My pal Kári Tulinius sent me a couple of language-related links from The Atlantic thinking I would find them of interest, and I pass them on to you for the same reason:
The Eerie Beauty of Rare Alphabets, by Edward Tenner, features a worthwhile project: “Without support from governments, NGOs, or foundations, the English-born, Vermont-based writer Tim Brookes has been documenting this heritage in a unique way, carving specimens on local curly maple in his Endangered Alphabets Project.” You can see samples of his work at the Atlantic link, and watch a short video of him describing it at his Kickstarter page.

Language Mystery: When Did Americans Stop Sounding This Way?, by James Fallows, is about Mid-Atlantic English, also called the “Transatlantic accent”; it’s familiar from many Hollywood movies of seventy-plus years ago, and the Atlantic post links to a ten-minute documentary from the ’30s, “Wings Over the Golden Gate,” which features, besides lovely color views of the San Francisco area, the plummy tones of narrator Gayne Whitman, a prime specimen of the accent in question. Fallows asks why “it so totally fell out of fashion, and so fast,” but I think he’s exaggerating both the totality and the speed—Wikipedia says “it was used on stage generally – and especially in productions of Shakespeare and other pieces from the British Isles – and frequently in film until the mid-1960s” and adds that it is still occasionally used.


  1. KitINstLOUIS says

    I was wondering about this accent while watching “It’s a Wonderful Life.” While Henry Travers’ Clarence still used this stagy cadence, Stewart is too modern for such affectation. At least until “The Three Stooges” and “The Marx Bros,.” it conveyed a sense of gentleness if not gentility.

  2. I’m watching All About Eve (1950). Bette Davis shows traces of this pattern, as does Anne Baxter. The guy who plays the elderly actor who gives a speech when Eve gets an award has it in spades.

  3. I didn’t know that USians used the phrase “transatlantic accent” to describe Katherine Hepburn and co.’s weird speech. To Britons, “transatlantic” means the fake accent and fast, singsong and rambling way of talking utilised by some British radio discjockeys in supposed imitation of their US colleagues.

  4. The accent you are wondering about is the Transatlantic accent, also called the Midatlantic accent. This was not a regional accent. Rather, it’s an accent that was taught to actors and announcers.
    But it’s not just actors and announcers. You only have to listen to FDR. Surely the last one to use it was Alistair Cooke?

  5. To Britons, “transatlantic” means the fake accent and fast, singsong and rambling way of talking utilised by some British radio discjockeys in supposed imitation of their US colleagues.
    Well, it makes sense that “transatlantic” would be used in different ways on different sides of the Atlantic, ugye?

  6. Dock, dock, it makes sense. I just wasn’t aware of it. Now I’m waiting to see if anyone can see my Alistair Cooke and raise it…

  7. Looks like I must be the prescriptive guy to rise the objection to call non-alphabetic writing systems “alphabets”. A losing battle, I guess.
    I wish he worked with rock carving instead; wood has little chance of surviving thousands of years after the next nuclear apocalypse.

  8. John Emerson says

    If someone wants a lost cause, how about reviving the Xixia Tangut “ideographic” script?:
    On accents, I’ve noticed that as you travel around (at least in the Midwest, Southwest, and Mountain states) all of the country announcers have the same harsh, nasal voice, all the public radio announcers have the same unbearably annoying voice, and all the other announcers have a third more generic voice. These must be taught in schools too.

  9. What was Reagan’s accent? I was watching a White House spokesman on TV the other day (I don’t get to hear that kind of thing very much) and the speaker had the same reasonable, reassuring, honeyed and (thus) puke-inducing delivery that Reagan had. Do they teach this style of delivery in Hollywood or does it come from somewhere else?

