Last night, Mrs. Pajiba-hyphenate was watching an old black-and-white on the telly, and at one point, she turned and asked, “Why do people in old movies talk like that?” It’s a valid question, and if you’ve ever seen a Cary Grant or a Katherine Hepburn movie, and you’re not 70 years old, you might have wondered the same thing.
It’s called a Mid-Atlantic English, and as I tell my son about monsters and other fictional things, “it’s not something that exists in the world.” Basically, it’s a made up accent: It’s a mix of British and American that rich people acquired so that poor people would know they were rich. It’s the “posh” accent, and it’s very similar in that respect to the Boston Brahmin accent.
Basically, back in the early half of the 20th century, you could acquire the accent in one of three ways: You developed it naturally by hanging out with a lot of pretentious rich people; you acquired it at a boarding school, where for some reason it was taught up through the 1950s; or you cultivated it for the stage or film. It was very popular in entertainment, so a lot of actors and actresses acquired it; it was even taught at acting schools. That’s why people in those movies talk funny. They were putting on airs.
The accent is obsolete now, although you can still hear it if you watch old movies with Hepburn, Grant, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, etc., or if you listen to old speeches from Franklin Roosevelt. It was also affected by Frasier and Niles Crane in their sitcom, “Frasier,” as well as Juliane Moore’s character in The Big Lebowski (as opposed to Juliane Moore’s accent in “30 Rock,” which is a Boston accent mixed with bad acting).
Believe it or not, our old friend “Torchwood’s” John Barrowman also uses it, although it is completely by accident: In learning to use an American accent, his British accent got mixed all up in it, and now his natural accent is something akin to Mid-Atlantic English.