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 popularly perceived, among Americans, as lacking any distinctly regional, ethnic, or socioeconomic characteristics. Due to the perception of such a variety of English being widespread throughout the United States, General American is sometimes, though controversially, known as Standard American English. The precise definition and usefulness of "General American" continues to be debated, and the scholars who use it today admittedly do so as a convenient basis for comparison rather than for exactness.
Standard Canadian English is sometimes considered to fall under the phonological spectrum of General American, especially rather than the United Kingdom's Received Pronunciation; in fact, spoken Canadian English aligns with General American in nearly every situation where British and American English differ.
The term "General American" was first disseminated by American English scholar George Philip Krapp, who, in 1925, described it as an American type of speech that was "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." Now, typically regarded as falling under the General American umbrella are the regional accents of the American West, Western New England, the American North Midland, and arguably all of English-speaking Canada west of Quebec. By 1982, according to British phonetician John C. Wells, two-thirds of the American population spoke with a General American accent.
Once in the earlier 20th century, but no longer included since the 1960s, are the more recent regional dialects of the Mid-Atlantic United States, the Inland Northern United States, and Western Pennsylvania. Accents that have never been included, even since the term's popularization in the 1930s, are the regional accents (especially the "r"-dropping ones) of Eastern New England, New York City, and the American South. By the 2000s, American sociolinguist William Labov concluded that, if anything could be regarded as "General American," it would essentially be a convergence of those pronunciation features shared by Western American English, Midland American English, and Standard Canadian English.
Name and disputed usage
English-language scholar William A. Kretzchmar, Jr. explains in a 2004 article that
The term "General American" arose as a name for a presumed most common or "default" form of American English, especially to be distinguished from marked regional speech of New England or the South. "General American" has often been considered to be the relatively unmarked speech of "the Midwest", a vague designation for anywhere in the vast midsection of the country from Ohio west to Nebraska, and from the Canadian border as far south as Missouri or Kansas. No historical justification for this term exists, and neither do present circumstances support its use... [I]t implies that there is some exemplary state of American English from which other varieties deviate. On the contrary, [it] can best be characterized as what is left over after speakers suppress the regional and social features that have risen to salience and become noticeable.
Because of the privileging and prejudice potentially associated with calling one variety of American speech "General," especially to imply that it is the nation's prestige dialect, Kretzchmar prefers the term Standard American English, claiming it is a more neutral term, describing a level of American English pronunciation "employed by educated speakers in formal settings," while still being variable within the U.S. from place to place, and even from speaker to speaker. However, this term may also be problematic, since "Standard English may be taken to reflect conformance to a set of rules, but its meaning commonly gets bound up with social ideas about how one's character and education are displayed in one's speech." The term Standard North American English, in an effort to incorporate Canadian speakers under the accent continuum, has also been very recently suggested by sociolinguist Charles Boberg.
Modern language scholars discredit the original notions of General American as being a single regional or unified accent, or a standardized form of English—except perhaps as used by television networks and other mass media. Today, the term is understood to refer to a continuum of American speech, with some slight internal variation, but otherwise characterized by the absence of "marked" pronunciation features: those perceived by Americans as strongly indicative of a fellow American speaker's regional origin, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status. Despite confusion arising from the evolving definition and vagueness of the term "General American" and its consequent rejection by some linguists, the term persists mainly as a reference point to compare a baseline "typical" American English accent with other Englishes around the world (for instance, see: Comparison of General American and Received Pronunciation).
Despite the common perception of there being a mainstream American accent that is free of any regional features or regional influence, 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.
The fact that a rural, broadly 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 noticeably away from General American sounds, especially since that era's regionally unique Northern Cities Vowel Shift (NCVS). The regionality of one's accent often gets more distinct the farther north one goes within the Midwest, and the Midwest is even home now to at least two major dialects that definitively use pronunciations divergent from "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).
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 Midwestern (specifically, Ohio) pronunciation.
General American in the media
The General American accent is most closely related to a generalized Midwestern accent, which likely gained ground nationally by being spoken particularly by many newscasters and radio and television announcers; this has led the accent being sometimes referred to as a "newscaster accent," "television 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," or "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.
- Wine–whine merger: The consonants spelled w and wh are usually pronounced the same; a separate phoneme /ʍ/ (wh) is present only in certain dialects. /ʍ/ is often analyzed as a consonant cluster of /hw/.
- Rhoticity (or r-fulness): General American accents are firmly rhotic, pronouncing the r sound in all environments, including after vowels, such as in pearl, car, and court. Americans often realize the phoneme [ɹ] ( listen) (often transcribed as /r/) as postalveolar, as in most varieties of English, but sometimes as retroflex [ɻ] ( listen). Non-rhotic American accents, those that do not pronounce r in some positions in a word, such as Eastern New England, New York, or African American vernacular accents, are often quickly noticed by General American listeners and perceived to sound especially ethnic, regional, or "old-fashioned" (i.e., local and non-mainstream).
