Accented

I remember seeing a few years ago that it was estimated some 250,000 U.S.-birth U.S. citizens reside here in the UK. That number did not include British/American dual nationals born in the UK. It was simply by birth Americans who have come permanently to reside here for work, family, or whatever reason.

I also recall the U.S. embassy in London having pushed out some communication some years back aimed especially at elderly Americans long resident here who no longer have any real family ties to the U.S. and clearly don’t even travel abroad from the UK. The embassy implored them always nevertheless to renew (through the embassy) their U.S. passports and don’t just let them expire. The embassy reminded them that even though living here legally and quietly just going on about their lives, that without a valid passport there was always a risk they could not travel if they needed to at short notice and worse that they could possibly at some time in the future perhaps find themselves short of ID for the British government.

I suppose I am the former at this point and not yet the latter. I was born in New York (much longer ago now than I care to remember) and I have been living here in England for nearly 25 years now. I also think this is indeed funny on some levels…

[From Instagram.]

…as that American voice artist ridicules a “Transatlantic” accent above in what she holds to be that “Transatlantic” accent:

“Don’t you think it’s a lovely day to be rich and vaguely European? Well, I’m just delighted to tell you that the reason everyone sounds like this in old movies is deeply rooted in 20th century classism and wealthy socialites having a fondness for British accents. In fact, no one ever sounded like this at all. It’s a fabrication of the elite…”

But her summation did not sit right with me. Matters are rarely so simple that we can be so glibly precise – especially historically. Even a rudimentary knowledge of U.S. history should lead one to question it as being not anywhere near the whole story.

She wrote in a comment reply that her humor there is largely based on a Wikipedia page on the “Mid-Atlantic,” or “Transatlantic” (my preferred description, as it avoids any confusion with a wholly domestic one found on the U.S. “mid-Atlantic” seaboard), accent that she also writes seems to be well-sourced. I had a look at that page, and for what it discusses, yes, it does seem at least broadly reasonable. Yet it also has a problematic assertion right within its first sentence:

The Mid-Atlantic accent, or Transatlantic accent, is a consciously learned accent of English, fashionably used by the late 19th-century and early 20th-century American upper class and entertainment industry, which blended together features regarded as the most prestigious from both American and British English (specifically Received Pronunciation).

To assert an accent is “consciously learned” is a strange part of an essential description for it given any accent may be “consciously learned.” Declaring such also makes no allowance for those who learned it “unconsciously” simply because that was how they were spoken to as children – which is the way children learn to speak: they mimic adults who speak to and around them. That said, that Wiki indeed focuses on the “Hollywood’s Golden Age” (1920s-1950s) aspect of usage of the accent which is the basis for her video “impersonation” of it above.

[U.S. and British flags. Photo by me, 2019.]

Given the video and that Wiki, let’s consider that accent issue and have some historical fun (because that’s why we’re here)…


Based on what we can piece together from writing (because we have no sound recordings, of course), affluent Americans of 1776 (and especially those who had been to England because in those days you did not fly over for “a week”; you were probably there for years) likely spoke English much as it was then spoken among those similarly affluent in England. Yet Americans were also certainly aware there were gradations in accent between themselves and the British that were noticeable enough so that during the Revolutionary War George Washington, for example, knew he had to be careful about his spies; he wrote that a “flat” American accent could be a giveaway among British who had recently come over from Britain. After independence, well-to-do – because they invariably were – Americans who spent time in Britain undoubtedly picked up some British speaking habits. We can here safely stick our neck out once more and conjecture with a fair degree of certainty that in the 1820s Harvard and widely-European-traveled John Quincy Adams, who married in 1797 (in London) an England-born American (born there to an American father and an English mother, and as she had never even been to the U.S. must in her twenties at the time of their marriage have spoken English with an English accent) had to have sounded far more “English” than his political nemesis, the Carolinas-border-born, not-university-educated, never traveled to Europe, Andrew Jackson. (Because of his terrible Revolutionary War personal experiences, the last thing Jackson would have wanted to sound like was “English.”)

