If you have ever seen movies from the Golden Age of Hollywood or heard recordings of American government officials from the first half of the 20th century, you may have noticed that many of those people spoke with quite an unusual accent, an odd mixture of British and American English that is highly associated with the elites. The figure most famous for this peculiar way of speaking is the iconic actress Katharine Hepburn, but many highbrow Americans, notably U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, used it as well.
Interestingly, this accent, often dubbed ‘Mid-Atlantic’ or ‘Transatlantic’, was completely made up, and its existence and widespread use in the United States can be traced back to two language teachers. But before we get into the history of the Transatlantic accent, let’s listen to a sample of it.
The key features of this accent are its non-rhoticity, meaning that the ‘r’ is dropped as in British English, as well as the pronunciation of ‘wh’ in words like ‘who’ or ‘when’ as [hw]. The letter ‘t’ in words was always enunciated, even in words like ‘butter’ when it’s often pronounced as [bʌdər] in American English.
Vowels sound differently in the Mid-Atlantic accent as well, with the most famous feature being the pronunciation of the letter ‘u’ as ‘you’ in words like ‘tube’ and ‘tune’. All of these features, apart from the non-rhoticity, which is common in the New England accent, are quite unnatural for modern spoken American English. Likewise, early 20th century American English didn’t have any of these features, which linguists can tell from recordings of the time.
Instead, the Transatlantic accent has always been the speech of the elites, kind of like RP English in the United Kingdom. Still, the Mid-Atlantic accent isn’t an American invention, as its origins can be traced back to an Australian phonetician William Tilly, who taught at Columbia University between 1918 and 1935.
Actor Tyrone Power is considered an exemplary speaker of the Mid-Atlantic Accent
Tilly believed that there should be a proper internationally-acclaimed pronunciation of English words, which would become the pronunciation of educated and cultured English speakers worldwide. Tilly’s idea wasn’t well-received all around the world, but his version of the English phonetic alphabet did gain popularity in the US.
Transatlantic English, or ‘World English’, as Tilly called it, was supposed to be a mixture of North American and RP pronunciations, which Tilly believed were the ‘cleanest’ and most eloquent in terms of pronunciation.
By the late 1920’s, World English came to be taught at private schools in many Northern states, as well as some acting schools. But the person who made the Mid-Atlantic accent the language of Hollywood and the press was Edith Warman Skinner, Tilly’s student, who was an eloquence teacher at elite art schools like Juilliard and Carnegie Mellon.
A 1935 production at Julliard where Edith Skinner taught
In the 1930’s, Skinner, became Hollywood’s primary language advisor and her book titled ‘Speak With Distinction’ became the handbook for all Hollywood stars and language coaches at the time. This is how the so-called ‘Good Speech’, as Skinner called it, became virtually the only kind of speech you’d hear is Hollywood, theater, and even on the radio.
However, during the 1950’s, the movie scene has started to change, and progressive movie directors like Francis Ford Coppola wanted to depict life and people as they were in real life to make cinema more relatable and authentic. The polished, cleaned-up Transatlantic accent didn’t fit this new vision, so it was abandoned, remaining a relic of its time. Today, the Mid-Atlantic accent remains a strange curiosity used in the rare exceptions where actors play historical roles dating back to the early 20th century.