Aristocratic American (Mrs. Roosevelt’s Accent)

I often discuss Received Pronunciation, the British accent which was long the standard of educated speech in England. Although Americans have a hard time understanding how an accent spoken by so few people could be the ‘standard,’ we in fact had something of our own ‘RP’ in the late 19th- and early 20th-Centuries. It simply never caught on the way RP did.

What I’m referring to is the speech of the East Coast Aristocracy, a small group of elites from powerful old-money families.  You can get a good idea of how they spoke from this interview from Eleanor Roosevelt from the 1950’s:

My impression of Mrs. Roosevelt’s accent, first and foremost, is that it is quite like older types of Received Pronunciation. Her speech is entirely non-rhotic (r-less), with the vowel in words like ‘nurse’ a long mid-central vowel, often with some lip rounding and/or fronting (ə ~ ɵ ~ ø). She pronounces ‘again’ so it sounds like ‘a gain‘ and ‘been’ as if it were ‘bean‘ (although she goes with the American pronunciation of ‘category’). She preserves the ‘trap-bath’ split (note the broad vowel for ‘ask’ at 1:40 and ‘last’ at 9:12). Astute readers will no doubt find many other pronunciations of note.

So why did our own ‘RP’ never catch on the way British RP did? First, we never had a real aristocracy, only a de facto one. We never had a house of lords, schools reserved for the nobility, or an interconnected, nationwide land-owning class. In other words, there was never a systematic way for an ‘elite’ accent to transmit itself throughout the country.

And about that country; ours is huge. British RP had geographic limitations in its corner. The entirety of the UK is less than 100,000 square miles; the US is nearly 38 times that size. By the time ‘American aristocratic speech’ could be classified as a discrete phenomenon, moneyed elites had already sprung up in far-flung places such as Chicago and San Francisco. And that’s not even acknowledging the separate tradition of the Southern Gentry.

And so, rather than being a dominant if minority-spoken accent, American aristocratic English is little more than a historical curiosity. Still, it makes you wonder: If the US had stayed within the boundaries of the original thirteen colonies, would America have ended up with a ‘upper-class’ accent like the one that emerged in the UK?

Share

About Ben Trawick-Smith

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
This entry was posted in American English and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

29 Responses to Aristocratic American (Mrs. Roosevelt’s Accent)

  1. Jan says:

    Major film stars in the 30’s-40’s-50’s had some of this. I run across them regularly in older reruns on satellite TV and bits on series from early TV. I’ve never been able to figure out where they come from or how they got his dialect. Non-rhotic and vaguely British but not really. Ideas?

    • A lot of film actors from that era spoke with a kind of ‘mid-Atlantic’ accent. I believe a lot of this was due to the demographics of actors of that era. Many depression-era starlets were from areas of East Coast non-rhoticity (Bette Davis, Katherine Hepburn, Lauren Bacall, Claudette Colbert, Barbara Stanwyck, Rosalind Russell), and a great many others from England or areas of the commonwealth (Olivia DeHavilland, Vivian Leigh, Joan Fontaine, Greer Garson).

      • Tom says:

        “Mid-Atlantic”, as opposed to the East Coast Aristocracy speech of Eleanor Roosevelt? Not quite sure of your distinction there. Are they two different things, or is one a subset of the other?

        (Funny, I just realized how odd it is that actors in, say, “The Wizard of Oz” spoke with this non-rhotic accent, even on a Kansas farm!)

        • “Mid-Atlantic” doesn’t refer to any authentic accent of English; it usually describes various learned speech patterns adopted by actors or others wishing to ‘gentrify’ their speech in the 20th-Century which straddled the line between British and American. (My above comment is a little misleading in that sense.) Eleanor’s Roosevelt’s accent does indeed have many qualities that might be described as ‘mid-Atlantic,’ but her accent is quite authentic!

        • Peter S. says:

          Some of the actors in “Wizard of Oz” were from Boston, and you can quite clearly hear this, as well as non-rhoticity, in their accent.

  2. Charles Sullivan says:

    Curiously, many Canadians pronounce ‘again’ as ‘a-gain’ and ‘been’ as ‘bean.’

    • They do, yes. Also (variably) ‘process’ can be ‘proh-cess’ and ‘drama’ can have the vowel in ‘trap.’ None of these variations are markedly British per se (contemporary RP speakers can pronounced ‘been’ as ‘bin’ and ‘again’ as ‘a-gen’ just as Americans do). They’re more markedly non-American variants, which is what makes Roosevelt’s pronunciation unusual to cotemporary American ears.

  3. Daryl Hrdlicka says:

    Would this be the “Boston Brahmin” accent”?

    • Pretty much. I believe there were different branches of this kind of speech: Brahmin, “New York Genteel” (as Harold Clurman called it), “Connecticut Yankee” (of which Hepburn could be considered a speaker).

  4. Andrej Bjelaković says:

    One other reason her accent sounds this English is because she spent at least two years (15-17) being educated in “Allenswood Academy, a private finishing school outside London, England” (accoring to Wikipedia).

    • I think this type of accent often went hand in hand with British education, or parents who were British educated. William F. Buckley has often been noted to have something of a ‘mid-Atlantic’ accent, but that’s partially because much of his schooling was in the UK.

  5. Marc Leavitt says:

    One side note: RP and Standard American are both learnt accents; that is, they fix on certain qualities of what are considered consensually to be “best” speech, to distinguish the speakers from the rest of the crowd.
    YouTube has a clip (sorry, I didn’t write down the reference), of an African-American announcer out in a field reporting on an event. He speaks perfect Standard American on camera, until a bee or hornet bites him, whereupon he lapses into perfect African-American Vernacular English, complete with the understandable profanities elicited by his misfortune.

