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Mid-Atlantic English: Wikis


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For the region within the United States, see: Mid-Atlantic States. For the English language as it is spoken in the Mid-Atlantic States, see New York dialect, New Jersey English, Philadelphia accent, and Baltimorese.

Mid-Atlantic English, also known as the trans-Atlantic accent, describes a cultivated or acquired version of the English language and does not represent the typical idiom of any location. It blends American and British without being predominantly either. It is also used to describe various forms of North American speech that have assimilated some British pronunciations. These pronunciations were, at one time, common in English-speaking theatre and film, and were also found among members of the upper classes of American society. It is also commonly found amongst the Anglophone expatriate community, many of whom have adopted certain features of the accent of their place of residence.

Mid-Atlantic English was popular in Hollywood films from the 1930s and 1940s, and continues to be associated with people such as Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn and William F. Buckley, Jr. In the United States, it is often known as a "Boarding School accent".

People speak Mid-Atlantic English in one of three ways:

  • Learn to speak with the accent intentionally (such as for stage, used by many Hollywood actors of the past).
  • Develop it by spending extended time in various Anglophone communities outside one's native environment, most typically in North America and the United Kingdom.
  • Learned at a boarding school in America before the 1960s.

Mid-Atlantic English is often confused with some New England accents, Bermudian English or the speech of some Canadian English speakers.



"Mid-Atlantic" attempts to use no deliberate Briticisms nor any deliberate Americanisms, so that it can be equally understandable and acceptable on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

International media tend to reduce the number of mutually unintelligible versions of English to some extent.[1] The term "mid-Atlantic" is sometimes used in Britain to refer, often critically, to British public figures who affect a quasi-American accent. This was particularly notable on BBC Radio 1 in the 1980s, especially in the broadcasts of Gary Davies. It is also used to refer to a bland, geographically unspecific form of popular culture.

Americans who have lived for a long time in non-English-speaking countries, such as Princess Grace of Monaco, or actors Richard Harrison and Jean-Marc Barr, as well as British, Irish, Australian or New Zealand citizens living in North America for extended periods of time, like Cary Grant or John Barrowman[2], sometimes tend naturally to develop a Mid-Atlantic accent as they lose their distinctive regional or national inflections.

In media

Mid-Atlantic English is also a name that has been given to a pronunciation of English that was formerly cultivated by actors for use in theatre, radio, film, early television, and by news announcers. This dialect was formerly used by American actors who adopted some features of British pronunciation; it was used on stage generally - and especially in productions of Shakespeare and other pieces from the British Isles - and frequently in film until the mid-1960s. Orson Welles notably spoke in a mid-Atlantic accent in the 1941 film Citizen Kane, as did many of his co-stars, such as Joseph Cotten.

This sort of stage-British is now used much less than it was; the recorded speech of Vincent Price in his more formal roles may contain an echo of its sounds, since Price was an American actor trained in England. The British expatriates Anthony Hopkins and Cary Grant, Americans Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Kelsey Grammer, Patrick McGoohan, Richard Chamberlain, Eleanor Parker, Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis, and Canadians Christopher Plummer and Lorne Greene have also exemplified the accent.

Use of this accent declined rapidly after World War II. Actors such as Humphrey Bogart, William Holden, Henry Fonda, and John Wayne portrayed serious roles in various dialects of American speech, and the export of American cinema familiarized the rest of the world with its features.

Other public figures

Similar speech has historically been used by certain Americans not in the theatre; it was cultivated by the upper classes in some areas of the Northeastern United States. The recorded speech of U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt, who came from a privileged family and who was educated at Groton, a private American preparatory school, had a number of features that are now exclusive to British English. Roosevelt's speech is non-rhotic; 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. "Linking R" appears in Roosevelt's delivery of the words "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself"; compare also Roosevelt's delivery of the words "naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan."[3]

Prior to World War II, these institutions cultivated a norm influenced by the Received Pronunciation of Southern England as an international norm of English pronunciation. Recordings of New Jersey-born Grover Cleveland and Ohio-native William McKinley show that, in their oratory at any rate, they cultivated a Mid-Atlantic accent. (By contrast, Theodore Roosevelt, McKinley's successor and a native of New York, had what was probably a more natural non-rhotic, upper-class accent.) According to William Labov, the teaching of this pronunciation declined sharply after the end of World War II. [1]

This American version of a "posh" accent is now obsolescent, if not wholly obsolete, even among the American upper classes, but an example of a Mid-Atlantic accent can be found on the television sitcom Frasier as used by both Frasier Crane and his brother Niles Crane, and is reminiscent of the Boston Brahmin accent of the character of Charles Emerson Winchester III on M*A*S*H. More recent Groton alumni, even those with careers on the stage such as Sam Waterston, no longer use such an accent. The clipped English of George Plimpton and William F. Buckley, Jr. may also serve as examples[4]. This speech style was also the influence for Julianne Moore's character's (Maude Lebowski) accent in the 1998 film The Big Lebowski and is parodied by the speech teacher played by Kathleen Freeman in the film Singin' in the Rain.


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