Adams’s “Harvard” is vital in all this. At independence, the tiny U.S. higher education sector was centered in the northeast and dominated by the affluent and had been built unsurprisingly mostly on the transplanted-to-the-colonies British model. Claiming, though, that U.S. higher education was “British” is not accurate; “Anglicized” is a far better word. Through the 1800s, that model continued to hold in both prep schools such as Groton (which would educate a young Franklin Roosevelt), as well as universities such as Harvard and Yale, and women’s colleges like Vassar and Bryn Mawr; their students were taught that while you did not want to be British, “educated” British pronounciation was the standard for how English should best be spoken. (In the early 1960s, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan – whose mother had been an American from Indiana – would say there were two kinds of “anti-Britishness” among Americans: the first was the Irish-American type; the second came from those always keen to show their ancestors were at the Boston Tea Party.)

By the late 1880s-early 1900s, the results of that several generations’ of higher educational socialization were “heard” clearly at the “upper tiers” of U.S. society. Compared to “ordinary” Americans, U.S. presidents such as Theodore Roosevelt, as well as their wives, perhaps best epitomized by Frances Cleveland, and other high officials, often had a somewhat “Anglicized” way of speaking. Listen to Eleanor Roosevelt, born in 1884 (niece of Theodore, and eventual wife of Franklin), who in her mid-teens was also partly educated in England.

In the other direction, based also on what we know (and even are able to begin to hear, with the introduction of sound recording) Downton Abbey’s Elizabeth McGovern’s portrayal of “Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham” very much nails what a well-to-do American-born woman of the late 1800s and early 1900s would have sounded like after residing here for decades, too.

[In central Oxford. Photo by me, 2016.]

White Southerners were a different (and in many respects sideline) matter, in particular eventually because of the Civil War (1861-65). In 1776, the South did not have quite the higher educational heritage of the northeast and fewer affluent white Southerners had higher educations compared to their Northern counterparts. At independence, there were some colleges/universities in the South, such as the small College of William and Mary – where Thomas Jefferson and many other prominent Virginians like him went. In the 1820s, the lack of more availability of higher education in the South was a main reason Jefferson helped found the University of Virginia (and he also sought to entice European – including British – scholars to join its faculty).

So while some did attend university in the northeast (in 1769, James Madison began his studies at what became Princeton), it appears that in their speech affluent (even university-educated) white Southerners were evidently not nearly as deeply influenced by “Anglicized” northeastern higher educational norms, and time was not to alter that situation much if at all. By the 1840s, white Southerners were still less likely even in the South to attend university than affluent Northerners. (Secessionist Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and top Confederate General Robert E. Lee, both attended West Point Military Academy in their youths, not universities.) If they did attend university, they tended to remain in the South. (Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens had attended the University of Georgia – founded in 1785 by Georgia-born Declaration of Independence signer and Yale graduate, Lyman Hall.)

Some nursing bitterness at their defeat in that civil war, or feeling they would be unwelcome, or even because they simply could not afford to, for at least a generation after 1865 white Southerners remained a small minority in “Ivy League” universities. One of them who did make his way north was Virginia-born Woodrow Wilson, who would become a professor at Bryn Mawr and Princeton, before entering politics to become Governor of New Jersey and then President of the United States (1913-1921). Having died in 1924, his accent that is preserved in the few recordings we have of him sounds rather like a university-educated Northerner of the era:

So the American university-educated national leadership in particular from 1865-1945 was drawn largely from northeastern prep schools and universities (on the side victorious in the Civil War) and thus their “Anglicized” ways of speaking became synonymous with how “educated” Americans expressed themselves. Aside from occasionally employing Europeans (especially British educators), those prep schools and universities in turn often employed their own American graduates. Both groups imbued new students with the same “Anglicized” way of speaking… and so it went from one generation to the next… and it had certainly become “classist” in that sense.

