Why Do People In Old Movies Talk in that Almost British Accent?

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Was everybody in old movies from the same place? Why did they all talk in that strange quasi-British accent? It isn't quite British and it isn't quite American. Where does this accent come from? Did people actually talk like that back then?

One reason I don't like old movies is that I've always found that nasally old-timey voice that all the actors spoke in, including the women, to be quite irritating. It seems to be intended to say "hey, I'm a little British, so I'm classier than you." I've always wanted to know why they spoke this way. Here's a video by Brain Stuff - How Stuff Works, which explains it.

As explained, this distinct accent you hear on old movies is the Transatlantic or Mid-Atlantic accent. It is a cross between American English and British Received Pronunciation, borrowing pronunciation from each.

British Received Pronunciation

British Received Pronunciation is the posh accent that most actors tend to identify as "Standard British" even though there are actually several different types of English accents. Although it is based on existing accents, either from southern England or dialects of the East Midlands, this 'proper' accent was taught to school kids and is associated with power and prestige. In this way, it is an acquired accent, the kind of accent you hear from the royal family. Similarly, the transatlantic accent heard in old American movies is an acquired accent. No Americans actually spoke this way naturally. They were taught to speak this way.

Who was taught to speak this way? The American upper class, but also people in the theater and film industry, during the 1930's and 40's. These people often attended independent preparatory schools (boarding schools), usually in New England, or they learned it in acting school. This accent was used up until the 1950's but then fell out of favor.

Why Was the Transatlantic Accent Used?

While this accent was used to convey that a character was of a higher social class, it also was meant to be hard to place. Studios loved not having to spell out where a film was set or where characters were from. In the video, it is mentioned that Professor Jay O’Berski says this nasally and clipped voice was a vestige of radio, having to do with technology constraints. Receivers in those days had very little bass response, so it was difficult to hear bass in a person's voice. If I understand this correctly, people on the radio would sound "mid-rangy" or nasally because of the frequency response of home radio receivers, and this was emulated by actors. I'm not sure if that makes sense, but it bears repeating.

This is not to say that all actors affected this accent.

One actor of the era who is distinct in that he did not use this affected way of speaking was Humphrey Bogart. He was as plain-spoken as they come. But while some had to practice and practice in order to speak this way, such as Katherine Hepburn, it came more naturally to others, such as Cary Grant, who was, after all, English, although some perceive his accent as having remained quite English. 2

It is also quite true that, just as sometimes happens today, actors with British or even Australian films would be cast as Americans with their native accents mostly intact, no explanation given. This probably has as much to do with their box-office cachet as anything else. Errol Flynn kept his Australian accent, for the most part, but he was, after all, Errol Flynn.

This accent wasn't just the province of theater and movies, of course. Anybody who was sent away to fancy boarding schools may have been taught to speak this way. You can listen to Franklin D. Roosevelt at the Library of Congress, giving his 1941 speech after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Characteristics of the Accent

As covered in the video, here are some of the characteristics of the transatlantic or mid-atlantic accent.

  • Lack of rhoticity - r's were dropped at the end of words. 'winnah' instead of winner, for example
  • Softer British vowels - 'dahnce' instead of dance, for example
  • Emphasizing the T - clipped sharp T's instead of d's as we render them, 'wriTah' and 'waTah' instead of wrider and wader
The Philadelphia Story starring John Howard, Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn and James Stewart,1940

The Philadelphia Story(1940) starring John Howard, Cary Grant,
Katharine Hepburn and James Stewart, is a good example of
the transatlantic accent being used.

The Philadelphia Story starring John Howard, Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn and James Stewart,1940

The Philadelphia Story(1940) starring John Howard, Cary Grant,
Katharine Hepburn and James Stewart, is a good example of
the transatlantic accent being used.

Why Did the Old-timey Accent Stop Being Used?

Well, I'd like to think the accent stopped being used because it was irritating. The video says that teachers stopped teaching it, but there's probably a bit more to it. What actually happened is that studios changed the way they worked. After World War II or thereabouts, studios no longer controlled actors, directors, and writers. So, studios weren't in charge of how different characters spoke, meaning there wasn't a particular accent expected for upper-class and lower-class characters. Things became less staged after this. As well, more effort was made to use distinct accents appropriate to a place or to a character's history.

The Transatlantic Accent Today

This is not to say that we never hear the Transatlantic accent today. You'll hear it in films set in a similar time-period, especially in films set in foreign locations but where the actors are speaking English. One notable example of its use is in the Hunger Games films. Elizabeth Banks, who played Effie, deliberately used a variation of the accent. She said it was a combination of The Philadelphia Story (1940) and Rosaline Russel's character in Auntie Mame (1958). Both of these movies are very good examples of the transatlantic accent. 1

In modern movies set in the time in which the accent was popular, it is often deliberately used to help invoke the period. As well, sometimes when you hear English being spoken by characters who should be speaking some other language, it may sound vaguely British but may be an attempt at the transatlantic accent.

Posted on 04 Apr 2018 22:28

1. Queen, Robin M. Vox Popular: the Surprising Life of Language in the Media. Wiley-Blackwell, 2015.
2. Walker, Elsie M. Understanding Sound Tracks through Film Theory. Oxford University Press, 2015.

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