Performance » Spoken Word

High Society's Twisted Tongue

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Christmas used to be a much classier affair.

Or so it seemed in all the holiday musicals and melodramas from the 1930s and '40s. Impeccably dressed men and women with their impeccably dressed children all spoke with that perfectly clipped English elocution of aristocrats.

Their soft vowel sounds were silkier. Not a single 't' was pronounced as 'd,' and 'g's weren't lazily dropped from "ing"-ending words. Sup? and dat didn't exist.

They spoke great grammar with ease. From Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant to Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman, stars of the silver screen used nothing but proper pronunciation. And it wasn't just with the British expats. Everyone sounded well-heeled and a wee-bit British.

So what was up with that?

King and Queen of the quasi-British accent, Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn get playful in Holiday, a 1938 romantic comedy. -
  • King and Queen of the quasi-British accent, Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn get playful in Holiday, a 1938 romantic comedy.

According to Jonathan Strickland at Brain Stuff, back in the ’30s and ’40s that highfalutin way with words wasn’t natural at all. He says that outside of finishing schools and theatrical classes, the only place people spoke like that was in motion pictures.

Completely contrived, the Mid-Atlantic accent (as it's known) was a mash-up of standard American English and Britain's Received Pronunciation. Even for Cary Grant, who was born in Britain, the accent was an affectation.

To learn more about the linguistics of this snooty style of speech, check out Strickland’s video Why Do People in Old Movies Talk Weird below.

And for additional tidbits on the topic, take a look at this piece in The Atlantic magazine from a while back.

Bing Crosby serenades Marjorie Reynolds in 1942's  Holiday Inn. -
  • Bing Crosby serenades Marjorie Reynolds in 1942's Holiday Inn.

To hear the Mid-Atlantic accent in action, indulge in some of the following fine flicks of this season:

Holiday Inn (1942)

Christmas in Connecticut (1945)

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

Remember the Night (1940)

The Bishop’s Wife (1947)

The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942)

The Bells of St. Mary's (1945)

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