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'Atlas Obscura' Explores Roots Of The So-Called Mid-Atlantic Accent


CARY GRANT: (As David) Well, I might have known you were here. I had a feeling just as I hit the floor.

KATHARINE HEPBURN: (As Susan) That was your hat.


If you've ever watched a movie from the Golden Age of Hollywood, you may have wondered why are they talking like this?


HEPBURN: (As Susan) Well, Joe here was showing me a trick and the olive got away.

GRANT: (As David) First you drop an olive and then I sit on my hat. It all fits perfectly.

HEPBURN: (As Susan) Oh, yes, but you can't do that trick without dropping some of the olives. It takes practice.

GRANT: (As David) What, to sit on my hat?

HEPBURN: (As Susan) No, to drop an olive.

SHAPIRO: That's Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant in "Bringing Up Baby" from 1938. Their accents are a little British, a little American, a little posh and not the way either of the actors grew up speaking. That dialect is called the mid-Atlantic accent, and Dan Nosowitz researched its roots for an article on the website Atlas Obscura. Welcome to the program.

DAN NOSOWITZ: Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: Well, what are the hallmarks of this way of speaking, the mid-Atlantic accent?

NOSOWITZ: So it is, like you said, kind of a mix between some weird conception of British speech - it's not necessarily specifically based in any region of England - and kind of Boston-ish (ph) New York-ish (ph) Philadelphia-ish (ph) American Northeastern speech.

SHAPIRO: Let's listen to another example of this accent in action. This is Orson Welles in his classic movie "Citizen Kane."


ORSON WELLES: (As Kane) As Charles Foster Kane, who owns 82,364 shares of public transit preferred, you see I do have a general idea of my holdings. I sympathize with you. Charles Foster Kane is a scoundrel. His paper should be run out of town. A committee should be formed to boycott him.

SHAPIRO: This is not the way anyone actually grew up speaking. This accent is totally acquired. Where did it come from?

NOSOWITZ: The one that we hear in theaters - in movies and on stage - is kind of an evolution of a form of speech that was taught in elocution classes in, like, super upper-crusty prep schools.

SHAPIRO: People today might not even know what an elocution class is.

NOSOWITZ: (Laughter) Right, elocution class was where they taught you how to speak properly. So in the prep schools, those elocution classes were based on an attempt to sound worldly. And in the late 19th century, which is when this started, the way to sound worldly and cultured was to sound sort of British. So that's how people were taught to speak, a sort of British way.


FRANKLIN D ROOSEVELT: If we do all we can now to support the nations defending themselves against attack by the Axis.

NOSOWITZ: And that's where we see kind of non-actors like FDR and William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal, people like that who came up through those prep schools. After that though, it was kind of codified and really written down in a specific way by a linguist named Edith Skinner who wrote a book in 1942 called "Speak With Distinction."

SHAPIRO: And this book - this woman Edith Skinner - really becomes the reason Hollywood spoke that way.

NOSOWITZ: Yeah, in large part. Edith Skinner's, like, a really interesting case. She is Canadian, and at some point she moves to the States, and then she later taught at Juilliard for a little while and mostly at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh. And she became kind of a consultant for the early movie years, the Golden Years of Hollywood, like, the initial years of the talkies. People went to Edith Skinner and said, how should we sound on screen?


UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) Since when did you start falling in love with butlers?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As character) I'm not in love with him. He's my protege.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) Oh, your protege.

SHAPIRO: This accent was everywhere, but only for a couple of decades. Why did it fall out of favor?

NOSOWITZ: So the Golden Age of Hollywood, a lot of the biggest movies from that era are very kind of aspirational, very fancy, very upper crusty. They were stories about people who you kind of dreamed of being.

Starting in the late '60s and early '70s, a whole new wave of directors, like John Cassavetes, Francis Ford Coppola, those kind of guys, they started making movies that were a lot more realistic, a lot more kind of down and dirty. And to tell those stories that they wanted to tell, it didn't really make sense to have someone talking like they just stepped out of a Connecticut prep school. You know, if you're telling a story of like the breakdown of a late-period marriage in middle-class New York City...


NOSOWITZ: ...It doesn't really make sense. So they stopped using it because it didn't really suit their storytelling. And pretty quickly everyone realized oh, wait, this is kind of silly and we don't need to do this anymore.

SHAPIRO: Dan Nosowitz, his article for Atlas Obscura is called "How A Fake British Accent Took Old Hollywood By Storm." Thanks for joining us.

NOSOWITZ: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.