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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