The Mid-Atlantic Accent

This is an article I wrote, which appeared in the Summer 2017 edition of “The Buzz” magazine, the only magazine dedicated to the Voiceover industry.

Picture the scene if you will: ‘Brring Brring’ (yes, I’m aware it’s 30 years since phones rang like that, but you get the picture).

“Hi, I’ve got a possible job lined up for you; the client is wondering if you can voice this in a…” they pause, and your heart sinks as you know what’s coming next “…Mid-Atlantic accent.” And there it is! ‘Mid’ Atlantic – with its Doppelganger brother ‘Trans’ – the fairytale unicorns of Voiceover accents: with genuine, engaging appeal to the whole English-speaking world for the cost of just one session fee. Ohhh, if only it were that simple!

Because, when we ask the basic question, “what is a Mid-Atlantic accent,” the answer isn’t straightforward. The first thing you have to do is talk to the client about what they REALLY mean. Do they want a cross between English and American, or are they in fact asking for an American accent? Particularly in countries where English is not the first language, many people will have grown up listening predominantly to American English on TV and film, so the nuance may be completely lost on them.

Here’s what happened to me recently. I’d sent in my – I thought – nailed down Mid-Atlantic demo and was in a casting with an Austrian client. 2 sentences in, and they stopped me: “OK, you’re sounding too English.” I then went through other accent options, until I just did full-blooded American. They both said that was what they wanted and we continued with the casting. (In case you’re wondering, I didn’t get the gig!)

This issue sends voiceover Facebook groups into a mild state of frenzy. Some suggest that a genuine Mid-Atlantic accent would sound like a prolonged series of water bubbles beneath the ocean surface, owing to the lack of any actual land-mass in the Mid-Atlantic region!

Others take the “it sounds a bit like so-and-so” approach. Two examples often used are Katharine Hepburn and Grace Kelly with their Waspy, East Coast intonations. Cary Grant’s name also crops up. This is less helpful, although his accent deserves a whole article in itself; how – and why – did a Vaudevillian from Bristol called Archibald Leach come to speak in that way?! (It was particularly pronounced in his latter films, where he tended to swan around Europe in Savile Row suits, with his mahogany tan, perfect side-parting and leading lady 30 years his junior!)

Further names which enter the Mid-Atlantic fray are Frasier and Niles Crane, and a number of ageing rock bands who have lived in the States for a long time – the Bee Gees are a good example.

For some, the Mid-Atlantic twang comes from using certain words, phrases or pronunciations. I would say Radio 2 presenter “Whispering” Bob Harris has a Mid-Atlantic accent, particularly when he’s talking about ‘rec-uhds’ not ‘re-cords’ (the Country music fans among you will already be aware of this). I was listening to a recent interview with lyricist Sir Tim Rice – he of Joseph, Aladdin and Lion King fame – where he started almost all his sentences with the words “I guess.” This was despite not being asked to make any estimates whatsoever.

Is there a technical way to try and pinpoint the Mid-Atlantic accent? Well, for that we might need an accent and vocal coach. Luckily Nic Redman is on hand to give this excellent summary: mid Atlantic seems to be just a non rhotic version of American, with a bit more of pitch emphasis, syllable-timed rhythm (like us Brits) rather than weight emphasis, stress timed rhythm (like those there Yanks)”

For me, a reduction in nasality and the rhotic ‘r’ hold the key to taming this elusive Mid-Atlantic beast (and yes, I am aware that discussing this whole issue in print has its limitaitions, but stick with it!)

Here’s a pronunciation example, using the word ‘party.’

English: Par-ty

Mid-Atlantic: Par-dy

American: Parrr-dy

Canadian: Hoe aboat that parrdy?! (cheap shot, and off the point!)

So in summary, don’t rrrrr and be less nasal. But above all else, check that the client doesn’t just want you to be American!

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