How a Fake British Accent Took Old Hollywood By Storm
The story behind the strange way Katharine Hepburn (and others) spoke.
If you’ve ever seen a movie made before 1950, you’re familiar with the accent used by actors like Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, and Ingrid Bergman: a sort of high-pitched, indistinctly-accented way of speaking that also pops up in recordings of politicians like FDR and writers like Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, Jr. It’s easy to gloss over today, because movies have captured a few different accents that aren’t really present today, like the Borscht Belt Jewish accent of Mel Brooks and the old New York “Toity-Toid Street” accent. Is it British? Is American? Is it just “rich”?
But the accent we’re talking about here is among the weirdest ways of speaking in the history of the English language. It is not entirely natural, for one thing: the form of the accent was firmly guided by certain key figures, who created strict rules that were aggressively taught. And it also vanished quickly, within the span of perhaps a decade, which might be related to the fact that it isn’t entirely natural.
Today this accent is sometimes called the Mid-Atlantic Accent, which is deeply offensive to those, like me, from the actual Mid-Atlantic region of the United States.
What that name means in this case is that the accent can be placed somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, halfway between New England and England. Its popularity, though, in pop culture can be tied to one American woman, and a very strange set of books.
In the 1800s, once relationships with England began to normalize following the Revolutionary War and War of 1812, the cities of Philadelphia, Boston, and, especially, New York City quickly became the new country’s most powerful. Financial and cultural elites began constructing their own kind of vaguely-British institutions, especially in the form of prestigious private schools. And those schools had elocution classes.
The entire concept of an elocution class is wildly offensive to most of the modern linguists I know; following the rise of super-linguist Bill Labov in the 1960s, the concept that one way of speaking is “better” or “worse” than another is basically anathema. But that wasn’t at all the case for the rich kids of Westchester County, Beacon Hill, or the Main Line (those would be the home of the elites of New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, respectively).
“There’s a long history of dialect features of Southeast England in Eastern New England dialects, tracing back directly to the colonial era,” writes James Stanford, a linguist at Dartmouth College, in an email. “European settlers throughout New England on the east side of Vermont’s Green Mountains tended to stay in closer touch with Boston, which in turn stayed in touch with Southeast England through commerce and education.”
The upper-class New England accent of that time shares some things with modern New England accents. The most obvious of those is non-rhoticity, which refers to dropping the “r” sounds in words like “hear” and “Charles.”
But while parts of those accents are natural—some New Yorkers and many Bostonians still drop their “r” sounds today—the elite Northeastern accent was ramped up artificially by elocution teachers at boarding schools. Miss Porter’s School in Connecticut (where Jackie Onassis was educated), the Groton School in Massachusetts (FDR), St. Paul’s School (John Kerry), and others all decided to teach their well-heeled pupils to speak in a certain way, a vaguely British-y speech pattern meant to sound aristocratic, excessively proper, and, weirdly, not regionally specific. A similar impulse created the British Received Pronunciation, the literal Queen’s English, though RP’s roots arose a bit more gradually and naturally in Southeastern England.
The book that codified the elite Northeastern accent is one of the most fascinating and demanding books I’ve ever read, painstakingly written by one Edith Skinner. Skinner was an elocutionist who decided, with what must have been balls the size of Mars, to call this accent “Good Speech.” Here’s a quote from her 1942 book, Speak With Distinction:
“Good Speech is hard to define but easy to recognize when we hear it. Good Speech is a dialect of North American English that is free from regional characteristics; recognizably North American, yet suitable for classic texts; effortlessly articulated and easily understood in the last rows of a theater.”
Skinner is now woefully outdated and many of her ideas are so contrary to the way modern linguists think that her books are no longer taught. (To find a copy of Speak With Distinction, I had to hunt through a performing arts library in New York City’s Lincoln Center plaza.) She’s what’s known now as a linguistic prescriptivist, meaning that she believed that some variations of English are flat-out superior to others, and should be taught and valued as such. I mean, come on, she named this accent, “Good Speech.”
Her influence was felt in filmmaking in a very roundabout way. Film began in New York, only moving en masse to Los Angeles in the mid-1910s. Skinner was born in New Brunswick, Canada, but studied linguistics at Columbia and taught drama for many years at Carnegie Mellon, in Pittsburgh, and Juilliard, in New York City, all highly elite schools. It was in the Northeast that she created Speak With Distinction: an insanely thorough linguistic text, full of specific ways to pronounce thousands of different words, diagrams, lessons on the International Phonetic Alphabet, and exercises for drama students.
