The Mid-Atlantic accent, or Transatlantic accent,[1][2][3] is an accent of English, fashionably used by the American upper class and entertainment industry of the late 19th century to mid-20th century, that blended elements from both American and British English. Specifically, it blended features from both upper-class Northeastern American English and Received Pronunciation,[3] the prestige variety of British English. The late 19th century first produced recordings and commentary about an accent associated with the Northeastern elite and their private preparatory school education.[4] Then, in the earlier half of the 20th century, a related accent was taught at schools of acting and performed onstage for classical plays,[5] such as Shakespeare plays,[6] eventually also becoming associated with certain Hollywood actors.[7] The Mid-Atlantic accent is not a native or regional accent; rather, according to voice and drama professor Dudley Knight, "its earliest advocates bragged that its chief quality was that no Americans actually spoke it unless educated to do so".[8]

A similar accent that resulted from different historical processes, Canadian dainty, was also known in Canada, existing for a century before waning in the 1950s.[9] More broadly, the term "mid-Atlantic accent" can also refer to any accent with a perceived mixture of American and British characteristics.[10][11][12]

Elite use


In the 19th century and into the early 20th century, formal public speaking in the United States focused primarily on song-like intonation, lengthily and tremulously uttered vowels (including overly articulated weak vowels), and a booming resonance.[13] Moreover, since at least the mid-19th century, upper-class communities on the East Coast of the United States increasingly adopted many of the phonetic qualities of Received Pronunciation[14][15][16][3]—the standard accent of the British upper class—as evidenced in recorded public speeches of the time. One of these qualities is non-rhoticity, sometimes called "R-dropping", in which speakers delete the phoneme /r/ except before a vowel sound (thus, in pair but not pairing), which is also shared by the traditional regional dialects of Eastern New England (including Boston), New York City, and some areas of the South, although precisely how varied by exact location, social class, and other demographic factors. Sociolinguists like William Labov describe that non-rhoticity, "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".[14] Labov's groundbreaking research in New York City in the 1960s found that speakers born before 1923 dropped their R's, while younger speakers especially of an upper-middle-class background speaking in a formal style had started to pronounce the R more and more, as did most Americans who lived further inland, away from the non-rhotic cities on the coast.[14]

Early recordings of prominent Americans born in the middle of the 19th century provide some insight into their adoption (or not) of a carefully employed non-rhotic Mid-Atlantic speaking style. President William Howard Taft, who attended public school in Ohio, and inventor Thomas Edison, who grew up in Ohio and Michigan in a family 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 public speeches that does not align with the rhotic accents normally documented in Ohio and Central New York State at the time; both men even use the distinctive and especially archaic affectation of a "tapped R" at times when R is pronounced, often when between vowels.[17] This tapped articulation is additionally sometimes heard in recordings of Theodore Roosevelt, McKinley's successor from an affluent district of New York City, who used a cultivated non-rhotic accent but with the addition of the coil-curl merger once notably associated with New York accents.[17] His distant cousin Franklin D. Roosevelt also employed a non-rhotic Mid-Atlantic accent,[18] though without the tapped R.

In and around Boston, Massachusetts, a similar accent, in the late 19th century and early 20th century, was associated with the local urban elite: the Boston Brahmins. 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.[4] The related term "boarding-school lockjaw" has also been used to describe the accent once considered a characteristic of elite New England boarding-school culture.[4]

The prestige of Mid-Atlantic accents had largely ended by 1950, presumably as a result of cultural and demographic changes in the United States in the aftermath of the Second World War.[19]

Example speakers

Wealthy or highly educated Americans known for being life-long speakers of a Mid-Atlantic accent include William F. Buckley Jr.,[20] Gore Vidal, H. P. Lovecraft,[21] Franklin D. and Eleanor Roosevelt, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Averell Harriman,[22][23] Dean Acheson,[24] George Plimpton,[25][26] Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (who began affecting it permanently while at Miss Porter's School),[27] Louis Auchincloss,[28] Norman Mailer,[29] Diana Vreeland (though her accent is unique, with not entirely consistent Mid-Atlantic features),[30] C. Z. Guest[31] Joseph Alsop,[32][33][34] Robert Silvers,[35][36] Julia Child[37] (though, as the lone non-Northeasterner in this list, her accent was consistently rhotic), Cornelius Vanderbilt IV,[38] and Gloria Vanderbilt.[4] 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 of whom were educated specifically at the independent boarding school Groton in Massachusetts: Franklin Roosevelt, Harriman, Acheson, Alsop, and Auchincloss.

Examples of individuals described as having a cultivated New England accent or "Boston Brahmin accent" include Henry Cabot Lodge Jr.,[39] Charles Eliot Norton,[40] Samuel Eliot Morison,[41] Harry Crosby,[42] John Brooks Wheelwright,[43] George C. Homans,[44] Elliot Richardson,[45] George Plimpton (though he was actually a life-long member of the New York City elite),[46] and John Kerry,[47] who has noticeably reduced this accent since his early adulthood toward a more General American one.

