That mystifying, baffling Mid-Atlantic / TransAtlantic Accent

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The same as Gideon, the legendary LetThemTalkTV presenter of this edifying video, as a child I too was deeply puzzled by how some of these famous American actors sounded so British.

Learn the Transatlantic Accent | Half British, Half American 100% Wonderful


The Transatlantic or mid-Atlantic accent is half British half American. It was a learned accent that was popular amongst American actors from the 1930. Also taught at some elite American schools. It was an accent of prestige and it was also suppose to maximize the clarity of actors speech. What happened to it and how do you speak it. In this video we look at its history and, with my colleague Jack we look at the phonetics and learn how to speak it.


This manner of speech was introduced by Australian phonetician William Henry Tilly (1860-1935), who taught at Columbia University from 1918 until his death in 1935.  Tilly had a vision that there should be a standard form of English speech for the educated elite that sounded the same throughout the English speaking world.  It should be free of regional dialect.  So if you met someone of "good society", as they say, from New York, London, or Melbourne, they would sound the same.

I could never bring myself to speak that way, because it would make me feel haughty.

Ditto for using honorifics in Japanese, Nepali, and other languages that have them.

By the way, Gideon is an exceptionally good, clear teacher.


00:00 What is the Mid-Atlantic accent?

00:55 A look at classic American movies

03:30 History of the Transatlantic accent

08:12 What happened to the Transatlantic accent?

09:21 Did Cary Grant have a Transatlantic accent?

10:38 How to learn it

11:37 How to speak the Transatlantic accent (tutorial)

21:28 Sample dialogue 'A Father's Duty' with Jack

Film clips 

His Girl Friday 1941 

The Philadelphia Story 1940 

The Maltese Falcon 1942 

The Third Man 1949 

All About Eve 1950 

The House on Haunted Hill 1959


Was the Mid-Atlantic / TransAtlantic Accent an affectation?  If so, why did some of the actors affect it and some not?

I have to say that it always sounded unnatural to hear Americans speaking this way.


Selected reading

[h.t. Sunny Jhutti]


  1. AntC said,

    March 2, 2024 @ 11:55 pm

    This manner of speech was introduced by Australian phonetician William Henry Tilly (1860-1935), who taught at Columbia University from 1918 until his death in 1935.

    So that would make it a mid-Pacific accent(?)

    famous American actors sounded so British.

    At least some of those "famous American actors" (such as Cary Grant — mentioned as a "special case", even Sean Connery) were actually British — although their publicity tended to suppress that. So perhaps the question should be: why did they sound so American?

    Calling it "world English" (at 6:00) might explain it as the accent of English in Singapore, Hong Kong (last century), Taiwan and other global-oriented/bilingual English-speakers

  2. katarina said,

    March 3, 2024 @ 2:13 am

    Thank you, Professor Mair, for your post explaining in-depth the Trans-Atlantic accent of so many American movie stars of the 1930s to 1950s. I've watched many of their films and have wondered about their British-sounding accent. Some of those stars did go to Ivy-League schools (e.g., Humphrey Bogart from Philips Andover, James Stewart from Princeton, Monty Woolley from Yale and Harvard). Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland (sisters)' parents were English, and their mother, Lilian de Havilland Fontaine, who had studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, was an acting and speech coach in Hollywood, and would also have spread a British accent among American actors.

  3. Laura Morland said,

    March 3, 2024 @ 3:56 am

    I'm a fan of Gideon (he lives in Paris, by the way), but in this video he gets one thing very wrong: almost as an aside, he makes the claim that "a rhotic accent is rolling the Rs."

    How could someone with his level of knowledge make a statement like that? He would have all us Yanks sounding half Spanish (or Italian)!

    I saw this video when it came out a year ago, and enjoyed watching it again just now, until the point where he makes that strange statement, at which point I clicked it off.

  4. John Swindle said,

    March 3, 2024 @ 4:13 am

    I didn't know the specific origins of the Transatlantic accent and wouldn't have been able to enumerate its features. I had no idea that the reason FDR sounded like the movies was that he'd had the same training.

    When I've thought about the speech that's recorded in old radio and movies and how different it is from today's American speech, I've assumed (and must have been told at some point) that there was carry-over of voice-projection training from stage to screen and that radio announcers had to speak in a certain way to overcome poor radio propagation and reception. Do these factors combine with the arrival and departure of the Transatlantic accent to produce the impression that there's been a big sound shift?