T-glottalization and flapping
- T-glottalization: /t/ is pronounced as a glottal stop [ʔ] before a consonant (such as a syllabic nasal), as in button [ˈbʌ̈ʔn] ( listen), and sometimes at the end of a word, as in what [wʌ̈ʔ].
- Flapping: /t/ and /d/ become an alveolar flap, written [ɾ] ( listen), between vowels or liquids (l and r), as in water [ˈwɑɾɚ] ( listen), party [ˈpʰɑɹɾi], model [ˈmɑɾ.ɫ̩], and what is it? [wʌ̈ɾˈɪzɪt].
- Yod-dropping: After consonants formed with the tongue touching the ridge on the roof of the mouth (alveolar consonants), the historical sound // is most commonly "dropped" or "deleted," so that, for example, new // becomes [nu̟ː], duke // becomes [du̟ːk], and tube // becomes [tʰu̟ːb].
- L-velarization: The distinction between a clear l (i.e. [l] ( listen)) and a dark l (i.e. [ɫ] ( listen)) in the standard English of England (Received Pronunciation) is mostly absent in General American. Instead, all l sounds are pronounced more or less "dark", which means that they all have some degree of velarization. Some speakers also vocalize /l/ to [ɤ̯] when it appears before /f v/ (and sometimes also /s z/).
The 2006 Atlas of North American English surmises that "if one were to recognize a type of North American English to be called 'General American'" according to data measurements of vowel pronunciations, "it would be the configuration formed by these three" dialect regions: Canada, the American West, and the American Midland. The following charts present the vowels that these three dialects encompass as a perceived General American sound system.
|English diaphoneme||General American phoneme||Example words|
|/æ/||[æ] listen||bath, trap, yak|
|[æ~ɛə~eə]||ban, tram, yeah|
|/ɑː/||[ɑ~ä] listen||ah, father, spa|
|/ɒ/||bother, lot, wasp|
|[ɑ(ː)~ɒ(ː)~ɔ] ||boss, dog, off|
|/ɔː/||all, bought, flaunt|
|/ɛ/||[ɛ] listen||dress, met, bread|
|/ə/||[ə] listen||about, syrup, arena|
|/ɪ/||[ɪ] listen||kit, pink, tip|
|/iː/||[i(ː)] listen||beam, chic, fleece|
|/i/||[i] listen||happy, money, parties|
|/ɨ/||[ɪ̈~ɪ~ə] listen||private, muffin, wasted|
|/ʌ/||[ʌ~ɐ] listen||bus, flood, what|
|/ʊ/||[ʊ] listen||book, put, should|
|/uː/||[u̟ː~ʊu~ʉu~ɵu] listen||goose, new, true|
- Raising of short a before m and n sounds: For most speakers, the short a sound, transcribed as [æ] ( listen), is pronounced with the tongue raised in the mouth, followed by a backward glide, whenever occurring before a nasal consonant (that is, before /m/, /n/ and, for some speakers, /ŋ/). This sound may be narrowly transcribed as [ɛə] (as in Anne and am), or, based on a specific dialect, variously as [eə] or [ɪə]. This phenomenon is called /æ/-tensing in phonological discourse.
- Father–bother merger (// → [ɑ]): Nearly all American accents merge the broad a in words like spa and ah with the short o of words like spot and odd; therefore, con and khan are homophones in General American.
- Cot–caught merger in transition: There is no single General American way to pronounce the vowels in words like cot /ɑ/ (the ah or broad a vowel) versus caught /ɔ/ (the aw vowel), largely due to a merger occurring between the two sounds in some parts of North America, but not others. American speakers with a completed merger pronounce the two historically separate vowels with the exact same sound (especially in the West, northern New England, West Virginia, western Pennsylvania, and the Upper Midwest), but other speakers have no trace of a merger at all (especially in the South, the Great Lakes region, southern New England, and the Mid-Atlantic and New York metropolitan areas) and so pronounce each vowel with distinct sounds (listen). Among speakers who distinguish between the two, the vowel of cot (usually transcribed in American English as [ɑ] ( listen)), may be a central or advanced back vowel [ä] ( listen) or [ɑ̟], while /ɔ/ is phonetically higher in the mouth or pronounced with more rounded lips, close to [ɒ] ( listen), but 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). Therefore, General American speakers vary greatly with this speech feature, with possibilities ranging from a full merger to no merger at all. In the middle of this range, a transitional stage of the merger is also common in random scatterings throughout the U.S., though especially among younger speakers and most consistently in the Midland region lying between the historical North and South. According to a 2003 dialect survey carried out across the United States, about 61% of participants perceive themselves as keeping the two vowels distinct and 39% do not.
