American Theater Standard

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American Theater Standard, also known as Theater Standard, Eastern Standard, American Stage Speech, Stage Standard, Standard American Pronunciation, Standard American Stage, Skinner Standard, "Good American Speech"[1] or "Good Speech", is a stage dialect associated with the voice coach Edith Skinner and defined in her work Speak With Distinction.[2] It is taught as the appropriate dialect for use in "classics" and "elevated texts"[3] (such as the works of Shakespeare) in several prestigious dramatic schools in the United States, including Carnegie Mellon School of Drama, Juilliard School, the Tisch School of the Arts, Webster University, and the Yale School of Drama; and the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, where Edith Skinner taught for many years. It codifies a Mid-Atlantic version of English widely used in Hollywood films of the 1930s and 1940s, associated with figures such as Cary Grant and Franklin Roosevelt.[4]


Short monophthongs[2]
Front Central Back
Close ɪ ʊ
Close-Mid e o*
Open-Mid ə*
Near-open æ ʌ
Open a ɒ

* only occurs in unstressed syllables

Long monophthongs[2]
Front Central Back
Mid ɜː ɔː
Open ɑː
Closing diphthongs[2]
Front Back
Close-mid eɪ̯ oʊ̯
Open-mid ɔɪ̯
Open aɪ̯ ɑʊ̯
Centering diphthongs[2]
Front Back
Close ɪə̯ ʊə̯
Close-mid ɛə̯ ɔə̯
Open ɑə̯
Front Back
Open aɪ̯ə ɑʊ̯ə


The long monophthongs and closing diphthongs each have three possible lengths:[2]

  • long, when occurring in a stressed syllable and either word-final or followed by a voiced consonant
  • mid-long, when otherwise occurring in a stressed syllable
  • short, otherwise

All other vowels are short at all times.

Lexical distribution of vowels[edit]

This table shows the distribution of the vowels in accordance with the Standard Lexical Sets of John C. Wells:

TRAP æ PALM ɑː START ɑə̯, ɑː *
LOT ɒ THOUGHT ɔː NORTH ɔə̯, ɔː *
STRUT ʌ GOAT oʊ̯ FORCE ɔə̯, ɔː *
BATH a PRICE aɪ̯ happY ɪ
CLOTH ɒ CHOICE ɔɪ̯ lettER ə
NURSE ɜː MOUTH ɑʊ̯ commA ə 1

* In words of the START, NORTH and FORCE sets, closing diphthongs are used wherever a historical /r/ has been vocalized, and in the close derivatives of such words: long monophthongs are used elsewhere. Thus star is /stɑə̯/, starring is /ˈstɑə̯rɪŋ/, but Sahara is /səˈhɑːrə/.[5] Similarly, score is /skɔə̯/, scorer is /ˈskɔə̯rə/, but Taurus is /ˈtɔːrəs/.[6]

1 The commA set is specially marked to disallow the use of intrusive R (see below).

Triphthongs are used in words such as hire /haɪ̯ə/, flower /ˈflɑʊ̯ə/.

In unstressed syllables, /o/ is used in words such as obey /oˈbeɪ̯/. It usually occurs in the first syllable of a word, and is never found at the end of a word.[7]

In unstressed syllables, /ɪ/ (rather than /ə/) is used in many places including the prefixes ex-, be-, de-, se-, re-, pre- and the suffixes -ed (when pronounced), -et, -it, -est, -less, -ness, -in, -ing, -ive, -eth, -es, and -age.[8] (See weak-vowel merger).

In Speak With Distinction, Skinner herself used a different set of keywords: will, let, Pat, honest, cup, would, pass, stir, Lee, pay, fathers, all, go, who, you,[9] my, boy, now, here's, their, car, ore, poor, the surprise.


Bilabial Labio-
Dental Alveolar Post-
Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal m n ŋ
Plosive p  b t  d k  ɡ
Affricate t͡ʃ  d͡ʒ
Fricative f  v θ  ð s  z ʃ  ʒ ʍ h
Approximant r j w
Lateral l

ʍ is used in most words spelled "wh".[10] /h/ may be voiced ([ɦ]) between two vowel sounds. Linking R is used but intrusive R is not permitted.[11] The consonant clusters /tj/, /dj/, /nj/, /sj/ and /lj/ (as in tune, due, new, pursue, evolution) are all present, as found in Received Pronunciation, but in few North American dialects (see yod-dropping). In /sj/ and /lj/, yod-dropping is optional.[12]

Comparison with other accents[edit]

American Theater Standard is similar to English Received Pronunciation (RP). The chief points of difference are:

  • The addition of a distinctive phoneme /a/ for words in the BATH set only. This is sometimes known as "Intermediate A" (contrasting to "Broad A" of RP).[1]
  • The addition of closing diphthongs /ɑə̯/, /ɔə̯/ for most words in the START, NORTH and FORCE sets. This means that American Theater Standard distinguishes pairs such as father-farther and caught-court that are homophones in RP.
  • The starting point of the GOAT diphthong ([o] rather than [ə]).
  • The presence of the unstressed /o/ vowel.
  • The lack of intrusive R.
  • The presence of /ʍ/, and resistance to the wine–whine merger.

Comparison with General American accents reveals far more extensive differences:


American Theater Standard has been criticized as "mired in a self-serving and archaic notion of Euphony, and in a model of class, ethnic and racial hierarchy that is irrelevant to the acting of classical texts and repellent to the sensibilities of most theatre artists",[13] and as "a strange artifact of the Edwardian era [that] still exists, little changed, as we approach the year 2000".[14] It is said to sound "somewhat British, but not fully so".[14]


  1. ^ a b Knight (1997:174)
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Skinner (1990)
  3. ^ Skinner (1990:334)
  4. ^ LaBouff (207:241-242)
  5. ^ Skinner (1990:135)
  6. ^ Skinner (1990:126 and 178)
  7. ^ Skinner (1990:343)
  8. ^ Skinner (1990:64-65)
  9. ^ "you" is used when the vowel is preceded by /j/; "who" otherwise
  10. ^ Skinner (1990:335)
  11. ^ Skinner (1990:102)
  12. ^ Skinner (1990:336)
  13. ^ Knight (1997:177)
  14. ^ a b Knight (1997:178)