Franklin Roosevelt’s “Hahvard” manner of speaking was how the (northeastern, in particular) university-educated simply sounded. It had had nothing to do with “Hollywood.” Indeed when Edith Wharton published The Age of Innocence in 1920, she wrote of an 1870s-80s “upper class” and “Anglicized” New York that she had known personally… and “Hollywood” in 1920 still barely existed.

Thus “Hollywood” did not “create” that accent, it took it from those who spoke with it. Studios did teach it to actors with the start of talking films in the late 1920s; the big studios needed leading men and women who could, well, they felt, sound “educated”. That “Anglicized” accent was how (it was thought, because it was indeed then largely the case) “educated” people spoke.

Yet while Katharine Hepburn initially needed polishing early on as an actor, she hardly needed to be “taught” that accent in terms of speech. She came from a well-to-do Connecticut family. Moreover, as her mother had, she attended one of the “Seven Sisters” colleges, Bryn Mawr.

That emphasis on many leading men and women employing versions of that accent was also because the nature of film as entertainment was evidently not yet entirely understood even by studios themselves. Talking film in its infancy was usually thought of as an offshoot of the stage, which was decidedly “upper-class” and where “clear” pronunciation in projecting out to the audience was also of course deemed as necessary. Moreover it is easy to forget the accent was certainly never universal in film, as there were always 1930s-40s stars (such as Gary Cooper, John Wayne, and Jean Harlow) who did not possess anything near approaching it.

To make matters more complex, “talkies” Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s had also sought out British at least partly because they sounded the way studios thought “educated” people spoke English. Transplanted British men such as David Niven, Cary Grant (heard above with Hepburn), and Leslie Howard, and women such as Deborah Kerr, also needed “training” to sound less “British” and more “in-between” so more roles would be available to them than simply playing British (or “exotic”) characters. Also the likes of Ingrid Bergman, who was certainly not British, needed to be understood better by American audiences, and as a “leading lady” she was naturally coached to sound “well-educated” in English.


All that began indeed to change after the Second World War. Higher education across the U.S. (not just in the North) began to move as well into state universities and colleges. The legacy of “Ivy League” and “Seven Sisters” dominance (in the northeast especially) remained, but one could now far more locally obtain a university degree without attending such institutions. “Ivy League” and “Seven Sisters” graduates got jobs at those state institutions, but within a couple of decades they became a decided minority as the demand for academics boomed and far outstripped those graduated by a Harvard, Yale, and Vassar. Non-elite “new” state universities and colleges began to supply academics as well, and as those schools brought higher education to a bigger part of the U.S. public than ever before their graduates naturally eventually moved into the professions, government, and education. The combination of such helped lead to the quick “swamping” of the “Anglicized clique” that had dominated the much smaller higher education sector before 1945. With the ending of their academic dominance also went their manner of “Anglicized” speaking.

Much as higher education was broadening, simultaneously the on-screen “Transatlantic” accent indeed similarly fell off in the 1950s as the studio system “collapsed” (and actors became much more “free agents”) and it also began to become clear leading men and women could sound “educated” without sounding “Anglicized.” (Grace Kelly was perhaps one of the last major new stars to emerge who was the exception.) As early as 1943, Humphrey Bogart, born of well-to-do New York parents, and who went to prep school (but did not go to Yale as they had hoped), became an overnight megastar while having a vaguely “standard” American accent in Casablanca (in which, interestingly, he plays an American who had been out of the U.S. since at least “1935,” when he “ran guns to Ethiopia”).

Bogart was hardly alone. “Standard”-sounding born Americans as leading men (like Robert Mitchum, Marlon Brando, and Kirk Douglas) and women (like Doris Day and Marilyn Monroe) began to supplant those who had been stars in the 1930s and 1940s. And by the 1950s there was, of course, television appearing, too.

However, all of that is up to some seven decades ago in both higher education and in “Hollywood.” Yet that “Mid-Atlantic” accent Wikipedia page basically stops at about “1960” – which is now quite a long time ago. We are told only this about what is more recent:

More recently, the term “mid-Atlantic accent” can also refer to any accent with a perceived mixture of American and British characteristics.

