Monday, September 01, 2014

More Anglophilia, from the past? The mid-Atlantic accent

I almost forgot: remember the mid-Atlantic accent? The one Bill Buckley and George Plimpton actually spoke with, and which Kelsey Grammer has made his career out of imitating well. I've heard a couple of real ones, such as from a man who had probably taught himself or taken elocution lessons; he'd lived in England and nailed it. Here he is! Simply put, it's a slight upper-class English accent that some Americans — some upper-class people, announcers (detractors called it "Kansas City British"), and actors — used to learn naturally as children or affect as adults. (Buckley's was real: he went to school in England as a boy, when natural accent change can happen.) Anyway, it's VERY hard for Americans to fake English accents convincingly (Loyd Grossman is a famous failure at it in Britain), and this accent mostly disappeared here after World War II, during the public shift from British to American hegemony. Mid-Atlantic, like the crisp old BBC sound it partly copies, sounds smashing when real, but very easy to make fun of when badly done. Another thing: the old Received Pronunciation in Britain that the BBC used to imitate has changed to a general middle-class accent that sounds Estuary or Mockney (diluted or fake Cockney) compared to the old. Only Prince Charles' generation and older of the upper class still talk like that. Here, what was fashionable or at least tolerated before the war became pretentious. John Kerry used to have a trace of this accent, as a preppie and Ivy League young man; the old New England accents are naturally very similar to it anyway (Mr. Kerry is from Massachusetts; also, the Kennedys' Bostonese and Katharine Hepburn, whom people thought was affected but she simply talked naturally like a Connecticut Yankee 100 years ago). Cary Grant, who was English, ended up (accidentally?) sounding mid-Atlantic; his accent was a hybrid and not that strong.

Turned around, it seems easy for young British actors to imitate Americans; they've heard our TV, etc. all their lives. British voices are less familiar to most of us.

By the way, wh as "hw" isn't English; it's an example of hyperadaptation (trying so hard to sound right that you get it wrong, such as "with you and I") and something American actors and announcers used to learn in speech lessons.

P.S. Tony Curtis definitely didn't fake this accent, seriously, anyway.


  1. I use received pronunciation most of the time (I slip into Yorkshire vowels sometimes) and I'm only 33. My colleagues in the drug and alcohol misuse team find my accent hilarious.

    The Well-Manicured Man in The X-Files series was a good example of the Mid-Atlantic accent. In his case it indicated a man of wealth, culture and a lot of power.

    1. Good for you! One of my favorite voices, ironic considering my misgivings about the Beatles (at one point in the '60s my dad sat my sisters down and repeated what his minister had said about how radical the Beatles were, and he was right), is that of Sir George Martin, their producer, musically the Fifth Beatle and very much of the old school, not a hippie or doing drugs at all (a generation older than the Beatles, he's a Fleet Air Arm veteran of World War II). Looks like Prince Philip; sounds almost like him too. He's so calm and collected, the quintessential English gentleman. He's actually a North Londoner who took elocution lessons when ambitious young men did that sort of thing, because, he says, he didn't like the way he sounded when he heard a recording of himself. Look him up on YouTube. Old RP/BBC most of the time but he also slips into "bloimey" vowels sometimes. Hooray for our language: so varied and rich.

  2. I'm from upstate NY, and here in England people can't place my accent. They almost always guess Canada or Ireland.

    Recently a British academic was surprised when I told her my nationality, exclaiming, "I couldn't tell you were American from the way you talk!" The academic standing next to her, a Spaniard, then replied, "That's because he isn't low class!" I still don't know if he meant "low" or "lower" class!

    1. Recorded myself: listen here.

      Donna speaks Noo Yawk: parents are Brooklyn-born (family left Brooklyn in '68; dad's an Italian speaker, one of the family's last); she was born on Long Island. Completely resistant to vocal fads.


Leave comment