What Is That Accent?

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Recently, there has been a lot of buzz around the YouTube shows “Mapperton Live” and “American Viscountess.” Both are reality shows starring the American born Julie Montague, who married into the British aristocracy and became the Viscountess Hinchingbrooke. If watching, during the first few episodes, you might find yourself carefully listening to the Viscountess’ accent, trying to detect and decide what exactly her accent is

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The production team makes it common knowledge that the Viscountess is from Chicago originally, and so you might expect that she would have a partially Midwestern accent. Obviously, she married a British man, so it is no surprise that she could have, after twenty plus years of living in England, developed a bit of a British accent. Listening closely, however, viewers might note that some of her pronunciations sound neither American nor British. The question arises, “What is that accent?”

After a few more shows of “Mapperton Live,” the Viscountess mentions that she has what is known as a “Trans-Atlantic” accent. This sounds straightforward enough. “Trans-Atlantic” could be understood as “across the Atlantic,” and therefore your first presumption might be that her accent is a mix between the countries on either side. If you dig deeper however, you might want to know what exactly a “Trans-Atlantic accent” is. One search of the internet explains that the “Trans-Atlantic accent” is also called the “Mid-Atlantic accent,” and that it is “an accent of English, fashionably used by the early 20th-century American upper class and entertainment industry, which blended together features regarded as the most prestigious from both American and British English.” Granted, this definition comes from Wikipedia, and thus, might not be fully trusted. Further investigations might be needed.

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After reading an article on the topic of accents from Alta Language Services, Inc online, you might begin to understand a bit more, and begin to think about the accent of others that fit this “Trans-Atlantic accent” category. Lada Cora from Downton Abbey, for example, has this same accent in her series. This character is very similar to the real-life Viscountess featured in the aforementioned YouTube shows. Lady Cora was an American heiress who married into the British aristocracy also, but of course, she was acting. The Alta article does also mention “real” people with this accent, recognizable names such as Julia Child, Franklin D. and Eleanor Roosevelt. Considering this, you might start to “hear” quotes repeated from these late Americans…Franklin D. Roosevelt’s inaugural speech for example, “The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.” Once those famous lines run through your head, you may now, from here on out, be able to identify this once mysterious “Trans-Atlantic accent.”

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Perhaps you have encountered other accents you could not quite recognize, or better, perhaps people have pondered over yours. If you travel outside of your country, or even outside of the nearby radius of your home, you will likely find that others speak in different ways. Even in places where the language is the same, the pronunciation of words can vary, either subtly or in more obvious ways. If you travel extensively for work or pleasure, you might find that your accent changes depending on the region in which you find yourself. Perhaps you “neutralize” your accent in order to be better understood. People who want/need others to understand them know that they must articulate their speech. An ESOL teacher, for example, would want learners to acquire the English language properly, and would make sure to enunciate his/her words. Many times, English language learners have a hard time deciphering the words being spoken to them because of the multiple accents in which they are presented. Is the speaker American, English, Australian, South African, Irish or a nationality from other countries where English is an official language? At the same time, a learner will often acquire the accent of the teacher. Many Asian students of English, for example, pick up a British English accent, and those that do reach fluency, often sound quite native to Britain.

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Like the ESOL teacher, there are others who are able to “neutralize” their accents by carefully articulating and enunciating. Although there are numerous English speakers with varying accents, there are some who are easier to understand. An incredible article on this very topic titled “Is There a Place in America Where People Speak with Neutral Accents? presents the idea of “Standard American English.” From the article, you might gather that there are people who speak with a neutral accent, for various reasons, and thus they can sometimes get categorized as “Standard American, or Broadcast English, or Network English, or, as it was created by two independent linguists in the 1920s and 1930s, General American.” It’s the “accentless accent” that people like TV personality Stephen Colbert developed. Colbert explained to 60 Minutes, “At a very young age, I decided I was not gonna have a Southern accent.” So, for whatever purpose a person “loses” their accent, or changes it, they subconsciously or consciously choose to speak with particular speech patterns, which could sound like another identifiable accent, or better yet, could leave you wondering, “What is that accent?”

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