A mix of American and British English pronunciation, the elegant elocution style known as the Transatlantic accent has deep roots in Hollywood history—if not linguistic legitimacy. Keep reading to learn more about the accent and get tips on how to execute it from dialect coaches Samara Bay and Chris Lang.
Franklin D. Roosevelt Courtesy Library of Congress
The Transatlantic accent is sometimes thought of as that “old-timey” way of speaking in 1930s and 1940s films; but its usage and impact extends far beyond American cinema. Sometimes referred to as a Mid-Atlantic accent, it is a carefully crafted dialect meant to imitate the upper-crust elite.
Phonetician William Tilly created the posh accent in the early 20th century. He took what he believed to be the most prestigious aspects of both Received Pronunciation, or proper British English, and standard American English to create “World English,” or the Transatlantic accent. Among the higher socioeconomic classes on the Eastern seaboard, the Transatlantic accent soon became the de facto pronunciation style. Franklin D. Roosevelt, Norman Mailer, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis were just a few of the people in the public sphere who used the Transatlantic accent to great social success.
The self-identification of the Transatlantic accent was highly appealing for those who wished to present themselves as prestigious. “Accents are a big part of our social cues and our social identities,” Lang says. “It’s how we identify ourselves and our family, friends, communities, and social groups.” By the 1930s, the Transatlantic accent became a way of claiming one’s space in the upper echelons of society.
“The Hairy Ape” Courtesy United Artists
The golden age of Hollywood provides an enduring example of how the industry used the Transatlantic accent. From the 1930s to ’50s, Hollywood’s studio system actively encouraged its stars to use the accent as an affirmation of their elitism.
Studios took meticulous care to ensure that their stars acted, looked, and sounded exactly as they wanted them to. According to Bay, “In Hollywood, [the Transatlantic accent] got picked up as the sound of high status.” Part of the reason why the Transatlantic accent came into fashion in the late ’30s and ’40s, he adds, is because actors trained in its use were finally ready to enter the spotlight.
“The Philadelphia Story” Courtesy MGM
The public stopped using the Transatlantic accent toward the end of World War II, when public schools began to phase it out. Still, actors who wanted to align their name with swankiness continued to use it. Katharine Hepburn, for example, kept using the accent throughout her life, even when it was no longer fashionable.
The accent further fell out of favor following the introduction of the Method and other modern acting techniques. The popularity of these naturalistic styles were critical of the Transatlantic accent’s artificiality.
“All About Eve” Courtesy 20th Century Fox
Although most contemporary actors do not need to be able to use it, learning different dialects can be educational for those hoping to deepen their acting skills. Lang notes that learning the Transatlantic accent falls in the “universal accent skills” wheelhouse; learning one accent can help an actor become more proficient in learning others as well. “Whenever you learn an accent,” he says, “you learn a technique…and technique sets an actor free.”
Study the accent: This dialect is a departure from standard American English, so Bay recommends spending time listening to it and actively trying to note any differences, patterns, and distinguishing factors. Lang further recommends picking up Edith Skinner’s foundational 1942 book “Speak with Distinction.”
Study the greats: After studying the accent itself, the best way to learn how to do a Transatlantic accent is to study how actors like Hepburn, Bette Davis, Vincent Price, and Christopher Plummer perform it. Lang recommends this useful exercise: play videos of Transatlantic accent usage at half-speed and turn off the sound. “Sound is not the most important thing first,” he says. Instead of directing your attention to sound, consider how the accent moves through an actor and how it inhabits their body. Focus on how speakers use their instruments of articulation: tongue, teeth, lips, soft palate, hard palate, and jaw.
Use soft, long vowel sounds: The accent commonly employs softer and longer vowel sounds—”fahhhthuh,” not “father.”
Drop the “R”: Drop the “R” sound at the end of words like “theater” and “winner” (“theatuh,” “winnuh”) to achieve the lack of rhoticity that perfectly blends American and British English pronunciation.
Over-enunciate the “T”: Emphasize the letter “T” as sharply as possible— particularly on words with a “T” in the middle. For example, “better” would become “behhhTuh.”
Talk fast: The Mid-Atlantic accent often goes hand-in-hand with rapid-fire speech. (Think of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in 1940’s “His Girl Friday.”) Speak as quickly as possible for extra legitimacy.
Practice: Once you’ve studied the masters and learned the linguistic nuances, practice your accent as much as possible. Ask friends and family for feedback, rewatch classic depictions, and revise accordingly.
Actors using the accent in some of their most notable performances include:
- Katharine Hepburn as Tracy Lord in “The Philadelphia Story” (1940): Hepburn was known for her use of the Transatlantic accent throughout her career—and her life. Watching her in “The Philadelphia Story” is a great jumping-off point for actors who want to study this articulation style.
- Bette Davis as Margo Channing in “All About Eve” (1950): Davis’ performance in this classic represents Hollywood’s commitment to the Transatlantic accent even after it left the public education sphere.
- Christopher Plummer as Captain Georg von Trapp in “The Sound of Music” (1965): Even after he played this iconic role, Plummer continued to speak with a Mid-Atlantic accent throughout his career.
Although it’s now more commonly associated with ghost tours than cinematic wonders, the Transatlantic accent remains an important tie to the Hollywood days of yore—and a vital tool in an actor’s toolbox.