If you’ve ever watched a black-and-white movie from Hollywood’s Golden Age, you have probably noticed that “old-timey” way of speaking. Actors from Hollywood’s Golden Age, such as Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, speak in a unique accent that doesn’t sound like it comes from any particular region. Why do all those actors from Hollywood’s Golden Age have such a distinct and strange accent?
YouTube page BrainStuff has a short video that explains why the people in old movies might have that unique accent. It’s called the Transatlantic or Mid-Atlantic accent and is not quite American and not quite British.Hepburn made four films with Cary Grant. They are seen here in Bringing Up Baby (1938), which flopped on release but has since become a classic screwball comedy.
BrainStuff explains that the plummy, upper-crust accent is reminiscent of British aristocracy and was actually the style of speaking taught to students in New England boarding schools. It is a mix of British and American that rich people acquired so that poor people would know they were rich. The name “Mid-Atlantic” actually refers to the area directly between Los Angeles and the U.K., symbolizing the influence of both countries.
Some typical characteristics of the accent are the dropping of r’s at the end of words, like “winner” or “clear,” and the soft pronunciation of vowel sounds, “dahnce” instead of “dance”, for instance.
‘T’ sounds are also enunciated and Mid-Atlantic speakers will hit that T so that a word like ‘butter’ does not sound ‘budder,’ as most Americans today would pronounce it.Grant with Mae West in I’m No Angel (1933)
The codification of the Mid-Atlantic accent in writing, particularly for theatrical training, is often credited to American elocutionist Edith Warman Skinner. Her 1942 book, Speak with Distinction, laid out her idea of “Good Speech” – an accent that is “free from regional characteristics,” “effortlessly articulated and easily understood in the last rows of the theater.” Here’s a quote from Speak With Distinction:
“Good Speech is hard to define but easy to recognize when we hear it. Good Speech is a dialect of North American English that is free from regional characteristics; recognizably North American, yet suitable for classic texts; effortlessly articulated and easily understood in the last rows of a theater.”
BrainStuff explains that according to Professor Jay O’Berski, this nasally, clipped pronunciation is a vestige from the early days of radio. Receivers had very little bass technology at the time, and it was very difficult – if not impossible – to hear bass tones on your home device.Katharine Hepburn as Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story
So why don’t we hear the Mid-Atlantic accent anymore? According to linguist William Labov, the Mid-Atlantic speech fell out of favor after World War II, as fewer teachers continued teaching the pronunciation to their students.
Now, the accent is pretty much reserved for comedic moments involving stuffy, rich characters.