General American (abbreviated as GA or GenAm) is an umbrella variety of American English—a continuum of accents—commonly attributed to a majority of Americans and perceived as lacking any notably regional, ethnic, or socioeconomic characteristics. However, the General American sound system does, in fact, have traceable regional origins: namely, the Northern speech patterns of the non-coastal Eastern United States, including interior Pennsylvania, upstate New York, and the adjacent Midwestern region, prior to the Northern Cities Vowel Shift of the mid-20th century. Due to the prevalence of General American speech, it is sometimes, though controversially, referred to as a de facto standard accent of the United States. Scholars continue to debate the precise definition and usefulness of the term, with those who use it today admittedly doing so as a convenient basis for comparison rather than for exactness.
The term "General American" was first disseminated by American Anglicist George Philip Krapp, who, in 1925, described it as "Western" but "not local in character." In 1930, American linguist John Samuel Kenyon, who largely popularized the term, considered it equivalent to the speech of "the North," or "Northern American," but, in 1934, "Western and Midwestern." By the 1940s, a common definition for General American was any American English accent that excluded the regionally distinct sounds of the American South, Eastern New England, and New York City; by the 1960s, this further came to exclude the regional sounds of the Mid-Atlantic region and Western Pennsylvania. By the 2000s, American sociolinguist William Labov concluded that, if any sound system could be recognized as "General American," it would essentially be a convergence of those features shared among the American West, Midland, and Canada. According to British phonetician John C. Wells, typical Canadian English indeed aligns to General American rather than England's Received Pronunciation in every situation where these latter two differ. He also asserted that, by 1982, two-thirds[more recent figures needed] of the U.S. population spoke General American English.
General American in the media
The General American accent is most closely related to a conservative, generalized Midwestern accent and may have gained ground nationally by being spoken particularly by many newscasters and radio and television announcers; this has led the accent to being sometimes referred to as an American newscaster accent, "Network English" or "Network Standard." General American is sometimes promoted as preferable to other regional accents and prestigious. In the United States, classes promising "accent reduction", "accent modification," and "accent neutralization" generally attempt to teach speech patterns similar to this accent. A common experience among many American celebrities is having worked hard to lose their native accents in favor a more mainstream General American sound, including television journalist Linda Ellerbee (originally, a speaker of Texan English), who stated that "in television you are not supposed to sound like you're from anywhere," as well as political comedian Stephen Colbert, who completely reduced his South Carolina accent as a child because of the common portrayal of Southerners as stupid on American television.
Regional home of General American
General American English likely evolved as the result of an aggregation of rural and suburban Midwestern dialects with historical ties to the speech of upper New York State and midland Pennsylvania. The fact that a rural 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, since California speech itself became prevalent in nationally syndicated films and media via the Hollywood film industry.
However, the English of the Midwest's Great Lakes region (as well as the region to its immediate west), since at least the middle of the 20th century, has begun deviating quite dramatically away from the sounds of General American, especially since that era's regionally specific Northern Cities Vowel Shift (NCVS). The regional notability of one's accent often gets more distinct the farther north one goes within the Midwest, and the Midwest is even home now to two dialects that are definitively not perceived as sounding like "General American": the Inland North dialect (often associated with the Great Lakes urban centers, including Chicago) and the North Central dialect (often associated with Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the Dakotas).
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 ["Northern Cities Shift"] 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 Hoosiers 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.
Particularly important in setting standards was John Kenyon, the pronunciation editor of the second edition of Webster's New International Dictionary, who is claimed to have based his dictionary's pronunciation standard on his native Ohio.
- Wine–whine merger: largely in effect toward [w] ( listen); the phoneme [ʍ] ( listen) is retained only in American English varieties that have not undergone the merger, with /ʍ/ often analyzed as a consonant cluster of /hw/.
- /r/ as [ɹ] or [ɻ]: many Americans realize the phoneme [ɹ] ( listen) (often transcribed as /r/) as postalveolar, with some possible retroflexion (perhaps, even as [ɻ] ( listen)).
- T-glottalization and intervocalic alveolar flapping: /t/ undergoes t-glottalization, producing a glottal stop [ʔ], before a consonant (particularly a syllabic nasal) or in word-final position, for example, in words like button [ˈbʌʔn] ( listen), mountain [ˈmæʊnʔn̩] ( listen), atmosphere [ˈæʔməsfɪɚ] ( listen), grateful [ˈgɹeɪʔfɫ̩] ( listen), and cot [kʰäʔ] ( listen). The word-final /t/ rule, however, may be superseded by General American's intervocalic alveolar flapping, wherein intervocalic /t/ as well as intervocalic /d/ become [ɾ] ( listen) when between a stressed syllable and an unstressed one, or between two unstressed syllables; for example, leader [ˈɫiɾɚ] ( listen), catalogue/catalog [ˈkʰæɾəɫɑg] ( listen), or ratty [ˈɹæɾi] ( listen). Typically, /t/ and /d/ also between /r/ and a vowel become realized as the flap consonant [ɾ]; thus: party [ˈpʰɑɹɾi] ( listen).
- L-velarization: the typical English distinction between a "clear L" (i.e. [l] ( listen)) and a "dark L" (i.e. [ɫ] ( listen) or even [ʟ] ( listen)) 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 that all "L" sounds have some degree of velarization. Additionally, some speakers may vocalize /l/ to [ɤ̯] when it appears before /f v/ (and sometimes also /s z/).
