I watch a lot of old movies, and I've noticed that American actors of the 1930s and 1940s often spoke in a quasi-generic-posh-British accent. Katherine Hepburn's accent would be the perfect example. It seems exaggerated, and I imagine it was not common off the stage and screen. What was that? Was it just an accent or was it a dialect? Did real people actually speak that way?

  • Many actors and actresses during that time -were- British. There's also the idea of a 'mid-Atlantic' accent an attempt to be midway between general American and RP (Katherine Hepburn or Alistair Cook). This is a comment rather than an answer because I don't actually know anything.
    – Mitch
    Jan 10, 2012 at 14:01
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    The RP training American film actors were given in the early years of "talkies" is lampooned in Singing in the Rain.
    – Robusto
    Jan 10, 2012 at 14:07
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    @Mitch I believe most were actors of the American stage and screen at that time were American. As for the vocals--Katherine Hepburn took it to a whole different level! In trying to figure how on earth to describe her vocal quality, I came across this from an article discussing Abraham Lincoln's voice: ...Holzer refers to this ten-minute mark as the “magical moment when the voice fell into gear. (cont.)
    – sarah
    Jan 10, 2012 at 15:33
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    He recalls a critic saying something to this effect about Katharine Hepburn’s similarly startling voice: “When she begins to talk, you wonder why anyone would talk like that. But by the time the second act begins, you wonder why everyone doesn’t talk like that.” Says Holzer: “It’s that combination of gesture, mannerism and unusual timbre of voice that really original people have. It takes a little bit to get used to.
    – sarah
    Jan 10, 2012 at 15:33
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    The Hudsucker Proxy clip The dialogue is a homage to Howard Hawks' His Girl Friday (1940), while Jennifer Jason Leigh's performance as fast-talking reporter Amy Archer is reminiscent of Rosalind Russell and Katharine Hepburn, in both the physical and vocal mannerisms) The dialogue is a homage to Howard Hawks' His Girl Friday (1940), while Jennifer Jason Leigh's performance as fast-talking reporter Amy Archer is reminiscent of Rosalind Russell and Katharine Hepburn, in both the physical and vocal mannerisms.
    – sarah
    Jan 11, 2012 at 16:00

5 Answers 5


As mentioned in a previous answer to one of your questions, this is called Mid-Atlantic English and was commonly used in American films of the 1930s and 40s.

Wikipedia gives the following reasons that someone would use the accent:

  • Intentionally practiced for stage or other use (as with many Hollywood actors of the past). A version of this accent, codified by voice coach Edith Skinner, is widely taught in acting schools as American Theater Standard.
  • Developed naturally by spending extended time in various Anglophone communities outside one's native environment, most typically in North America and the United Kingdom.
  • Learned at a boarding school in America prior to the 1960s (after which it fell out of vogue).

So essentially, this type of speech was never common and was only natural in the case of ex-pats.

Some examples of 'Mid-Atlantic' speakers:

Katherine Hepburn
Criticised for her shrill voice, she left Baltimore and studied with an acclaimed voice coach in New York City (Frances Robinson-Duff).

Cary Grant
After moving to the United States, he managed to lose his accent, developing a clipped mid-Atlantic speaking style uniquely his own.

Claude Rains
He grew up, according to his daughter, with "a very serious cockney accent and a speech impediment". He had elocution lessons in Britain and then moved to America where he played British, American and European characters.

  • Thanks. This is something I've wondered about for ages but never got around to researching. I'm going to follow up on it later today.
    – sarah
    Jan 10, 2012 at 15:45
  • @sarah It's a interesting topic and I'd like to read about what you discover.
    – z7sg Ѫ
    Jan 10, 2012 at 15:51
  • So far I'm finding a lot repeated links to just a few sources. Still looking for more...
    – sarah
    Jan 11, 2012 at 16:02

Speech was a lot more varied than what was shown in the movies of the thirties and forties, particularly since those films romanticized the lives of the rich. The average citizen on the street sounded quite a bit different. My grandparents were born in 1919 and 1925, so they would have been young in the mid forties. They were from Brooklyn and came from simple backgrounds (my great grandfather was a fireman, so he had about as much in common with some highborn socialite as a rock has with a piece of cheese.) My grandparents actually sounded a lot more like Bugs Bunny than any character in the Philadelphia Story; they had every feature of Bugs's speech except pronouncing ur sounds like oi, so that "turkey" became "toikey". (Another good example would be Mel Brooks, who is still alive and was only a little younger than my grandmother; he grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, which during the war and the Depression was heavily populated by Eastern European Jews and their American born children: his speech and his comedy are to this day peppered with idoms and expressions from Yiddish.)

