Why Do People Talk Funny in Old Movies?, or The Origin of the Mid-Atlantic Accent

“The first thing to notice about movies made in the classic Hollywood studio era,” writes New Yorker film critic Richard Brody, “from the twenties through the fifties, is the stillness of the actors — not a static, microphone-bound stand-and-deliver theatricality but a lack of fidgetiness even while in motion, a self-mastery that precludes uncontrolled or incidental gestures,” an acting style reflective of the fact, Brody suspects, that “American people of the era really were more tightly controlled, more repressed by the general expectation of public decorum and expressive restraint.”

This has made it tough for filmmakers (in the case of Brody’s piece, Paul Thomas Anderson making The Master, who pulled it off more convincingly than anyone else in recent memory) who want to do proper period pieces set in those days: “even if stylists manage to get the clothing right, actors today — people today — have been raised by and large to let their emotions govern their behavior,” and current actors “can hardly represent the past without investing it with the attitudes of our own day, which is why most new period pieces seem either thin or unintentionally ironic.”

They’d have an especially formidable task set out for them in speaking, without any apparent irony, in the mid-atlantic accent, just as much a fixture of classic Hollywood acting as that physical self-mastery. Even if you haven’t heard its name, you’ve heard the accent, which gets examined in the HowStuffWorks video at the top of the post “Why Do People in Old Movies Talk Weird?” The “old-timey voice” you hear in newsreels from movies like His Girl Friday (watch it online here) and figures like Katharine Hepburn, Franklin D. Roosevelt, George Plimpton, and William F. Buckley, historically “the hallmark of aristocratic America,” acquired, usually in New England boarding schools, as “an international norm for communication.”

The video points out its signal qualities, from its “quasi-British elements” like a softening of Rs to its “emphasis on clipped, sharped Ts,” resulting in a speech pattern that “isn’t completely British, not completely American” — one we can only place, in other words, somewhere in the mid-Atlantic ocean. The accent emerged as an optimal manner of speaking in “the early days of radio” when speakers couldn’t reproduce bass vary well, and it vanished not long after the Second World War, when teachers stopped passing it along to their students. Has the time has come for the true ironists among us to bring it back?

Related Content:

The Speech Accent Archive: The English Accents of People Who Speak 341 Different Languages

The Linguistics Behind Kevin Spacey’s Southern Accent in House of Cards: A Quick Primer

Watch Meryl Streep Have Fun with Accents: Bronx, Polish, Irish, Australian, Yiddish & More

A Brief Tour of British Accents: 14 Ways to Speak English in 84 Seconds

Peter Sellers Presents The Complete Guide To Accents of The British Isles

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.


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  • glen says:

    .. this is full of half truths. I would like documentation on where this was actually TAUGHT. RP in UK is acquired and not taught. Mid AT is non.rhotic but irregularly… mostly pre consonant and not always in r final position. The t’s are not clipped . In US CASUAL speech they are tapped ( like a d but not a d ) .. and in Careful speech all the t’s reappear ( this disappearance of T is before an N as in Atlanta or international or twenty only ) and only in casual speech. Canadians for example don’t do this or rarely. So.. while this wants to point out it is obsolete.. and the radio frequency does make sense.. it was not taught ( unless in acting schools ) .. and the similarities with British English or RP are limited. Look closer at Canadian speech ( Toronto ) and you’ll see the careful pronunciation of then.. and .. it was a genre of pronunciation which was Hollywood induced to sound like they belonged to the upper-class so.. a contrived way of speaking.

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