Hepburn, Thatcher, and the Great Vowel Shift

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August 14, 2016 by libroshombre


Katherine Hepburn once said, “To keep your character intact you cannot stoop to filthy acts. It makes it easier to stoop the next time.” No hypocrite she, right? Well, read “The Rise and Fall of Katherine Hepburn’s Fake Accent,” an Atlantic Monthly article by Trey Taylor. He said Hepburn’s distinctive accent was the Mid-Atlantic, or Transatlantic, accent forged by voice coach Edith Skinner, who maintained that, “What I try to do is get rid of the most obvious regionalisms, the accent that says, ‘you’re from here and I’m from there,’ the kind of speech that tells you what street you grew up on.

“Hepburn sought her out after being fired from her first production in 1928 when she insisted on hurriedly bleating out her lines.” Under further tutelage from New York drama coach Frances Robinson-Duff, “Hepburn’s society burr was a perfect example of the Mid-Atlantic accent … a full-bodied pronunciation that turned her ‘o’s’ into ‘ooh’s’ that tumbled from her mouth.”

The Mid-Atlantic accent “was intended to blend American English with British Received pronunciation,” according to Wikipedia, and “is not a vernacular American accent native to any location, but an affected set of speech patterns whose chief quality was that no Americans actually spoke it unless educated to do so.” A product of Hollywood, the accent was actually taught in Northeastern prep schools in the last century. That’s why FDR, William F. Buckley, and George Plimpton talked that way, and how Jackie O acquired the affectation at

 Miss Porter’s School, which your daughter can attend for around $59,000. Per annum. Admiration for Mid-Atlantic talkin’ died out after WWII, when public taste became less class conscious. Instead of William Powell and Cary Grant, think Humphrey Bogart and Robert Mitchum.

The Received Pronunciation (RP) that East Coast snobs try to emulate is described by the British Library website as “the instantly recognizable accent often described as ‘typically British.’ Popular terms for this accent, such as ‘Queen’s English’, ‘Oxford English’, or ‘BBC English’ are all a little misleading. The Queen, for instance, speaks an almost unique form of English, while the English we hear at Oxford University or on the BBC is no longer restricted to one type of accent … all RP speakers speak Standard English. In other words, they avoid non-standard grammatical constructions and localized vocabulary or regional dialects.”

“Received Pronunciation” was coined by linguist A.J. Ellis in 1869 but didn’t take hold until Daniel Jones used it in his “English Pronouncing Dictionary” in 1924, describing and lauding the new faddish way of speaking at Oxford and Cambridge. The BBC adopted it in the 1920s to avoid potentially offending listeners with rurally-accented announcers. This was during the advent of talking movies when actors suddenly had to be heard as well as seen, and the studios wanted glamour, not bumpkiness. Most folks never spoke it, and only 2% of the British speak RP today.

RP and Mid-Atlantic accents pale next to the greatest change to English pronunciation: the Great Vowel Shift. According to Harvard University’s webpage, “Beginning in the twelfth century and continuing until the eighteenth century … the sounds of the long stressed vowels in English changed their places of articulation (i.e. how the sounds are made).” English vowels were pronounced like their Latin counterparts in Chaucer’s time. For example, the “ee” in Chaucer’s “sheep” rhymed with “shape,” “sight” with “meet,” and “book” with “oak.” “To understand how English changed (not why; no one knows) one must first note that the vowels are articulated in particular parts of the mouth … Say ‘ee’ ( or ‘beet’) and ‘o’ (or ‘boat’) in succession and you may be able to feel the movement of your tongue from front to back.”

Worried you’re not speaking the lingo properly, or wondering how it got this way? Look no farther than your public library for expert guidance, such as “The Lexicographer’s Dilemma: the Evolution of ‘Proper’ English” by Jack Lynch,

Henry Hitchings’ “The Language Wars,” or “The Story of English in 110 Words” by David Crystal. But don’t forget Ms. Hepburn’s advice: “If you obey all the rules, you miss out on all the fun.”


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