Have you ever watched an old movie and been thrown off by the strange half-British, half-American accents employed by actors in the thirties and forties? If An Affair to Remember, Gone With the Wind, and Breakfast at Tiffany’s are all seminal American films, why do Cary Grant, Scarlett O’Hara, and Audrey Hepburn all sound like they’ve been binging on tea and crumpets?
The Trans-Atlantic Accent (or the Mid-Atlantic Accent) was a style of speech taught in affluent schools along the East Coast and in Hollywood Film Studios from the late nineteen tens until the mid-forties. Although most of its speakers – including Julia Child, Franklin D. and Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackie Kennedy Onassis, Bette Davis, and Norman Mailer – hailed from the Northeastern United States, the accent they shared could hardly be called a regional dialect.
If you were to walk down a Boston or New York City street in 1925, you’d find a similar hodge-podge of accents to the ones boasted by native New Yorkers today. There’d be lots of h-dropping – the pronunciation of words like ‘human’ or ‘huge’ as ‘you-man’ and ‘yuge’ (think Bernie Sanders) – and plenty of that classic Brooklynite charm found in phrases like ‘ovah theah deah.’ In fact, the only places you’d be likely to run into the Trans-Atlantic Accent at all might be the Upper West Side or other affluent neighborhoods. There, people with years of private school training in r-less pronunciation and switching wh’s to hw’s (‘white’ or ‘which’ become ‘hwite’ and ‘hwich’) abounded. But very few, if any of them, spoke that way naturally.
From Public Schools to the ‘Talkies’
Why were all these rich people cultivating faux-British accents? Starting at the beginning of the twentieth century, classical theater actors were in the habit of imitating upper-class British accents onstage. Many of them followed the teachings of Australian phonetician William Tilly, who introduced a phonetically consistent standard of English – called World English – that would eventually come to “define the sound of American classical acting for almost a century (Knight).” Interestingly, Tilly himself had little interest in acting. A linguistic prescriptivist, he boldly labeled World English a ‘class-based accent.’ In other words, it was meant to be used as a marker of an ‘educated,’ ‘cultivated,’ or ‘cultured’ person.
World English originally attracted some followers amongst New York City public-school teachers and English-language learners, but it would take a major cinematic event for the accent to enter the mainstream of society’s upper-echelons.
In 1927, Warner Bros and the Vitaphone Corporation released the very first feature-length ‘talkie’ – a black and white film called The Jazz Singer. Its release signaled the end of the silent film era and the ushering in of sound films. For the first time ever, the voices of cinema superstars started to be heard on the big screen. And many actors were less than thrilled by the added pressures of vocal performance. Clara Bow, a superstar of the twenties, famously hated ‘talkies,’ and in 1930, at only twenty-five years old, her career came to an abrupt end when she was admitted to a sanatorium. Katherine Hepburn also struggled with the transition. As a result of nervously blurting out her lines again and again, she was fired from her first production in 1928.
Soon many actors, including Hepburn, were taking elocution classes to train their voices for the big screen. Then, in 1942, Edith Skinner – a Broadway Consultant and student of William Tilly – published a book called Speak with Distinction, which was the first codification of Tilly’s teachings and quickly become the manual for Hollywood’s standard English.
Directors liked the accent for its neutrality and sophistication, which made it easy to use in films that weren’t setting-specific. Soon enough, mastery of the accent became a prerequisite for actors trying to break into the industry.
By the mid-forties, though, Americans were no longer buying the neutrality argument. The Trans-Atlantic accent may have made it difficult to tell what street someone grew up on, but it was probably a street with white picket fences and expensive private schools.
Through the success of a couple of breakthrough actors notably lacking the Trans-Atlantic accent – including Jimmy Stewart and Humphrey Bogart – Americans finally began to see themselves reflected on the big screen. Soon, the accent’s inherent classism began to be rejected. By the late fifties, it had all but disappeared.
Where is the Trans-Atlantic Accent Now?
Though the accent has long since lost its allure, contemporary film and television do make occasional nods to it, often as a historical time-marker or as a subject for easy satire. In Frasier, it’s humorously employed by the snobbish Crane Brothers; in The Hunger Games, it’s used by Effie Trinket, a haughty, over-the-top member of the superfluous upper-class. In Star Wars, Darth Vader’s deep baritone version of it is used to emphasize his position of high authority, and Princess Leia and Queen Amidala switch the accent on and off, utilizing it only when they’re involved in formal political discussions; in American Horror Story: Hotel, serial killer James Patrick March and his accomplice Miss Evers both have the accent, which is used to mark them as members of the 1920s upper class.
Whether you abhor the accent for its woeful pretentiousness or adore it’s trilling, all-treble sound, I think we can all agree on one thing: the era of the Trans-Atlantic accent gave us some pretty incredible cinema.
Janet Barrow writes about the places where language meets history, culture, and politics. She studied Written Arts at Bard College, and her fiction has appeared in Easy Street and Adelaide Magazine. After two years in Lima, Peru, she recently moved to Chicago.