    • dw says:

      If by “learnt” you mean “consciously learnt” then this is not generally true, at least of RP. As JW says in Accents of English:

      “Most of those who speak [RP] have spoken it since childhood; they have not needed to go to speech classes in order to acquire it”. (A of E 117).

      • dw says:

        Indeed my native accent is near to RP, and when I swear, my accent doesn’t change significantly — although my vocabulary does.

  6. Laura says:

    I don’t think that actors of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s spoke like that because they came from areas of non-rhoticity (Lauren Bacall is from the Bronx, and her original accent probably had no resemblance to Eleanor Roosevelt’s.) They spoke that way because they were trained to do so, in what’s known as American Theater Standard, a accent that was defined by the voice coach Edith Skinner in her book “Speak With Distinction.” According to Wikipedia, “it codifies a Mid-Atlantic version of English used in the Hollywood films of the 1930s and 1940s, associated with figures such as Cary Grant and Franklin Roosevelt.” If you watch The Honeymooners, serious characters like bosses and judges speak American Theater Standard, but the comic characters, including Ralph and Ed, definitely do not.

    • It’s definitely true that a lot of actors modified their accents to some type of mid-Atlantic standard in that era. Elocution strikes me as a booming business in 1930’s Hollywood; I seem to recall a long-forgotten Broadway comedy from that era about an LA speech correction school.

      To expand on my earlier point, though, I suspect that the presence of so many East Coasters and Britons in the movie industry of that time increased the pressure on young actors to conform to some type of ‘Eastern’ or ‘mid-Atlantic’ standard. In my mind, there was a subsequent ‘Hollywood demographic shift’ after WWII, or perhaps a shift in the kind of actors the public wanted to see, and the new generation of stars seemed largely comprised of young midwesterners or Californians (Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Kim Novak, Rock Hudson, and Doris Day, just to name a few). You could really tell the times had changed by the time of West Side Story’s release in 1961, in which ‘New York street toughs’ Tony and Riff were from Iowa and Los Angeles!

    • Jan says:

      Thanks. That’s what I was looking for. I had read something about that somewhere long ago. I’ve lived in Boston. That certainly isn’t it. Lauren Bacall and the wives in the Honeymooners are a good example. Good catch. (Mid-Atlantic in dialect studies is DC-area or Philly. Something else entirely.)

  7. Claudia says:

    Some of you may know stage/film actreess Eleanor Audley. She has a quite unique voice and peculiar accent. Can anyone confirm if it’s ‘Mid-Atlantic’?

    You can watch it here:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V77pkzNg1rI

  8. Montmorency says:

    Is this the accent that “Stuey” in “American Dad” uses (or mocks)? Some people think he’s speaking upper class British English, but it’s clearly a variant of American to me (and he often mocks the British, so I don’t think he would use their (our!) accent!).

    For people old enough to remember the original TV series “The Beverly Hillbillies” (or can find clips of it on YT), the character “Miss Jane” spoke a bit like this. I often wondered where her accent came from.

    Miss Jane

    Here is Miss Jane (and Granny) in a rather surprising (to me) commercial for cigarettes (hope no one is offended by that! It must be over 40 years old!):
    Miss Jane and Granny

    (Don’t smoke at home (or anywhere else!) kids.)

  9. Pingback: The Atlantic Wire, “Are You an Anglocreep?”

  10. Gonfal says:

    That accent that Mrs. Roosevelt has reminds me very much of my grandmother’s “formal mode” – she is a native German speaker, moved to London at 17, and moved to Canada at 30-something, and at each move, she has tried very hard to assimilate the accent of whatever region she’s in, but she does not have a very good ear for it.

  11. Pingback: Aristocratic American, Part 2: Samuel Barber | Dialect Blog

  12. Dianna says:

    This piece of writing gives clear idea in support of the
    new viewers of blogging, that actually how to do blogging and site-building.

  13. Hadding Scott says:

    I don’t find Eleanor Roosevelt’s accent to be entirely non-rhotic. The r is audible at the beginning of a word and when it comes between two vowel-sounds.

    • JoKyR says:

      I believe non-rhotic refers specifically to dropping final r sounds, not initial r sounds. Similarly, the intrusive r is a separate issue.

  14. Boise Id says:

    I do not even know how I ended up here, but I thought
    this post was good. I don’t know who you are but definitely you are going to a famous blogger if
    you aren’t already ;) Cheers!

    Look at my page … Boise Id

  15. bobo says:

    This has to be Eleanor’s natural accent, as she grew up. I doubt she would speak in this way to impress people, as she was as egalitarian as anyone. It must have just been the influence of the old-money that she grew up with, and the way they spoke dating back to the Revolution.

  16. Sis says:

    There were and are people far afield from the upper classes and theatre who speak Mid-Atlantic. People don’t want to remember it today, but this was simply how people spoke if they wanted to sound regionally neutral for MOST of American history. Especially outside the South.). My middle and lower class family speaks this way, at least with each other. I assure you there is nothing “elite” or “affected” about it, necessarily. But all standard languages are subject to elite artificiality. Mid-Atlantic was simply the register of choice until the new American Empire decided to create the equally artificial standard of General American as the language of Hollywood propaganda.

    There are actually many flavours of Mid-Atlantic. And yet, sadly, no one is studying them. As quizzical comments show, this only cultivates more cultural amnesia in the public. This is probably by design.