    Trivial point: the presenter thinks Americans roll their r's. Americans, or at least the rhotic majority, don't think so. When we think of a rolled r we think of a trill. Our r is something weirder. I think he does it pretty well.

  5. Philip Anderson said,

    March 3, 2024 @ 6:08 am

    Thanks for reminding us how many “American” actors were British born, even if their career was essentially in the USA.
    With my British perspective, I have always thought of a mid-Atlantic accent as something acquired/learnt by British actors working in America, to avoid sounding too British; I didn’t realise it was also learnt by Americans.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    March 3, 2024 @ 7:25 am

    @Laura Morland, John Swindle

    When I heard Gideon make that seemingly offhand statement about rolled r's, I almost couldn't believe my ears. He's so good that there must be some other explanation for what he said. Either that or the LLM that is his brain experienced a momentary glitch.

  7. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 3, 2024 @ 7:41 am

    "Trans-Atlantic" would be a more useful label if there were a consensus on using it, because there has long been hopeless confusion between using "Mid-Atlantic" to refer to this artificially-confected pronunciation style and using "Mid-Atlantic" to refer to the very different-sounding group of vernacular American accents native to the region(s) around Philadelphia and Baltimore in what was historically called the "Mid-Atlantic" or "Middle Atlantic" region of the Eastern U.S.

  8. Philip Taylor said,

    March 3, 2024 @ 8:26 am

    I am confused by the second of these two sentences, Victor —

    I could never bring myself to speak that way, because it would make me feel haughty.

    Ditto for using honorifics in Japanese, Nepali, and other languages that have them.

    Do you mean that you choose not to use honorifics (as in Setsuko-san, for example) when addressing others, or that you prefer others not to use honorifics when addressing you ?

  9. TK Mair said,

    March 3, 2024 @ 8:49 am

    This video came into my YouTube feed a couple months ago and it's nice to revisit it and read comments about it here. Particularly the comment that Gideon lives in Paris (which makes me wonder if he is attached professionally to the Sorbonne.) Also the excellent comment about the idea that Mid-Atlantic speech conventions may have been influenced by the need to be clear over early broadcast mediums that had significant sound degradation. For sure Mid-Atlantic speech forms are a fascinating view into a past American reality of sophistication and intelligence which does not seem to be present in the same way today.

    Now to close out my comment, I revert back to YouTube and its algorithm. I am continually amazed, some days overwhelmed even, at the vast and diverse array of videos it presents to me. Somehow it must know that I took Introduction to Linguistics at UPA when I was a junior in highschool. It is aeons ago but must have some residual influence. That is a joke by the way! I don't think YouTube remembers, rather since I remember, my choices become integrated into my YouTube feed. This line of thinking goes straight to the heart of the currently uber-ubiquitous topic of Artificial Intelligence. (redundant emphasis intentional!)

  10. cameron said,

    March 3, 2024 @ 9:57 am

    the Trans-Atlantic accent (or "boarding school accent") was how upper class people form the northeast of the US spoke. the traditional accents of both the New York and Boston regions were non-rhotic, so kids from the midwest came to boarding schools in the northeast they would adopt the speech-patterns of their classmates.

    actors in the early days of the talkies were taught the trans-atlantic accent not because it was the "correct" way to speak, but so that they could accurately portray wealthy characters from the northeast. if you watch American films from the 30s, accent is a class signifier just as it is in British films from the same period

  11. Ted McClure said,

    March 3, 2024 @ 12:00 pm

    My speech teacher in 1969 called it "Eastern Standard English", which I know now to be the non-rhotic English of the prep-schooled Northeast. IIRC, unless the r was in fact the opening consonant of the next syllable, "vowel-r" changed to a diphthong "vowel-schwa" with the tongue relaxing on the bottom of the mouth. Her concept was that everyone could start with this and more easily adjust to another accent as required.

  12. Rodger C said,

    March 3, 2024 @ 12:31 pm

    I wonder if the death-knell of this accent was sounded by Tom Lehrer's song "Fight Fiercely, Harvard."

  13. Michèle Sharik Pituley said,

    March 6, 2024 @ 11:26 am

    "a rhotic accent is rolling the Rs."

    When I heard him say that (multiple times!), I was also surprised/confused. When he “demonstrated” it, I thought he sounded (stereotypically?) Italian.

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