The Transatlantic Accent: What Is It & How Do You Talk In It

30 March 2023
By Sarah Angela Almaden
Japanese House
The Philadelphia Story / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Many, many movies ago we were all introduced to this distinctly glamorous accent known as the Transatlantic accent or the Mid-Atlantic accent. This accent was in vogue among a list of classic Hollywood superstars for years and years and it even became a fixture in many classic movies such as The Philadelphia Story, Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, All About Eve, It Happened One Night and Citizen Kane. But one day, this particular way of speaking just turned into dust… though, if we want to travel back in time and hear this Hollywood accent, all we have to do is watch a golden age Hollywood film.

What is the Transatlantic accent or a Mid-Atlantic accent

The Transatlantic or Mid-Atlantic accent is a very specific half-British and half-American accent. It doesn’t sound fully British. It also doesn’t sound fully American. One thing's for certain, this millionaire-sounding accent is a sham. A SHAM, I’m telling ya. A SHAM. No, really. The accent is totally fake and people, especially the upper echelon of society, consciously learned to speak with this accent while attending exclusive boarding schools.

Origins of the Transatlantic accent or a Mid-Atlantic accent

It's unclear where this Hollywood elite accent first appeared, although some believe it dates back to the early 1900s when Australian linguist and phonetician William Tilly coined the term "World English" to describe his Mid-Atlantic speech standard. Tilly characterized World English as a speech pattern without any distinctive regional dialect pattern, which was then used and taught in fancy finishing schools for affluent American families.

Between the 1920s and 1940s, World English became increasingly popular in oratory classes and theater programs. Its rise in popularity is attributed to voice coach and acting consultant Edith Skinner. In her instructional book Speak with Distinction, Skinner referred to this posh way of speaking as the "Good Speech," defining it as acceptable for American pronunciation for “classics and elevated readings.”

Coincidentally, as American cinema began in New York City and Philadelphia, this interesting way of speech spread more widely. As a result, Hollywood studios openly supported and strongly encouraged their actors to learn and use the Transatlantic accent, allowing them to express an air of refinement and high social standing. But, by the end of World War II, American elites and even Hollywood stars stopped speaking the swanky Mid-Atlantic English. Yet, some people, like the American author William F. Buckley and the Hollywood leading lady Katharine Hepburn, still used the consciously learned accent to emphasize their way of speaking.

How to sound like a Hollywood Star with a Transatlantic accent

  1. Drop the “r” at the end of the words
    1. a) Winner would sound like “win-nuh”
    2. b) Car would sound like “caah”
    3. c) After would sound like “af-tuh”
  2. Stress the letter “t” as a sharp “t” sound
    1. a) Butter would sound like “bu-tuh”
    2. b) Twenty would sound like “twen-tee”
    3. c) Nutty would like “nut-tee”
  3. Use long vowel sounds
    1. a) Party would sound like “pahhh-tee”
    2. b) Family would sound like “fahh-mih-leeh”
    3. c) Longer would sound like “lohhng-guh”

People who spoke with a Transatlantic accent

  • Katharine Hepburn
  • Ingrid Bergman
  • Cary Grant
  • Bette Davis
  • Franklin D. Roosevelt
  • Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis
  • Vincent Price
  • Christopher Plummer
  • Orson Welles
  • Eleanor Roosevelt
  • Grace Kelly