  10. all the public radio announcers have the same unbearably annoying voice
    do they all do this thing? — in bending over backwards not to say “nooze” for news, they say “knee-ooze”

  11. The Cherokee syllabary was introduced in 1821, not 1921.

  12. The Cherokee syllabary was introduced in 1821, not 1921.

  13. He’ll probably want a lot more funding if he decides to carve all ~6k tangut characters…

  14. Come to think of, this sounds like a great project to do with kids: Carve rosetta stones (à la Last Samurai) on actual stone. Style points for different writing systems.

  15. I notice on youtube clips that most female voices on US news and financial shows are, to my ear, ugly – “shrewish” might be a reasonable stab at the quality of the ugliness. The male voices are more variable – again, to my ear – and often quite attractive, though prone to oiliness. Why the sex difference? I mean, I know why the women’s voices will tend to be higher pitched, but who encourages, or selects, for the peevish, quacking quality? The contrast with clips from French TV is striking.

  16. rootlesscosmo says

    Though the “Wings Over the Golden Gate” narrator doesn’t mention it, there’s a switch engine (ahem) at about 2:20. That was the California Belt Line, operated by the state.

  17. FDR’s accent was transatlantic in a different sense, but he came by it honestly: it was the usual accent of upper-class New Yorkers in his day, now mostly extinct. It was actually closer to upper-class accents in other cities of the Eastern Seaboard (except Philadelphia) than to the middle- and working-class accents of New York. The city accents are of course fundamentally American in character, but there are isoglosses that cross the ocean, none more obvious than rhoticity.
    In any case, FDR’s accent didn’t have the artificial distinction between PALM [ɑ] and START [ɑə] that the transatlantic accent uses.

  18. Thanks, John. Why not Philadelphia?

  19. My (British) ex-husband used to comment on the fact that, in American films of the 30s and 40s, British actors could play upper-class Americans without (one assumes) exciting comment – I seem to remember that Katherine Hepburn’s father in The Philadelphia Story was one example.

  20. Crown: Philadelphia has always been rhotic, although it did just as much trade with Britain as the others did; nobody knows why. New Jersey (that’s me), Pennsylvania, Delaware, and northern Maryland are the only parts of the Eastern Seaboard whose traditional dialect is fully rhotic in all circumstances, though of course a great deal of rhoticity has been imported even into such formerly non-rhotic strongholds as New York and Boston.
    JE: I think radio announcers basically just try to copy each other, as airline pilots do.

  21. Charles Perry says

    When I was a kid, every announcer on radio used this accent. The first who didn’t — he started an avalanche of native accent — was Arthur Godfrey. I remember him telling an interviewer that the Transatlantic accent had sounded effeminate to a lot of Americans so its demise was inevitable.
    I always heard that it was the actual everyday speech pattern of upper-crust New Yorkers, like the panelists on “What’s My Line?”

  22. John Emerson says

    Unfortunately, a high proportion of my British accent consumption has been Monty Python, so whenever I hear a British voice I have to suppress thoughts of a penguin on the TV.

  23. Many of the alleged people on TV are actually well-disguised penguins.

  24. So that’s the “the peevish, quacking quality” explained, then. Thanks. But why so few male penguins?

  25. To find out if a tv person is really a penguin, just ask them whether they can fly.

  26. And why doesn’t French tv employ penguins? American exceptionalism?

  27. I didn’t think penguins were particularly peevish.

  28. They have pet peeves.

  29. Dearie, I too have found myself taking benevolent notice of the standard female French journaliste/moderator/commentator, as opposed to American ladies in similar occupations as seen on CNN (in particular one regular on a political weekly round-up). For what you call a “peevish, quacking quality” in the speech of the latter, I had independently arrived at the description “strident, invincible smugness”.
    Of course most French moderators, be they male or female, ask questions only to interrupt 5 seconds later, in order to put their own answers into the mouths of their interlocutors. The explanation for this behavior seems to be that they all like to talk, and are not much interested in what other people have to say. I prefer the German model, in which people are allowed to drone on until they fall off their train of thought.

  30. “strident” is a mot juste.

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