People from other areas, the average person, sounded very similar to the way they do today. If you look up a man named Babe Heffron on YouTube, he was a soldier in a famous company during WWWII (the same one that invaded Normandy as paratroopers and marched on to free Dachau.) Babe Heffron sounds like a typical guy from Philadelphia and his speech is not much different from the way his grandsons (men in their twenties now) talk today. Louisana's accent had a stronger French component than it does in the present owing to a heavier concentration of Cajun French speakers. Black people's speech had a more southern flavor right on up to the 1950s because they were in the middle of a huge migration out of the South and most still had contact with it. The only big difference I can think of offhand might be the Boston accent, in that it was a lot thicker in the forties and thirties mainly becaue it had been isolated for so long, there were not as many people moving in from other areas of the nation (they used to call a drinking fountain a bubbler, but few people I know do this any more, and some rhoticity has come in, though not total.)


There are still examples of people with mid-Atlantic accents. The late William F. Buckley and his nemesis, the late Gore Vidal, are pretty good examples. I've heard WFB's son Christopher Buckley talk, and he also exhibits this accent. The actor Kelsey Grammar also has the accent, it wasn't just put on for his Frasier character.

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    Unfortunately I have yet to hear anybody under 60 speak it. I personally always thought that Grammar spoke that way because he picked it up in the theatre: it was a common affectation in theatre right on up to the 1980s, but Praise God it is rarer these days: listen to Peter Dinklage speak. Trained for theatre. Speaks like a guy from New Jersey.
    – Mary
    Feb 8, 2013 at 12:26

WW2: psychiatric procedures in the combat area (1944) is footage of real American active-duty soldiers during WW2 with "combat fatigue" getting interviewed by army therapists. I think that they did have the same accent and dialect as actors during that time. It might be a little disturbing but that's the only video I can think of.

  • I asked about the "quasi-generic-posh-British accent" that was so popular. I should have clarified that not all American actors spoke that way. I will edit the question. The soldiers in your reference footage aren't speaking that way at all. Though, certainly there were actors playing certain characters with accents similar to the soldiers' accents.
    – sarah
    Jun 30, 2013 at 2:40

I didn't read all the earlier answers...so i apologize if perhaps my comment has already been made: my impression is that the "accent" has multiple origins, and one of them is related to class status. I'm wondering if in fact this is the most basic source, and if the "accent" is more of an affectation than an actual accent, which we usually associate with a geographic region. The speech patterns that I hear in the old movies appears to me to mimic the speech patterns of the well to do of that era.

I wondered about this throughout my childhood while watching old movies in the afternoons at my grandmother's house. My impression was that the women adopted this affected speech far more often than the men (in one film, Natalie Wood speaks with the affectation and robert Redford speaks in a more "modern" pattern). Much later, looking at documentaries featuring the kennedy's, I noticed that Jacqueline Kennedy's accent seemed identical to the actresses of the 40's, 50's and 60's. Among older (people in their eighties and nineties), upper class people, we can still hear this accent, though among their children and grandchilden, speech now seems to resemble that of most of the rest of us....So my tentative conclusion has been that directors and producers during the earlier movie era saw this "high class" accent as the conventional speech to emulate and present to audiences.

I do see people's point that one source of the "accent" is that movies were evolving from the stage, and that most actors started out on the stage, where very clear enunciation and projection are so important. However, that doesn't explain the sort of "patrician" tone and speech patterns that I think we are hearing from Katharine Hepburn and others. One could enunciate and project a "hick" accent, for example, but that is not what we are hearing from most of the "old timey" female acctresses.

  • This is a good basis for an answer to the question, but doesn't quite manage to do that. Stack Exchange isn't a discussion forum: answers should answer the question asked. I'm sure this could be made to answer the question without losing much of the content -- but your own wondering and surmise doesn't belong in an answer, I'm afraid.
    – Andrew Leach
    Jan 10, 2014 at 20:22

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