General American has eleven or twelve pure vowel 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~ɛ̝ɪ] ( listen) (e.g. in laid and pray) and [o̞ʊ~ʌʊ] ( listen) (e.g. in so and load) respectively, especially in open syllables.
^2 For most speakers, what is transcribed as [æ] ( listen) is always raised and sometimes diphthongized when appearing before a nasal consonant (that is, before /m/, /n/ and, for some, /ŋ/). This allophone is especially audible in monosyllabic words, and it 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] ( listen) and [ɪ̈] (also transcribed as [ɨ̞] and [ᵻ] (the latter is a non-IPA symbol) ( listen)) are indeterminate vowel sounds that occur only in unstressed syllables of certain types. [ə] is heard, for example, 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. [ɪ̈] is heard as the "a" in private or cottage, the "e" in evading or sorted, the "i" in sordid, the "u" in minute, or the "y" in mythologist. [ə] and [ɪ̈] frequently overlap and easily merge, this is known as the weak-vowel merger.
^4 The vowel of strut is generally near-open and fronted (approaching [ʌ̈~ɐ] ( listen)), but speakers from Ohio and, commonly, those in the South realize this vowel as an open-mid central unrounded vowel ([ɜ~œ̈]). It however always remains a back vowel before /l/, and often even merges with /əl/, so that /ʌl/ becomes [ʌɫ̩] or [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).
^6 The General American vowel /u/ has a unique quality ( listen); it tends to be slightly less rounded [u̜] and more fronted [u̟], and perhaps even diphthongized with a somewhat fronter and lower onset.
- General American speakers are largely divided in how they pronounce the vowel sound in words like 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: cot–caught distinction (help·info). Among speakers who distinguish between the two, the vowel of cot (usually transcribed in American English as [ɑ] ( listen)), may be more of a central vowel which may vary from [a̠] (also [ä]) to [ɑ̟] ( listen), while /ɔ/ is phonetically lower, closer to [ɒ] ( listen) 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 [ɒ] (also transcribed [ɑʷ] in non-standard IPA), 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 [no̞ɹθ] and [ho̞ɹs]. Thus, in these cases, the [ɔ] before /ɹ/ can be analyzed as an allophone of /o/.
- Unstressed vowels vary in quality:
- The // diphthong—[äɪ] ( listen)—before a voiceless consonant may be raised towards [ɐɪ] or [ʌɪ], a growing phenomenon in General American, predominant historically in the northern, New England, and Mid-Atlantic regions. 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 [ˈhɐɪsku̟ɫ]; however, a high school in the literal sense of "a tall school" is pronounced [ˌhäɪˈsku̟ɫ].
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] ( listen), [ɐɪ], [eɪ~ɛ̝ɪ] ( listen)||[aʊ~æʊ] ( listen)|
|Opener component is rounded||[ɔɪ] ( listen)||[o̞ʊ~ʌʊ] ( listen)|
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-/. 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:
|General American stressed /ɒr/ followed by a vowel
in comparison with other English dialects:
|//||// and //|
|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] ( listen) in General American English||pronounced [ɔɹ] ( listen) in General American English|
(these five words only:)
Tory, warring (etc.)
- Wells (1982c:470)
- Van Riper (2014:123)
- Kövecses, Zoltán (2000). American English. An Introduction. Peterborough, Canada: Broadview Press. pp. 81-2.
- Wells (1982a:34)
- Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006:190)
- "Talking the Tawk". The New Yorker. Condé Nast. 2005.
- Van Riper (2014:125–6)
- Wells (1982a:34)
- Wells (1982a:118)
- Van Riper (2014:124, 126)
- A Handbook of Varieties of English, Bernd Kortmann & Edgar W. Schneider, Walter de Gruyter (eds.), Mouton de Gruyter, 2004, p. 262.
- Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006:263)
- Van Riper (2014:124)
- Van Riper (2014:125)
- Van Riper (2014:129)
- Van Riper (2014:128–9)
- Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006:146)
- Wells (1982c:491)
- 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, eds. (2009). "general+american"+"velarized" Language Talent and Brain Activity: Trends in Applied Linguistics. Walter de Gruyter GmbH. p. 299.
- Jones, Roach & Hartman (2006:xi)
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- Labov et al. (2006), p. 182.
- Thomas (2001:27–28)
- Heggarty, Paul et al, eds. (2013). "Accents of English from Around the World". University of Edinburgh.
- Wells (1982c:476)
- Wells (1982:479)
- Wells (2008:XXV)
- Labov et al. (2006:114): "where Canadian raising has traditionally been reported: Canada, Eastern New England, Philadelphia, and the North"
- Plag, Ingo; Braun, Maria; Lappe, Sabine; Schramm, Mareile (2009). Introduction to English Linguistics. Walter de Gruyter. p. 53. ISBN 978-3-11-021550-2. Retrieved 4 July 2013.
- Wells (1982a:247)
- 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
- Van Riper, William R. (2014) , "General American: An Ambiguity", in Allen, Harold B.; Linn, Michael D., Dialect and Language Variation, Elsevier
- 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
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- 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)