Yep, drama: by this point, movies with sound had begun to hit theaters, and then came the disastrous story of Clara Bow. Bow was one of the silent film era’s biggest stars, a master of exaggerated expressions. When the talkies came along, audiences heard her voice for the first time and it was a nasal, honking Brooklyn accent. Though the idea that speaking roles killed her career in film is not entirely accurate (there were plenty of other factors, ranging from drug problems to insane pressures of film studios), it’s certainly true that her career took a nosedive around the time audiences heard her voice, possibly creating a cautionary tale for newly heard actors.
It’s now the 1930s, and Edith Skinner is Hollywood’s go-to advisor for all things speech-related. And Edith Skinner has extremely strong opinions, bred in the elite universities of the Northeast, about exactly how people should speak. So she forced her own “Good Speech” accent on stars, and other voice coaches, and soon her accent became the most popular accent in Hollywood.
Speak With Distinction is incredibly dense, but it’s also very thorough. You can see very clearly, right there on the beat-up pages, why Katharine Hepburn speaks the way she does. “In Good Speech, ALL vowel sounds are oral sounds, to be made with the soft palate raised. Thus the breath flows out through the mouth only, rather than through the mouth and nose,” she writes. (She capitalizes things a lot.) “Each vowel sound is called a PURE SOUND, and the slightest movement or change in any of the organs of speech during the formation of a vowel will mar its purity, resulting in DIPHTHONGIZATION.”
She demands that “r” sounds be dropped. She demands that the “agh” sound, as in “chance,” should be halfway between the American “agh” and the British “ah.” (Interestingly, this is very different than the typical New England accent today, which is highly “fronted,” meaning that the vowel sound is made with the tongue very close to the teeth in words like “father.” The British, and Mid-Atlantic, vowel is pronounced with the tongue much further back.) She requires that all “t” sounds be precisely enunciated: “butter” cannot sound like “budder,” as it mostly does in the US. Words beginning in “wh” must be given a guttural hacking noise, so “what” sounds more like “ccccchhhhwhat.” She bans all glottal stops—the cessation of air when you say “uh-oh”—even between words, as in this phrase, direct from her book: “Oh, Eaton! He’d even heave eels for Edith Healy!” Go ahead, try to say that without any glottal stops. It’s enormously difficult.
She cracks down on the most obvious of regional cues, railing against what’s now called the “pin-pen merger.” Today, the pin-pen merger—in which the word “pen” sounds like “pin”—is a very easy indicator that a speaker is from the American South. Yech, the South. That will not do for Edith Skinner.
Because Skinner was so influential, and her “Good Speech” was so prominent in movies, it began to leak out into the drama world at large. Other teachers began teaching it. In fact, even up until just a few decades ago, this accent, now called “Mid-Atlantic,” was being taught in drama schools. Jaybird Oberski, who teaches acting at Duke University, got his MFA at Carnegie Mellon in 1997, and he says the class was, amazingly, still being taught then. (He isn’t a fan of the accent.) “The Mid-Atlantic accent is considered the neutralization of regionalization, to bleach out character so everybody sounded the same,” he says.
Weirdly enough, this accent class was called a “neutralization technique” at Carnegie Mellon: theoretically, the idea is that it removes regional signifiers like the pin-pen merger. But there is no “neutral” or “accentless” accent; you can replace one accent with another, but the idea that there is some perfect, unaccented variety of English is a myth that’s long been squashed.
This particular accent, too, is far from neutral. It’s immediately recognizable and strange, a take on a clipped upper-class New England accent with even more Britishisms tossed in the mix. In her efforts to create a neutral accent, Skinner created one of the most non-neutral accents in the past few centuries.
The film craze of Mid-Atlantic English was short-lived. By the late 1960s, the New Hollywood movement, complete with innovative, gritty directors like Francis Ford Coppola and John Cassavetes, began to depict the world as it was, rather than the fantasy lives presented by earlier films. That goal necessitated the dropping of the Mid-Atlantic accent; there’s no point in showing the grim realities of Vietnam War-era America if everyone is going to talk like they went to Choate Rosemary Hall, so the actors in those films just…didn’t. And elocution classes at those schools began to be dropped as well. “The prestige of non-rhoticity and other British-related features began to change in the mid-20th century, and scholars suspect it may be due to the role of WWII and American national identity—a new identity on the world stage, no longer so closely tied to England for national identity,” writes Stanford.
The accent vanished quickly, now only surviving as a weird hallmark of that era of filmmaking; the only time you hear it now, really, is if a movie is set in Hollywood, in the film industry, prior to 1960. The real Mid-Atlantic accent, the accent of Philadelphia and Baltimore, luckily, lives on.
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