The Transatlantic Accent: An Abandoned Trend of Hollywood’s Golden Age

My family loves old movies. From Jimmy Stewart to Grace Kelly, Jean Arthur to Gary Cooper, the stories of old Hollywood have always been a favorite in my household. One thing that always stood out amidst the glitz and glamor of an inherently romanticized era was the accent used by many of the prominent actors and actresses that starred in these films. 

The Transatlantic, or Mid-Atlantic, accent didn’t belong to a particular country or people. Its speech patterns were a hybrid of American English and Britain’s received pronunciation — otherwise known as Oxford English, or the British accent typically regarded as standard. 

It adopts a number of characteristics from both existing accents. A major benchmark is the lack of rhoticity. The /r/ at the ending of words was dropped in favor of an /ah/ sound, transforming words like “number” into something more closely resembling “numbah.” Softer vowel sounds gave words such as “dance” a pronunciation of “dahnse,” and t’s were emphasized, differing greatly from the American tendency to turn t’s into d’s. 

The accent was taught in aristocratic finishing schools, particularly along the East Coast, and it made its way to film right around the height of what is considered the Golden Age of Hollywood (an era spanning roughly from the dawn of the twentieth century to the end of the 1960s). As the silent film era drew to a close and “talkies” became the norm, the expectations for screen actors quickly shifted. 

Some theorists argue that early radio announcer English served as a precursor for the Transatlantic accent. With unreliable signal and relatively poor audio quality, announcers were encouraged to enunciate in a manner so extreme that they adopted almost an entirely new way of speaking. 

Though its origin is still a subject of debate, there’s no denying that the Transatlantic accent dominated film during the 1930s and 40s. Think Katherine Hepburn: her comedic banter with co-star Cary Grant shown here in Bringing Up Baby (1938), or her romantic dialogue with co-star Jimmy Stewart in The Philadelphia Story (1940). Think Ingrid Bergman’s iconic cadence in this exchange from Casablanca (1942). The most emblematic scenes of this era are filled to the brim with examples of the fake accent, and fans might find it difficult to recite their favorite quotes without incorporating at least a tinge of Hepburn’s classic intonation. 

The actors who made the Transatlantic accent famous came from a variety of backgrounds. For  example, Cary Grant was born in Britain but moved to the United States at the age of sixteen. His blended mixture of rhythms and pronunciations is intensely difficult to pin down, but perhaps that’s the point. 

The Transatlantic accent grew out of style following the end of World War II. As American values changed fundamentally, so did our media. In its prime, though, the accent was a symbol of the idealized nature of television and film. 

At a time when the entire world was embroiled in political controversy and international tensions, film served as an escape from less desirable realities. Despite the influence of hindsight, which has given us a closer look into the sometimes contentious and erroneous ideals put forward amidst a contemporary struggle between nationalism and individualism, these films remain a source of light for viewers even to this day. 

Perhaps the fantasy of the Transatlantic accent lives in its unattainability: the mystery and intrigue of a way of speaking not native to any place or people. If the films themselves are going to offer a romanticized view of humanity, then why not incorporate habits which further separate the characters from any sense of reality?

On top of that, there’s a reason this period is remembered as the Golden Age of Hollywood. Nostalgia is often both a friend and an enemy. While it instills real comfort within benchmark pieces of media, it can also discourage future successes. If television, similar to the silver screen, has already left its widely acknowledged modern Golden Age (dominated by award show juggernauts like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and The Sopranos), how can we ever make way for new masterpieces?

Or perhaps the Transatlantic Accent is less about nostalgia and more about society itself. In looking to its more recent appearances in film and television, the accent seems to be used as a tool to represent something far more sinister. In The Hunger Games, Elizabeth Banks’ Effie Trinket adopts the accent as a symbol of an elitist upper-class so far withdrawn from its citizens that it would resort to barbaric death matches among children as a means of “keeping peace.” Then there’s Star Wars’ Darth Vader (played by James Earl Jones), a prominent leader of a Nazi-like regime, or American Horror Story’s James Patrick March (played by Evan Peters), a 1920s serial killer immortalized as a ghost in an old Hollywood-inspired hotel. These characters, while archetypes of high society and wealth, also take on darker roles in their respective franchises. And more importantly, each one uses the Transatlantic accent. 

So what does it all mean? Has the Transatlantic accent, in one way or another, come to represent something malevolent lurking beneath the surfaces of our favorite movies? Maybe. Or maybe I’m reading too closely into a mere collection of pronunciations that resulted in a “funny accent” being used by screen actors. After all, it certainly didn’t start out that way. A way of speaking is only as meaningful as the one who uses it, and one could hardly attribute the same malevolence to any one of old Hollywood’s beloved characters. 

In any event, I can’t help but love these classic films. And there will always be a part of me — a fragment left over from the child who yearned to be anywhere near as strong as Katherine Hepburn or as graceful as Judy Garland, that idolizes the accent and what it represents. That being said, I can’t see it making a comeback anytime soon — at least not for me. I might have tried my hand at speaking like my childhood heroes once or twice before, and let’s just say I don’t sound quite as classy as Ingrid Bergman when I do it.