Excerpt of FDR's "Fear Itself" speech

U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who came from a privileged New York City family, has a non-rhotic accent, though it is not an ordinary New York accent; 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.[48] "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".[49]


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 speaking styles of the East Coast elite;[18] if anything, the accent is now subject to ridicule in American popular culture.[50] The clipped, non-rhotic English accents of George Plimpton and William F. Buckley Jr. were vestigial examples.[51] Marianne Williamson, a self-help author and a 2020 and 2024 Democratic presidential candidate, has a unique accent that, following her participation in the first 2020 presidential debate in June 2019,[52][53][54] was widely discussed and sometimes described as a Mid-Atlantic accent.[55] 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".[56]

Theatrical and cinematic use

According to the vocal coach and drama professor Dudley Knight, when the 20th century began, "American actors in classical plays all spoke with English accents".[19] A Mid-Atlantic sound in the American theatre was indirectly inspired, in part, by the Australian phonetician William Tilly ( Tilley), teaching at Columbia University from 1918 to around the time of his death in 1935, who introduced a version of the accent that, for the first time, was standardized with an extreme and conscious level of phonetic consistency. Calling his new standard "World English", Tilly mostly attracted a following of English-language learners and New York City public-school teachers,[57] and his goal was to popularize his standard of a "proper" American pronunciation for teaching in public schools and using in one's public life.[58] While he did not specifically work with actors himself, some of his students ending up doing so. Linguistic prescriptivists, Tilly and his adherents emphatically promoted World English, and its slight variations taught in classes of theatre and oratory, helping to eventually define the pronunciation of American classical actors for decades. According to Dudley Knight:

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 rarefied social or intellectual circles; and the speech of those who might aspire to do so.[59]

From the 1920s to 1940s, the Mid-Atlantic accent was a popular affectation onstage and in other forms of high culture in North America. According to Knight, Americans had the tendency to perceive World English as sounding British, which Tilly's students sometimes acknowledged and other times denied.[60] The codification of such an accent particularly for theatrical training is credited to several disciples of Tilly, notably including Margaret Prendergast McLean and Edith Warman Skinner.[3] McLean, by the late 1920s, was one of the most influential speech teachers for East Coast actors, publishing her text on the accent, Good American Speech, in 1928.[8] Edith Skinner rose to prominence in the 1930s and 1940s,[8][61] best known for her own instructional text, Speak with Distinction, published in 1942.[3][62] These speech teachers referred to this accent as Good (American) Speech, which Skinner also called Eastern (American) Standard and which she described as the appropriate American pronunciation for "classics and elevated texts".[63] She vigorously drilled her students in learning the accent at the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now, Carnegie Mellon) and, later, the Juilliard School.[8] As used by actors, the Mid-Atlantic accent is also known by various other names, including American Theatre Standard or American stage speech.[61]

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 talkies beginning in the late 1920s. Hollywood studios encouraged actors to learn this accent into the 1940s.[51] For instance, in the 1952 movie Singin' in the Rain, the Skinner-like elocution coach who entreats Lina Lamont to use "round tones" is attempting to teach her American stage speech.

Examples of actors known for publicly using this accent include Bette Davis,[64] Katharine Hepburn,[65] Laird Cregar, the Canadian actor Christopher Plummer,[3] Sally Kellerman, Tammy Grimes,[66] Fred Astaire,[67] William Powell,[67] Orson Welles,[68] and Westbrook Van Voorhis.[6] Despite the accents of their native regions, Grace Kelly, Norma Shearer, and Ginger Rogers developed a Mid-Atlantic accent, including (variable) non-rhoticity and a trap–bath split, likely due to its high prestige in their era and their formal dramatic schooling.[69] Roscoe Lee Browne, defying roles typically cast for black actors, also consistently spoke with a Mid-Atlantic accent.[70] Vincent Price often used the accent in his performances, being from Missouri but attending elite Northeastern schools for high school and college, and also being British-trained.[71][3] Patrick Cassidy noted that his father, actor and performer Jack Cassidy, affected the Mid-Atlantic accent, despite having a native New York accent.[72]

Humorist Tom Lehrer lampooned the accent in a 1945 satirical tribute to his alma mater, Harvard University, called "Fight Fiercely, Harvard".[73] Cary Grant, who arrived in the United States from England aged 16,[74] had an accent that is often popularly described as "Mid-Atlantic", though his idiolect was a more natural and unconscious mixture of both British and American features.[75]

Examples in 20th-century media

Examples in 21st-century media

Although it has disappeared as a standard of high society and high culture, the Transatlantic accent has still been heard in some media in the 21st century for the sake of historical, humorous, or other stylistic reasons.


