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Obviously there are a lot of subjective words in the question. There are dialects of British English that don't sound distinguished at all (Cockney). Also, what sounds distinguished is somewhat (though not entirely) subjective.

However, I don't know how else to ask this. Sometimes I have heard an American speak and thought, "wow, he sounds just as distinguished as a British speaker". But I don't know where that dialect would come from. More often than not, though, I hear an American speak and think, "wow, why don't we sound as distinguished as our British counterparts?"

For what it's worth, I think what makes a dialect sound distinguished is that it sounds "educated, upper class, articulate". At least that's my guess.

Ignoring the subjectivity of the words composing the question, where would you find American dialects that sounded distinguished?

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This is a really good question. What accents did the major news anchormen have, especially in TV's golden era? –  hippietrail May 28 '11 at 4:46
    
This site may interest you. It is an archive of international English dialects. dialectsarchive.com There are recordings of dialects from all over the world, including from many states of the USA. –  daviewales Feb 9 '13 at 12:57
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3 Answers

up vote 13 down vote accepted

You may be thinking of a Mid-Atlantic accent; it's a blend between an American accent and an English accent. As the Wikipedia article notes, film stars like Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn used it, and more recently Cheers and Frasier star Kelsey Grammer.

You can hear it with Grant and Hepburn in 1940's The Philadelphia Story (clip on YouTube). Interestingly, Grant was born British and Hepburn American, both affecting the accent by drifting towards the mid-Atlantic (it was taught in acting schools at the time).

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"really? we are really vain, you know." +1 for pointing out such an excellent example. –  1'' Aug 17 '11 at 6:27
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I know this is very late, but I would warn you that almost nobody in the United States speaks like that nor has spoken like that since before World War II. Generally speaking that accent mimicked many of the ways of speech of the upper classes in New York and Boston (listen to a recording of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: it is very similar.) The dialect that Roosevelt and his ilk spoke is all but extinct and frankly you would look like a fool trying to speak it.

The truth of the matter is that if you define distinguished as meaning speech that sounds like Received Pronunciation or even a garden variety London accent, you won't find one. The closest on offer would be Boston's accent, which is one of the few places in America where speech is not rhotic, has the broad A, and an -er ending sounds much more like "uh". American English split off from its British parent well before RP became an accent of prestige and even before it largely existed. Its bastard children in the upper classes of America did not exist for very long and have died out simply because there were many more of lower class and immigrant stock having babies than the old money families whose class structure fell apart during the Depression and after the war.

The majority of accents found in America tell less about class and more about where you were born and raised. Bill Clinton came from a small town in Arkansas and his speech still reflects it now, even if he has lived elsewhere for years.

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I believe the 'upper class' American accent is evolving from the combination of the east-coast lockjaw (think of Harvard, or an elite boarding school), and the 'Valley Girl' trailing vowel. A lot of the younger correspondents on NPR have this accent; and when I travel around the U.S., the silver-spooned youth are starting to sound vaguely the same... I don't know how to account for this. Perhaps the widening class divide will result in something like the diversity of English accents!

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