The Mid-Atlantic Accent

Thursday, November 3rd, 2016

Where did Katharine Hepburn’s accent come from?

In the 1800s, once relationships with England began to normalize following the Revolutionary War and War of 1812, the cities of Philadelphia, Boston, and, especially, New York City quickly became the new country’s most powerful. Financial and cultural elites began constructing their own kind of vaguely-British institutions, especially in the form of prestigious private schools. And those schools had elocution classes.


The upper-class New England accent of that time shares some things with modern New England accents. The most obvious of those is non-rhoticity, which refers to dropping the “r” sounds in words like “hear” and “Charles.”

But while parts of those accents are natural — some New Yorkers and many Bostonians still drop their “r” sounds today — the elite Northeastern accent was ramped up artificially by elocution teachers at boarding schools. Miss Porter’s School in Connecticut (where Jackie Onassis was educated), the Groton School in Massachusetts (FDR), St. Paul’s School (John Kerry), and others all decided to teach their well-heeled pupils to speak in a certain way, a vaguely British-y speech pattern meant to sound aristocratic, excessively proper, and, weirdly, not regionally specific.

The book that codified the elite Northeastern accent was Edith Skinner’s Speak With Distinction, which described “Good Speech”:

Good Speech is hard to define but easy to recognize when we hear it. Good Speech is a dialect of North American English that is free from regional characteristics; recognizably North American, yet suitable for classic texts; effortlessly articulated and easily understood in the last rows of a theater.

Skinner’s influence spread well beyond elite schools:

Skinner was born in New Brunswick, Canada, but studied linguistics at Columbia and taught drama for many years at Carnegie Mellon, in Pittsburgh, and Juilliard, in New York City, all highly elite schools. It was in the Northeast that she created Speak With Distinction: an insanely thorough linguistic text, full of specific ways to pronounce thousands of different words, diagrams, lessons on the International Phonetic Alphabet, and exercises for drama students.

Yep, drama: by this point, movies with sound had begun to hit theaters, and then came the disastrous story of Clara Bow. Bow was one of the silent film era’s biggest stars, a master of exaggerated expressions. When the talkies came along, audiences heard her voice for the first time and it was a nasal, honking Brooklyn accent. Though the idea that speaking roles killed her career in film is not entirely accurate (there were plenty of other factors, ranging from drug problems to insane pressures of film studios), it’s certainly true that her career took a nosedive around the time audiences heard her voice, possibly creating a cautionary tale for newly heard actors.

It’s now the 1930s, and Edith Skinner is Hollywood’s go-to advisor for all things speech-related. And Edith Skinner has extremely strong opinions, bred in the elite universities of the Northeast, about exactly how people should speak. So she forced her own “Good Speech” accent on stars, and other voice coaches, and soon her accent became the most popular accent in Hollywood.

Speak With Distinction is incredibly dense, but it’s also very thorough. You can see very clearly, right there on the beat-up pages, why Katharine Hepburn speaks the way she does. “In Good Speech, ALL vowel sounds are oral sounds, to be made with the soft palate raised. Thus the breath flows out through the mouth only, rather than through the mouth and nose,” she writes. (She capitalizes things a lot.) “Each vowel sound is called a PURE SOUND, and the slightest movement or change in any of the organs of speech during the formation of a vowel will mar its purity, resulting in DIPHTHONGIZATION.”

She demands that “r” sounds be dropped. She demands that the “agh” sound, as in “chance,” should be halfway between the American “agh” and the British “ah.” (Interestingly, this is very different than the typical New England accent today, which is highly “fronted,” meaning that the vowel sound is made with the tongue very close to the teeth in words like “father.” The British, and Mid-Atlantic, vowel is pronounced with the tongue much further back.) She requires that all “t” sounds be precisely enunciated: “butter” cannot sound like “budder,” as it mostly does in the US. Words beginning in “wh” must be given a guttural hacking noise, so “what” sounds more like “ccccchhhhwhat.” She bans all glottal stops — the cessation of air when you say “uh-oh” — even between words, as in this phrase, direct from her book: “Oh, Eaton! He’d even heave eels for Edith Healy!” Go ahead, try to say that without any glottal stops. It’s enormously difficult.

She cracks down on the most obvious of regional cues, railing against what’s now called the “pin-pen merger.” Today, the pin-pen merger — in which the word “pen” sounds like “pin” — is a very easy indicator that a speaker is from the American South. Yech, the South. That will not do for Edith Skinner.

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