General American (commonly abbreviated as GA or GenAm) is a major accent of American English, particularly considered the American accent that is the most neutral or lacking in distinctive regional, ethnic, or socioeconomic characteristics. General American is an umbrella term for American English pronunciation that is historically uninfluenced by, and so distinguishable from, the various dialects that developed out of the American South, New York City, and certain areas in New England. The accent is not restricted to the United States, as it can also be heard among some Canadian speakers of English. Furthermore, General American is a widely taught form of English in non-Anglophone nations.
General American is not a "standard" English in any sense that Received Pronunciation is in England; however, it is often used in the United States as the de facto standard accent, despite the elusiveness of its precise definition. Phonetician John C. Wells estimated that, in 1982, two-thirds of the American population spoke with a General American accent.
General American in the media
General American, like British Received Pronunciation (RP) and most prestige accent varieties of many other societies, has never been the accent of the entire nation. However, it has become widely spoken in many American films, TV series, national news, commercial ads, and American radio broadcasts.
The General American accent is most closely related to a generalized Midwestern accent and is spoken particularly by many newscasters. This has led the accent to sometimes be referred to as a "newscaster accent" or "television English". It is thought to have evolved from the English spoken by colonials in the Mid-Atlantic states, evolved and moved west. General American is sometimes promoted as preferable to other regional accents. In the United States, classes promising "accent reduction","accent modification" and "accent neutralization" generally attempt to teach speech patterns similar to this accent. The well-known television journalist Linda Ellerbee, who worked hard early in her career to eliminate a Texas accent, stated, "in television you are not supposed to sound like you're from anywhere"; political comedian Stephen Colbert worked hard as a child to reduce his South Carolina accent because of the common portrayal of Southerners as stupid on American television. General American is also the accent typically taught to people learning English as a second language in the United States, as well as outside the country to anyone who wishes to learn "American English". In much of Asia and some other places ESL teachers are strongly encouraged to teach American English no matter their own origins or accents.
Regional home of General American
It is commonly believed that General American English evolved as a result of an aggregation of rural and suburban Midwestern dialects, though the English of the Upper Midwest can deviate quite dramatically from what would be considered a "regular" American Accent. The local accent often gets more distinct the farther north one goes within the Midwest, and the more rural the area, with the Northern Midwest featuring its own dialect North Central American English. The fact that a Midwestern dialect became the basis of what is General American English is often attributed to the mass migration of Midwestern farmers to California and the Pacific Northwest from where it spread.
The Telsur Project (of William Labov and others) examines a number of phonetic properties by which regional accents of the U.S. may be identified. The area with Midwestern regional properties is indicated on the map: eastern Nebraska (including Omaha and Lincoln); northwestern, southern, and central Iowa (including Des Moines, Sioux City and the Iowa-side Quad Cities), with an adjacent narrow strip of northern Missouri; and western and central Illinois (including Peoria, the Illinois-side Quad Cities, and Bloomington-Normal). Notably, this section of Illinois does not include the Chicago area.
According to Matthew J. Gordon, a sociolinguistics and American dialectology researcher:
The fact that the NCS is well established in Michigan is particularly interesting in light of the dominant beliefs about local speech. As research by Dennis Preston has shown, Michiganders believe they are "blessed" with a high degree of linguistic security; when surveyed, they rate their own speech as more correct and more pleasant than that of even their fellow Mid-westerners. By contrast Indianans tend to rate the speech of their state on par with that of Illinois, Ohio, and Michigan. Indeed, it is not uncommon to find Michiganders who will claim that the speech of national broadcasters is modeled on their dialect. Even a cursory comparison of the speech of the network news anchors with that of the local news anchors in Detroit will reveal the fallacy of such claims.
Nevertheless, the Michiganders' faith that they speak an accentless variety is just an extreme version of the general stereotype of Midwestern English.
- Wine–whine merger: largely in effect toward [w] ( ); the phoneme [ʍ] ( ) is retained only in varieties that have not undergone the merger. (/ʍ/ is often analyzed as a consonant cluster of /hw/.)
