherwise, it is pronounced as [t]. Unlike General American, /t/ and /d/ do not undergo flapping. Likewise, winter [ˈwɪntə] is not pronounced similarly or identically to winner [ˈwɪnə].[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 ([djuːk] (listen)) rather than ([dʒuːk] (listen)).
- A dark l [ɫ] may be heard for /l/ in all contexts, more like General American than RP.
- The -day suffix (e.g. Monday; yesterday) can either be pronounced as [deɪ] 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].
|innovative||-ative||[ətɪv ~ ˌeɪtɪv]|
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- American English
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- 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.
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- — (2013). Classically Speaking. Lulu.com. ISBN 9781300594239.
- Gimson, Alfred C. (1962). An introduction to the pronunciation of English. Foreign Language Study.
- Labov, William; Ash, Sharon; Boberg, Charles (2006), The Atlas of North American English, Berlin: Mouton-de Gruyter, ISBN 3-11-016746-8
- Skinner, Edith; Monich, Timothy; Mansell (ed.), Lilene (1990). Speak with Distinction (Second ed.). New York: Applause Theatre Book Publishers. ISBN 1-55783-047-9.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
- Skinner, Edith (1 January 1990). Speak with Distinction (Kindle ed.). Hal Leonard Corporation. ISBN 9781557830470.
- Robert MacNeil and William Cran, Do You Speak American? (Talese, 2004). ISBN 0-385-51198-1.
- Nosowitz, Dan (27 October 2016). "How a Fake British Accent Took Old Hollywood by Storm". Atlas Obscura. Retrieved 26 November 2016.
- Early radio episodes of The Guiding Light featuring Mid-Atlantic English
- "Puhfect Together", an episode of The Brian Lehrer Show in which William Labov is interviewed about the accent
- "A Dying Race", a segment of the 1986 documentary film American Tongues, in which two Boston Brahmin academics talk about their accents while sitting in the Boston Athenæum