We’ve all seen an old-timey movie, listened to an old broadcast, or even seen a modern movie set in the early 40’s. A staple of all of these is the accent used by the actors and actresses. Nearly every movie you watch from or about this era, you become transfixed by the English that is used. It’s the calling card of the times and when we hear it, we experience flashes of the glitz and glam of old Hollywood or infamous politicians’ speeches. What few people know is this iconic accent has a much more gritty, dark, and downright scary origin story.
This accent, dubbed the Transatlantic dialect (aka Mid-Atlantic) was completely made up! Yep, it’s a form of a conlang! And more shockingly, those that spoke it were members of what some to consider to be a cult following. However, to understand how this beloved speech pattern came to have its ugly past, you first must understand the person that influenced its creation.
By the time that William Tilly came to teach at Columbia University, the Australian immigrant was already a renowned phonetician (study of sounds used in languages); having taught and founded many of the elite language schools across Europe, Tilly’s research of speech sounds in language were groundbreaking. So much so, that some of his research is still a part of every linguist’s phonetics 101 course. However, while his linguistics skills are bar none, his opinions of language learners are cause for much debate. His feelings were that learners of English needed to rid themselves of any accent markers in order to be “proper” speakers of English. These opinions he later decided to compile into what he deemed World English.
Tilly spoke of World English as the “superior” form of English as it combined the “refinement” of British RP (or Queen’s English) with the upper crust tastes of the American elite. All together this form of English, in Tilly’s words, was the “cleanest” variation of English and should be used by all English speakers. In Europe, his ideas were deemed radical by language experts at the time. However, he began to develop a large following of language specialists and teachers in the States. He was described as extremely charismatic and his lectures felt more like a sermon. His students admired him; they are described in a Billboard article from 1923 as being completely “spellbound.” Tilly used this influence to talk about his World English and the various “atrocities” he had heard with English speech patterns. His students, quoted as “followers” by some, would take these teachings to the next level with the implementation of various language teachings all in his name. These invented curriculum were deemed by them as necessary purification methods of English.
One loyal follower, Marguerite De Witt, who taught at Wellesley College would later go on to create Euphonics; the type of speech that God himself preferred according to her. The president of the William Tilly Association (an official group for purveyors of Tilly’s ideologies), Sophia Pray, spoke about how the use of Tilly’s language ideals would ensure one’s readiness to be properly accepted in society. She was quoted as saying that a foreign accent and/or not using World English were “indelible signs of social inferiority.” Another ideological follower of Tilly, Julia Richman, when promoted to Director of Speech for the New York school districts began implementing some of Tilly’s English teaching principles in schools. She described modern English speech in crisis and the New York accent almost as though it was an illness. Common communications from the New York school district would say things like, “Speech aid given to 30,000 students” and “56,640 students treated.” However, one of the most notable followers of Tilly was Edith Warman Skinner. She was known as one of the most predominant vocal coaches of the era and the go-to person for Hollywood, Carnegie Mellon, and Julliard. She saw a perfect use for Tilly’s ideals in Hollywood as the rise of the luxuries that included transatlantic cruises and aviation travel began to enter the movies. She decided that there was a need for a more “luxurious” form of English, thus the beginnings of the Transatlantic accent. She included Tilly’s ideals in both acting and speech curriculum, which were adopted by nearly all of Broadway and Hollywood at the time. Every major studio in Hollywood had on-going vocal classes to teach actors and actresses the use of the Transatlantic accent. She would later take this curriculum, the brainchild of her and Tilly’s thoughts, to create the infamous Speak with Distinction, a guide to “proper” speech for actors and actresses; the revised iterations are still a staple teaching in many theater groups, colleges, and classes to this day.
Many linguists, language experts, and language enthusiasts today look at ideals of language purification such as Tilly’s as abhorrent as they seek to create English prescriptivism to a level not often seen. As well, it’s this same level of prescriptivist thinking that is driving our modern-day epidemic of English ‘purism’ that is being forced on many countries including China, Japan, and Korea. English in these countries is rapidly becoming a needed prerequisite for even entry level jobs. However, “proper” English schooling is incredibly expensive and therefore is still mostly available only to the elite. Another issue is that one of the predominant language teaching principles that is used throughout these countries is a form called direct instruction; a notable favorite of Tilly’s, this method is debated on by language teachers because, if done improperly, it can cause long-term learning trauma to students.
While traces of the World English ideals are still seen today, the Transatlantic variation faded out in Hollywood towards the end of the 1940’s. Hollywood began to move away from this way of speaking as the need for more ‘relatable’ characters started to rise. So, that classic New Yorker, California vibing, and Bostonian reverberation became the go-to accents in Hollywood. While Hollywood and the American masses have distanced themselves from the Transatlantic accent, this darker side of Tilly’s teaching is slowly being forgotten. His former William Tilly Association was rebranded the William Tilly Phoneticians Association and he is still revered by many studiers of modern phonetics. His backing of the International Phonetic Alphabet is still a staple in not just language study, but it is a quintessential tool in the world of conlangs as many conlangers use it as a starting point of nearly every language they create. This tool has been used to create every significant conlang to-date, including the Transatlantic accent, Elvish, Dothraki, and modern Esperanto. So next time you watch that old-timey movie, listen to an old broadcast, or see a modern interpretation of the era, listen for that accent and remember all it represents.
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Formally trained linguist with a passion for all things nerd and conlanging related!