- /ɹ/: many Americans realize the phoneme [ɹ] ( ) (often transcribed as /r/) as postalveolar, with some possible retroflexion (perhaps, even as [ɻ] ( )).
- T-glottalization and intervocalic alveolar flapping: /t/ undergoes t-glottalization, producing a glottal stop [ʔ], before a syllabic nasal or in absolute final position, for example, in words like button [ˈbʌʔn] ( listen) and sit [sɪʔ] ( pronunciation of "sit-down money"). Otherwise, intervocalic /t/ (and /d/) generally become [ɾ] ( ) through intervocalic alveolar flapping when between a stressed syllable and an unstressed one; for example, leader [ˈɫiɾɚ] ( listen), catalogue/catalog [ˈkʰæɾəɫɑg] ( listen), or ratty [ˈɹæɾi] ( listen).
- L-velarization: the typical English distinction between a "clear L" (i.e. [l] ( )) and a "dark L" (i.e. [ɫ] ( ) or even [ʟ] ( )) is much less noticeable in General American compared to other English dialects; it may even be altogether absent. Instead, General American speakers pronounce even the "clear" variant as more or less "dark", meaning with some degree of velarization.
- For some speakers, /l/ before /f v/ (sometimes also before /s z/) may be vocalized to [ɤ̯].
General American has eleven or twelve pure vowels sounds (or monophthongs) that can be used in stressed syllables (for some, typically in diphthongized combinations) as well as two to three vowels that can be heard only in unstressed syllables. The monophthongs of General American are shown in the table below:
^1 For most speakers, what are often transcribed as /e/ and /o/ are realized in actual speech as the diphthongized [eɪ] ( ) (e.g. in laid and pray) and [oʊ] ( ) (e.g. in so and load) respectively, especially in open syllables.
^2 For most speakers, what is transcribed as [æ] ( ) is always raised and sometimes diphthongized when appearing before a nasal consonant (that is, before /m/, /n/ and, for some, /ŋ/). This may be narrowly transcribed as [ɛ̝ə̯] ( pronunciation of /æn/ as [ɛ̝ə̯n]; pronunciation of /æm/ as [ɛ̝ə̯m]), or, based on specific dialect, variously as [e̞ə̯] or [ɪə̯] (see Æ-tensing in General American or click "show" below).
^3 [ə] ( ) and [ɪ̈] (also transcribed as [ᵻ] or [ɨ̞] ( listen)) are indeterminate vowel sounds that occur only in unstressed syllables of certain types. [ə] is heard as the ⟨a⟩ at the beginning of about and at the end of China, as the ⟨o⟩ in omit, and as the ⟨u⟩ in syrup. [ə] and [ɪ̈] frequently overlap and easily merge; either, for example, may be heard as the ⟨a⟩ in island or cottage, the ⟨e⟩ in evading or sorted, the ⟨i⟩ in sordid, the ⟨o⟩ in cinnamon or parrot, the ⟨u⟩ in gamut, or the ⟨y⟩ in mythologist. This is known as the weak-vowel merger.
^4 The vowel of strut may be more near-open (approaching [ɐ] ( )) than open-mid [ʌ] ( ), depending on the speaker. For example, speakers from Ohio realize this vowel as an open-mid central unrounded vowel ([ɜ]). It however remains a back vowel before [ɫ], and often even merges with it so that /ʌl/ becomes [ɫ̩].
^5 In American English, // (General American [ɝ]) and // (General American [ɚ]) are often analyzed[clarification needed] as sequences of /ʌr/ and /ər/, respectively. In actual speech, General American speakers pronounce both, without much or any distinction, as [ɚ] ( listen); for example, the word worker /ˈwɜrkər/ is often realized with two rhyming syllables as [ˈwɚkɚ] ( listen).
