Fact Check

Was the Mid-Atlantic Accent Used Because of Early Microphone Quality?

The acquired accent was a short-lived fixture of American society.

Published Mar 6, 2021

1938:  American actress Katharine Hepburn (1907 - 2003) relaxes with her hands behind her head.  (Photo by Ernest Bachrach/John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images) (Ernest Bachrach / Getty Images)
1938: American actress Katharine Hepburn (1907 - 2003) relaxes with her hands behind her head. (Photo by Ernest Bachrach/John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images)
Claim:
The Mid-Atlantic accent originated to adapt to microphones and other available audio and broadcasting technology of the earlier 1900s.

Snopes readers reached out to us recently with a request: What are the origins of the mid-Atlantic accent, that snobby, faux-British accent that many American actors and newscasters used in the early 20th Century?

A TikTok user claimed in a viral video posted in late February 2021 that the accent originated from the need to enunciate words because during the time it developed, microphones had a tinnier sound. The TikTok user claimed that the enunciation characteristic of the accent made it easier to understand speakers over microphones and broadcasting technology of the time period:

The mid-Atlantic accent, which is now obsolete, wasn't region-specific, and it was acquired, not natural. It was distinctive in that it was, as the name implies, a hybrid of American and British accents.

Although the idea that it was developed to ensure that speakers could be understood broadcasters through available technology of the early 20th Century is one theory about its origins, more evidence suggests that it was developed and learned as a signifier of class, having been taught at elite boarding schools in the American Northeast before proliferating in Hollywood cinema.

A 2016 investigation by Atlas Obscura, an online travel company and magazine, traced the accent's origins to classism and elitism, not technology-driven necessity:

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.

After the advent of sound in film, the fake accent came to dominate both theater and Hollywood:

Atlas Obscura traces the accent's characteristics to Edith Skinner, an elocutionist and author who drew up its pronunciation rules in the 1942 book "Speak With Distinction."

Although it dominated in Hollywood, the accent's reign was short-lived, and totally died by in the end of the 1960s, per Atlas Obscura's investigation:

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 [Dartmouth linguist James] Stanford.

Bethania Palma is a journalist from the Los Angeles area who started her career as a daily newspaper reporter and has covered everything from crime to government to national politics. She has written for ... read more

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