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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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1  
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

6 Answers 6

up vote 15 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
    
The Mid-Atlantic accent is also often used in television and movies for cliché upper-class characters. –  Kupiakos Jul 10 at 21:07

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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Mentioning politicians in discussions like may be a little counterproductive since politicians have a constant populist incentive to not adopt a prestige accent but to keep or adopt the speech of the social classes they are trying to identify with. –  Merk Jul 10 at 20:13
    
+1 for FDR's ilk –  Cyberherbalist Jul 10 at 21:40

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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It's probably a sign we are developing an a nation wide elitist class. Something we've never had before. –  TechZen Jul 10 at 22:06

I could listen to Shelby Foote for hours; to my ears the most distinguished American accent I've come across.

Video Example

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British English is distinguished? Or more distinguished on balance than US English? I'm not convinced.

Also, educated speech is not necessarily high on the articulate spectrum -- at least not as regards phonological articulation.

Of course, the problem with measures of 'articulate' is that 'articulate' is going to tend to follow what you were personally trained and recognize as the 'correct' or 'prestige' way of pronouncing things.

I am not from the US but I have found Edward Snowden's dialect to be an example of a 'distinguished' way of speaking, even though he is not highly educated and hails from the lower prestige American South (North Carolina).

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There was some discussion about this some years ago because some Brits got upset because it seemed that most of the powerful villain characters (like James Bond villains, ironically) usually had upper class British accents. Many apparently regarded it as some form of anglophobia.

More likely, the explanation is that America, as the land of common man, simply never had the class based accents common in the Old World. There were regional class accents, like the Boston Brahmin, (Secretary of State John Kerry has traces of that accent and speech patterns. Back in the 70s it was real thick.) Or the Savannah, Georgia accent but outside their limited regions, they don't convey any sense of class or status.

In the American Western States, who have a radically egalitarian culture, you often find that the wealthier or higher status an individual is, the thicker their regional accent becomes. Such individuals seem to go out of their way, largely unconsciously, to appear as possessing the stereotyped cultural attributes of an ordinary person. They pretty much have to. Any perceived attempt to pull social rank will backfire instantly.

All this means that when Hollywood/Broadway/Documentarians need an accent to convey wealth and power, they've got go across the pond to find an accent that sounds, at least to American ears, like it belongs to an hereditary aristocrat. Otherwise, American's will hear just an ordinary guy from down the street.

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