- General American speakers are largely divided in how they pronounce the vowel sound in cot /ɑ/ and caught /ɔ/; some speakers pronounce the two with the same vowel sound but other speakers pronounce each word with distinct vowel sounds. Among speakers who distinguish between the two, the vowel of cot (usually transcribed in American English as [ɑ] ( )), may be more of a central vowel which may vary from [a̠] to [ɑ̟] ( listen), while /ɔ/ is phonetically lower, closer to [ɒ] ( ) with only slight rounding. Among speakers who do not distinguish between the two and are thus said to have undergone the cot-caught merger, /ɑ/ usually remains a back vowel, [ɑ], sometimes showing lip rounding as [ɑʷ] or [ɒ], and, because these speakers do not distinguish between /ɑ/ and /ɔ/, their retracted allophones for /ɑ/ may be identical to the lowered allophones of /ɔ/ among speakers who preserve the contrast.
- Depending on one's analysis, people who merge the vowels of cot and caught to /ɑ/ either have no phoneme /ɔ/ at all or have the [ɔ] only before /ɹ/. Words like north and horse are usually transcribed /nɔɹθ/ and /hɔɹs/, but because all accents with cot and caught merged to /kɑt/ have also undergone the horse–hoarse merger, it may be preferable to transcribe north and horse [noɹθ] and [hoɹs]. Thus, in these cases, the [ɔ] before /ɹ/ can be analyzed as an allophone of /o/.
- The // diphthong ( listen) before a voiceless consonant is typically raised to become [ɐɪ]. In the General American accent, this alone causes a distinction, for example, between the words rider and writer ( listen). Although present with most U.S. speakers, this phenomenon is considered one of the two variants of so-called "Canadian raising." This raising can also apply across word boundaries, though the position of a word or phrase's stress may deny the raising from taking place. For instance, a high school in the sense of "secondary school" is generally pronounced [ˈhɐɪskuɫ]; however, a high school in the literal sense of "a tall school" is pronounced [ˈhäɪˌskuɫ].
The diphthongs of General American are shown in the next table:
|Offglide is a front vowel||Offglide is a back vowel|
|Opener component is unrounded||[äɪ] ( ), [ɐɪ], [eɪ] ( )||[aʊ~æʊ] ( )|
|Opener component is rounded||[ɔɪ] ( )||[oʊ] ( )|
While there is no single formal definition of General American, various features are considered to be part of it, including rhotic pronunciation, which maintains the coda [ɹ] in words like pearl, car, and court. Unlike RP, General American is characterized by the merger of the vowels of words like father and bother, flapping, and the reduction of vowel contrasts before [ɹ]. General American also generally has yod-dropping after alveolar consonants. Other phonemic mergers, including the cot–caught merger, the pin–pen merger, the Mary–marry–merry merger and the wine–whine merger, may be found optionally at least in informal and semiformal varieties.
One phenomenon apparently unique to General American is the behavior of the stressed /ɒrV/ where /V/ stands for any vowel (usually /ə/ or /ɨ/)—i.e. stressed /ɒr/ followed by a vowel sound. Particularly words using this sound are pronounced distinctly in different North American accents: in New York–New Jersey English, the Philadelphia dialect, and the Carolinas they are all pronounced with /ɑr-/ and in Canadian English they are all pronounced with /ɔr-/ (thus an American's sorry sounds like sah-ree to a Canadian). But in General American there is a split: the majority of these words have /ɔr-/, like Canadian English, but the first five words of the list below have /-ɑr-/, like New York-New Jersey English, for many speakers. Words of this class include, among others:
|Example words regarding the General American split of stressed /ɒr/
followed by a vowel, in comparison with other English dialects:
|represented by the diaphoneme //||represented by the diaphoneme // or //|
|pronounced [ɒɹ] in England English||pronounced [ɔːɹ] in England English|
|pronounced [ɒɹ] in Boston English||pronounced [ɔɹ] in Boston English|
|pronounced [ɔɹ] in Canadian English|
|pronounced [ɑɹ] in regional Atlantic American English[note 1]||pronounced [ɔɹ] in regional Atlantic American English[note 1]|
|pronounced [ɑɹ] ( ) in General American English||pronounced [ɔɹ] ( ) in General American English|
(these five words only:)
Tory, warring (etc.)