The Mid-Atlantic accent was carefully taught as a model of "correct" English in American elocution classes,[14] and it was also taught for use in American theatre into the 1960s, after which it fell out of vogue.[84] It is still taught to actors for use in playing historical characters.[85]

A codified version of the Mid-Atlantic accent, American Theatre Standard, advocated by voice coaches like Edith Skinner ("Good Speech" as she called it) and Margaret Prendergast McLean, was once widely taught in acting schools of the early-mid-20th century.[86]


English diaphoneme Mid-Atlantic accent Example
According to Skinner[87] According to McLean[88] Franklin D. Roosevelt's realization[15]
/æ/ [æ] [æ] trap
[æ̝] pan
/ɑː/ [a] [a], [ɑː][89] [a] bath
[æ̈] dance
[ɑː] [ɑə][15] father
/ɒ/ [ɒ] lot, top
[ɔə][15] cloth, gone
/ɔː/ [ɔː] all, taught, saw
/ɛ/ [e] [e̞] [ɛ] dress, met, bread
/ə/ [ə] about, syrup
[o] [o̞] no data obey, melody
/ɪ/ [ɪ] [ɪ] [ɪ̈] hit, skim, tip
[ɪ̞] response
/i/ city
/iː/ [iː] beam, fleet, chic
/ʌ/ [ɐ] [ʌ̈] bus, gus, coven
/ʊ/ [ʊ] book, put, would
/uː/ [uː] glue, dew
/aɪ/ [aɪ] [äɪ] shine, try
bright, dice, pike, ride
/aʊ/ [ɑʊ] [ɑ̈ʊ] ouch, scout, now
/eɪ/ [eɪ] lake, paid, pain, rein
/ɔɪ/ [ɔɪ] boy, moist, choice
/oʊ/ [oʊ] [o̞ʊ] [ɔʊ] goat, oh, show
Vowels historically followed by /r/
/ɑːr/ [ɑə] [ɑː] [ɑə] car, dark, barn
/ɪər/ [ɪə] fear, peer, tier
/ɛər/ [ɛə] [ɛə~ɛː] [ɛə] fare, pair, rare
/ʊər/ [ʊə] sure, tour, pure
/ɔːr/ [ɔə] [ɔə~ɔː] [ɔə] torn, short, port
/ɜːr/ [ɜː~əː] burn, first, herd
/ər/ [ə] doctor, martyr, surprise
Mid-Atlantic monophthongs as pronounced by Franklin D. Roosevelt, from Urban (2021).[15] Here /ɑː/ includes the vowels of PALM and LOT and /ɔː/ includes the vowels of THOUGHT and CLOTH. The vowel /ɜː/ is pronounced as a rhotic vowel.The FLEECE, GOOSE, FOOT, THOUGHT and PALM vowels are pronounced like diphthongs, respectively [i̞i, u̟u, ʊɤ, ɔɐ, ɑɐ]
Mid-Atlantic closing diphthongs as pronounced by Franklin D. Roosevelt from Urban (2021).[15]
Mid-Atlantic centering diphthongs as pronounced by Franklin D. Roosevelt, from Urban (2021).[15]
F1/F2 values of Franklin D. Roosevelt's Mid-Atlantic vowels in hertz according to Urban (2021).[15]
American, British and Mid-Atlantic low vowels comparison
KEYWORD US Mid-Atlantic UK
General American Boston Received Pronunciation
TRAP /æ/ /æ/ /æ/
BATH /a/~/æ/ /a/~/ɑ/~/æ/ /ɑ/
PALM /ɑ/ /a/ /ɑ/
LOT /ɒ/ /ɑ/~/ɒ/ /ɒ/
CLOTH /ɔ/~/ɑ/ /ɒ/~/ɔ/

Vowels before /r/

In a Mid-Atlantic accent, the postvocalic /r/ is typically either dropped or vocalized.[99] The vowels /ə/ or /ɜː/ do not undergo R-coloring. Linking R is used, but Skinner openly disapproved of intrusive R.[99][100] In Mid-Atlantic accents, intervocalic /r/'s and linking r's undergo liaison.

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:

  • "Marry" is pronounced with a different vowel altogether. See further in the bullet list below.

Other distinctions before /r/ include the following:


A table containing the consonant phonemes is given below:[86]

Consonant phonemes
Labial Dental Alveolar Post-alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal m n ŋ
Stop p b t d k ɡ
Fricative f v θ ð s z ʃ ʒ h
Approximant l ɹ j ʍ w

Other pronunciation patterns

Example Mid-Atlantic[62]
military -ary [əɹɪ]
bakery -ery
inventory -ory
Canterbury -bury [bəɹɪ]
blueberry -berry
testimony -mony [mənɪ]
innovative -ative [ətɪv ~ ˌeɪtɪv]

See also

Explanatory notes

  1. ^ 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.[93] Also see U and non-U English for details.
  2. ^ "The t after n is often silent in [regional] American pronunciation. Instead of saying internet [some] Americans will frequently say 'innernet.' This is fairly standard speech and is not considered overly casual or sloppy speech."[105]


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General bibliography

Further reading