The Mid-Atlantic accent, or Transatlantic accent,[1][2][3] is a consciously learned accent of English, associated with the American upper class and entertainment industry of the late 19th century and mid-20th century, that blended together features from both American and British English (specifically Received Pronunciation). It 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".[4] The accent was embraced in private independent American preparatory schools, especially by members of the Northeastern upper class, as well as in schools for film, radio, and stage acting,[5] with its overall use sharply declining in the decades after the Second World War.[6] 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.[7] More broadly, the term "mid-Atlantic accent" can also refer to any accent with a perceived mixture of American and British characteristics.[8][9][10]

Elite use

History

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.[11] 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—the standard accent of the British upper class—as evidenced in recorded public speeches of the time, with some of these qualities, like non-rhoticity (sometimes called "r-lessness"), also shared by the regional dialects of Eastern New England and New York City. Sociolinguist William Labov et al. describe that such "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".[6]

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.[12] 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.[12] His distant cousin Franklin D. Roosevelt also employed a non-rhotic Mid-Atlantic accent,[13] 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.[14] 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.[14]

Vocal coach and scholar Dudley Knight describes how the Australian phonetician William Tilly ( Tilley), teaching at Columbia University from 1918 to around the time of his death in 1935, introduced a version of the Mid-Atlantic accent that, for the first time, was standardized with an extreme and conscious level of phonetic consistency. Linguistic prescriptivists, Tilly and his adherents emphatically promoted their new Mid-Atlantic speech standard, which they called "World English". World English would eventually define the pronunciation of American classical actors for decades, 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,[15] he was interested in popularizing his standard of a "proper" American pronunciation for teaching in public schools and using in one's public life:[16]

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.[17]

As a phonetically consistent version of Mid-Atlantic pronunciation, World English (known at the time by a variety of names) was advocated most strongly from the 1920s to the mid-1940s and was particularly embraced during this period in the Northeastern independent preparatory schools accessible to and supported by wealthy American families. However, 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.[18]

Example speakers

Wealthy or highly educated Americans known for being lifelong speakers of a Mid-Atlantic accent include William F. Buckley Jr.,[19] Gore Vidal, H. P. Lovecraft,[20] Franklin D. and Eleanor Roosevelt, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Averell Harriman,[21][22] Dean Acheson,[23] George Plimpton,[24][25] Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (who began affecting it permanently while at Miss Porter's School),[26] Louis Auchincloss,[27] Norman Mailer,[28] Diana Vreeland (though her accent is unique, with not entirely consistent Mid-Atlantic features),[29] C. Z. Guest[30] Joseph Alsop,[31][32][33] Robert Silvers,[34] Julia Child[35] (though, as the lone non-Northeasterner in this list, her accent was consistently rhotic), and Cornelius Vanderbilt IV.[36] 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.,[37] Charles Eliot Norton,[38] Samuel Eliot Morison,[39] Harry Crosby,[40] John Brooks Wheelwright,[41] George C. Homans,[42] Elliot Richardson,[43] George Plimpton (though he was actually a lifelong member of the New York City elite),[44] and John Kerry,[45] 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.[46] "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".[47]

Decline

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;[13] if anything, the accent is now subject to ridicule in American popular culture.[48] The clipped, non-rhotic English accents of George Plimpton and William F. Buckley Jr. were vestigial examples.[49] 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,[50][51][52] was widely discussed and sometimes described as a Mid-Atlantic accent.[53] 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."[54]

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.[18] From the 1920s to 1940s, the "World English" of William Tilly, and his followers' slight variations of it taught in classes of theatre 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,[4][55] a student of Tilly best known for her 1942 instructional text on the accent: Speak with Distinction.[3][56] Skinner, who referred to this accent as Good (American) Speech or Eastern (American) Standard, described it as the appropriate American pronunciation for "classics and elevated texts".[57] She vigorously drilled her students in learning the accent at the Carnegie Institute of Technology and, later, the Juilliard School.[4]

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.[58] As used by actors, the Mid-Atlantic accent is also known by various other names, including American Theatre Standard or American stage speech.[55]

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.[49] 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 Tyrone Power,[59] Bette Davis,[59] Katharine Hepburn,[60] Laird Cregar, Faye Dunaway, Vincent Price (who also went to school in Connecticut),[61][3] Christopher Plummer,[3] Sally Kellerman, Tammy Grimes,[62] and Westbrook Van Voorhis.[5] Cary Grant, who arrived in the United States from England aged 16,[63] had an accent that was often considered Mid-Atlantic, though with a more natural and unconscious mixture of both British and American features.[64] Roscoe Lee Browne, defying roles typically cast for black actors, also consistently spoke with a Mid-Atlantic accent.[65] Humorist Tom Lehrer lampooned this accent in a 1945 satirical tribute to his alma mater, Harvard University, called "Fight Fiercely, Harvard".[66] Actor and musical theatre performer Patrick Cassidy noted that his father, Jack Cassidy, used the Mid-Atlantic accent.[67]

Examples

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 second half of the 20th century, or even more recently, for the sake of historical, humorous, or other stylistic reasons. Actors working this period who used the accent included Edward Herrmann,[68] Kelsey Grammer, and David Hyde Pierce:[69]

Phonology

The Mid-Atlantic accent was carefully taught as a model of "correct" English in American elocution classes,[6] and it was also taught for use in American theatre into the 1960s, after which it fell out of vogue.[77] It is still taught to actors for use in playing historical characters.[78]

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.[79]

Vowels

English diaphoneme Mid-Atlantic accent Example
According to Skinner[80] According to McLean[81] Franklin D. Roosevelt's realization[82]
Monophthongs
/æ/ [æ] [æ] trap
[æ̝] pan
/ɑː/ [a] [a], [ɑː][83] [a] bath
[æ̈] dance
[ɑː] [ɑə][82] father
/ɒ/ [ɒ] lot, top
[ɔə][82] 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
Diphthongs
/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).[82] 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).[82]
Mid-Atlantic centering diphthongs as pronounced by Franklin D. Roosevelt, from Urban (2021).[82]
F1/F2 values of Franklin D. Roosevelt's Mid-Atlantic vowels in hertz according to Urban (2021).[82]
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/
THOUGHT /ɔ/

Vowels before /r/

In a Mid-Atlantic accent, the postvocalic /r/ is typically either dropped or vocalized.[93] The vowels /ə/ or /ɜː/ do not undergo R-coloring. Linking R is used, but Skinner openly disapproved of intrusive R.[93][94] 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:

Consonants

A table containing the consonant phonemes is given below:[79]

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

Other pronunciation patterns

Example Mid-Atlantic[56]
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.[87] 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."[99]

Citations

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  100. ^ Skinner, Monich & Mansell (1990:336)
  101. ^ Wells, John C. (1982). Accents of English. Vol. 1. Cambridge University Press. p. 247. ISBN 0-521-22919-7.
  102. ^ Skinner, Monich & Mansell (1990), p. 308.
  103. ^ Skinner, Monich & Mansell (1990), p. 247.
  104. ^ Skinner, Monich & Mansell (1990), p. 292.
  105. ^ Skinner, Monich & Mansell (1990), p. 66.
  106. ^ Fletcher (2013), p. 339
  107. ^ Skinner, Monich & Mansell (1990), pp. 348–9.

General bibliography

Further reading