How Pretending to Have a Fancy Accent Altered Old Hollywood Slang

By: Lydia Iseh | Last updated: Nov 01, 2023

If you’re a lover of classic Hollywood films, you’ve certainly noticed that actors like Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and even US President Franklin D. Roosevelt all spoke in a similar manner. Why? 

The answer lies in their conscious effort to speak with a Mid-Atlantic (or Transatlantic) accent. But why did this accent become so popular in Hollywood? And why did it eventually fall out of favor? Let’s delve deeper into the Mid-Atlantic accent’s history to find out!

Origins of the Mid-Atlantic Accent

The origins of this fancy accent can be traced back to the American theater. In the beginning, performers had to assume a British accent to play particular roles. To accomplish this feat, they used an accent called “World English,” which was the forerunner to the Mid-Atlantic accent we hear today.


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Some people believe that this accent originated even earlier – the 1900s – due to the need for radio presenters to speak properly and avoid static. 

Characteristics of the Mid-Atlantic Accent

The Mid-Atlantic accent is a special blend of British and American English, as though the two languages had a linguistic love child. It’s a curious blend of features from both, with some more obvious than others. 


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One clear influence from England  is the tendency to omit the “r” sound at the end of syllables and pronounce them as “ah.” The accent also has the letter “wh” pronounced as “hw.” Moreover, speakers of the Mid-Atlantic dialect frequently soften the pronunciation of British vowels, particularly when saying “a” as “ar.”

The Mid-Atlantic Accent: A New Standard?

Although the Mid-Atlantic accent wasn’t used nationwide, it still found its way into school systems and became the standard form of diction for young high-class Americans who wanted to speak “properly.” While initially prevalent among the elite on the East Coast, the accent spread to varying degrees across the country.


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But why did Hollywood embrace the Mid-Atlantic dialect with such zeal? One explanation is that it made films more ambiguous in terms of geographical settings, allowing them to appeal to a wider audience.

The Fall of the Mid-Atlantic Accent

The extinction of the Mid-Atlantic accent is a mystery, but it is clear that it began to wane by the end of WWII. Some linguists believe it is related to the country’s rising rejection of classicism, with a greater emphasis on appreciating the benefits of being an “everyday American.” 


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Although Hollywood clung to the accent for a bit longer, using it in films until the 1950s, it finally faded away, replaced by an accent more similar to modern American English.