- Wells (1982c:471)
- Wells (1982a:34)
- Wells (1982a:110)
- Gross, Terry (January 24, 2005), A Fake Newsman's Fake Newsman: Stephen Colbert, Fresh Air (National Public Radio), retrieved 2007-07-11
- Safer, Morley (August 13, 2006), The Colbert Report: Morley Safer Profiles Comedy Central's 'Fake' Newsman, 60 Minutes, retrieved 2006-08-15
- You Know What The Midwest Is?
- Telsur Project home page
- "Do You Speak American? American Varieties: The Midwest Accent". PBS. Retrieved 2012-09-06.
- Seabrook (2005)
- Hallé, Best & Levitt (1999:283) citing Delattre & Freeman (1968), Zawadzki & Kuehn (1980), and Boyce & Espy-Wilson (1997)
- Grzegorz Dogil, Susanne Maria Reiterer, and Walter de Gruyter, ed. (2009). "general+american"+"velarized" Language Talent and Brain Activity: Trends in Applied Linguistics. Walter de Gruyter GmbH. p. 299.
- Jones, Roach & Hartman (2006:xi)
- Rogers (2000:120–121)
- Mannell, Cox & Harrington (2009a).
- Mannell, Cox & Harrington (2009b).
- Labov et al. (2006), p. 182.
- Thomas (2001:27–28)
- Wells (1982c:476)
- Wells (1982:479)
- Shitara (1993:?)
- Boyce, S.; Espy-Wilson, C. (1997), Coarticulatory stability in American English /r/, Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 101 (6): 3741–3753, doi:10.1121/1.418333, PMID 9193061
- Delattre, P.; Freeman, D.C. (1968), A dialect study of American R's by x-ray motion picture, Linguistics 44: 29–68
- Hallé, Pierre A.; Best, Catherine T.; Levitt, Andrea (1999), Phonetic vs. phonological influences on French listeners' perception of American English approximants, Journal of Phonetics 27 (3): 281–306, doi:10.1006/jpho.1999.0097
- Jones, Daniel; Roach, Peter; Hartman, James (2006), Cambridge English Pronouncing Dictionary (17 ed.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
- Labov, William; Ash, Sharon; Boberg, Charles (2006), The Atlas of North American English, Berlin: Mouton-de Gruyter, pp. 187–208, ISBN 3-11-016746-8
- Mannell, R.; Cox, F.; Harrington, J. (2009a), An Introduction to Phonetics and Phonology, Macquarie University
- Mannell, R.; Cox, F.; Harrington, J. (2009b), An Introduction to Phonetics and Phonology, Macquarie University
- Roca, Iggy; Johnson, Wyn (1999), Course in Phonology, Blackwell Publishing
- Rogers, Henry (2000), The Sounds of Language: An Introduction to Phonetics, Essex: Pearson Education Limited, ISBN 978-0-582-38182-7
- Seabrook, John (May 19, 2005), The Academy: Talking the Tawk, The New Yorker, retrieved 2008-05-14
- Shitara, Yuko (1993), A survey of American pronunciation preferences, Speech Hearing and Language 7: 201–232
- Silverstein, Bernard (1994), NTC's Dictionary of American English Pronunciation, Lincolnwood, Illinois: NTC Publishing Group, ISBN 0-8442-0726-8
- Thomas, Erik R. (2001), An acoustic analysis of vowel variation in New World English, Publication of the American Dialect Society 85, Duke University Press for the American Dialect Society, ISSN 0002-8207
- Wells, John C. (1982a), Accents of English 1, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-22919-7
- Wells, John C. (1982b), Accents of English 2, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-24224-X
- Wells, John C. (1982c), Accents of English 3, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-24225-8
- Wells, John C. (2000), Longman Pronunciation Dictionary (2nd ed.), Harlow: Longman, ISBN 0-582-36468-X
- Zawadzki, P.A.; Kuehn, D.P. (1980), A cineradiographic study of static and dynamic aspects of American English /r/, Phonetica 37 (4): 253–266, doi:10.1159/000259995, PMID 7443796
- The CMU Pronouncing Dictionary
- 'Hover & Hear' pronunciations in a General American accent, and compare side by side with other English accents from the US and around the World.
- Hollywords Audiovisual Industry Dictionary Project Style Guide (Includes pronunciation guides based on the American Broadcast English (ABE) accent)