But a lot more has happened since then. Yes, what had become clear by “1970” was that it was no longer “required” to sound like a “William F. Buckley” to be considered an “educated” American.

Yet if one imagines that (sort of an) accent is dead because it no longer dominates U.S. higher education, or “Hollywood,” you have certainly never heard an American who has lived for a good length of time here in England.

Speaking of films taking from real-life, remember Laura Linney portraying an American in London in Love Actually? It is unclear if she is doing this “accent”-“delivery” deliberately. But throughout the film she sounds to me like many a long-resident American I have encountered here in Britain… which is clearly not quite how Americans speak at home:

A good example from actual real-life is the accent that is heard from former English Premier League goalkeeper, American Brad Friedel. He lived in the UK for many years – and he is definitely not a 1930s Hollywood actor “trained” to speak this way. Listen to him here:

Similarly, another American former goalkeeper in the Premier League, Tim Howard does not sound to me “standard” American. Even USMNT captain Tyler Adams, who played in Germany from 2019-22, and now is with Leeds here in England, is already showing signs of developing that same accent. Listen to them both here below:

Every American I have run into over here who has lived here consistently for more than a few years eventually starts to sound something like them. And this is certainly not a “one-way” thing. British do similarly tend to gradually “lose” – as my wife tries to remember not to say “tomahtow” in a U.S. supermarket, but rather “tomateow,” in order to fit in better – at least some of their original accent after decades of living in the U.S. surrounded by Americans.

So after a time living here one unsurprisingly becomes influenced by those speaking to you. Of course you do gradually tend (both unconsciously as well as consciously) to develop a speaking manner that aligns closer with theirs – even if you don’t ever sound precisely like them. (For one, the English tend to use fewer physical gestures and speak softer than Americans. Living here as an American, you tend to grasp pretty quickly to be less demonstrative and less “loud” than you were in the U.S., with the best rule to follow in that case being this: If you are the loudest one in the room, you are speaking too loudly. Presumably that counts as “consciously learning?”) It is really no different than any other immigrant language “blending” experience.

I won’t guess how I sound by now. However, shortly after we moved into our new house here in Devon last August, when I was chatting with a new neighbo(u)r he initially thought I was a Canadian. I also know relations in the U.S. have said to me I sound “British.” Yet I also know I don’t actually sound either “Canadian” or “British.”

In speaking, most everyone is greatly influenced also by family, and especially by a spouse. I have spent most of the last nearly twenty-five years with mine. I am not allowed to watch reruns of Seinfeld, because, my Mrs says, “You start to sound like them.” LOL! Yet I also still drew a good-natured laugh from her the other day for how I happened to say “sausage.” (Hint: Not the way she thought I should.)

[In Dartmouth, Devon. A quiet, early morning. Photo by me, February 10, 2023.]

That voice professional at the top asserts (as she tries to speak in that accent) that “No one ever naturally sounded like this at all.” A voice/drama academic is cited in that Wiki as writing, “Its earliest advocates bragged that its chief quality was that no Americans actually spoke it unless educated to do so.” It is difficult to know what to make of both given they are offered despite the historical record we have which clearly indicates some people did speak like that naturally and such an accent existed long before “Hollywood” voice coaches (presumably among “its earliest advocates”) themselves even existed.

And there is also, of course, a present day quite obviously living version we hear from a Friedel, etc. Yes, the accent is no longer much heard in U.S. universities or in Hollywood. However, stating a “Transatlantic” accent is only classist, or is just fake (okay, uh, there was Madonna back in the early 2000s, maybe… LOL!), or was invented by “Hollywood” is, well, wrong.

What we call a “Transtlantic” accent began as something of a “holdover” from British rule of its American colonies – particularly its lingering post-U.S. independence imprint on affluent northeastern U.S. prep schools and elite higher education. Gradually that accent’s U.S. usage fell off as higher education expanded greatly and began to become far more “American” by the 1960s. However, where there remains close long-term “contact” between Americans and British, we can hear it still, as we always have.

After all of that, if you are still with me, have a good day, wherever you are. 🙂

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