- Vowel mergers before r (before a vowel): General American participates in some mergers of vowel sounds only when such a vowel occurs before an // sound that is itself followed by another vowel (intervocalic r).
- Mary–marry–merry merger in transition: According to a 2003 dialect survey of the United States, nearly 57% of participants from around the country merged the sounds // (as in the first syllable of parish), // (as in the first syllable of perish), and // (as in pear or pair); the merged sound ranges between [ɛɚ] and [ɛ(ː)ɹ]. The merger is in transition, already complete everywhere except along some areas of the Atlantic Coast.
- Hurry–furry merger: The pre-r vowels in words like hurry // and furry // are merged in most General American accents to [ə~ɚ]. Only 10% of English speakers across the U.S. maintain the historic hurry vowel before //, according to a 2003 dialect survey.
- Mirror–nearer merger in transition: The pre-r vowels in words like mirror // and nearer // are merged in some General American accents, usually to [i(ː)]. The quality of the historic mirror vowel in miracle is quite variable.
- Unstressed pure vowels:
- Weak-vowel merger: [ə] and [ɪ̈] (also transcribed as [ɨ̞] and [ᵻ] (the latter is an unofficial IPA extension 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. However, [ə] and [ɪ̈] frequently overlap and often merge in American accents, especially towards the schwa [ə].
- Phonetically, the schwa /ə/ (as in COMMA) ranges from close-mid [ɘ] to open-mid [ɜ].
- In environments in which the tense–lax contrast between the close vowels is neutralized, the phonetic realization of these vowels varies in height between close and close-mid:
- /iː~ɪ/ (as in HAPPY; usually transcribed /i/ even though it is not a phoneme) ranges from close front [i] to close-mid retracted front [e̠];
- /uː~ʊ/ (as in INFLUENCE; usually transcribed /u/ even though it is not a phoneme) ranges from close advanced back [u̟] to close-mid retracted central [ɵ̠].
- Fronting of short u (// → [ʌ̈~ɐ]): The vowel /ʌ/ (of strut, luck, rough, what, etc.), is generally near-open and fronted, approaching [ʌ̈~ɐ] ( listen); however, it always remains a back vowel before /l/, so that /ʌl/, as in null or skull, becomes [ʌɫ].
- Fronting of long oo (// → [u̟]): The vowel /u/ (as in lose, loose, or loot) has a unique quality in the United States ( listen); it tends to be less rounded [u̜] and more fronted [u̟], and perhaps even diphthongized with a somewhat fronter and lower onset; this can be transcribed in a variety of ways.
|English diaphoneme||General American phoneme||Example words|
|/aɪ/||[äɪ] listen||bride, prize, tie|
|[äɪ~ɐɪ~ʌɪ]||bright, price, tyke|
|/aʊ/||[aʊ~æʊ] listen||now, ouch, scout|
|/eɪ/||[eɪ~ɛ̝ɪ] listen||lake, paid, rein|
|/ɔɪ/||[ɔɪ~oɪ] listen||boy, choice, moist|
|/oʊ/||[oʊ~ɔʊ~ʌʊ] listen||goat, home, toe|
- Raising of the start of the long i sound before voiceless consonants: The long i vowel (//), as in pine or pie—pronounced [äɪ] ( listen) in North America—has a starting sound (an "on-glide") in which the tongue is raised towards [ɐɪ] or [ʌɪ] whenever it appears before a voiceless consonant (such as //, //, //, or //, for instance, in pike or python). Because of this sound change, the words rider and writer ( listen) are distinguished by their vowel sounds, even though the letters d and t are both pronounced as an alveolar flap [ɾ]. It also applies across word boundaries, though the position of a word or phrase's stress may prevent 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" would be pronounced [ˌhäɪˈsku̟ɫ].
- This sound change began in the Northern, New England, and Mid-Atlantic regions of the country, and is becoming more common. It is known as Canadian raising, even though it occurs in the U.S. as well as in Canada. Canada and certain areas of the U.S. also experience another variety of Canadian raising that affects the diphthong in the word out.
|English diaphoneme||General American phoneme||Example words|
|/ɑːr/||[ɑɚ~ɑɹ] listen||barn, car, park|
|/ɛər/||[ɛɚ] listen||bare, bear, there|
|/ɜːr/||[ɚ] listen||burn, doctor, first,
herd, learn, murder
|/ɪər/||[iɚ~ɪɚ] listen||fear, peer, tier|
|/ɔːr/||[ɔɚ~oɹ] listen||horse, storm, war|
|/ɔər/||hoarse, store, wore|
|/ʊər/||[ʊɚ~oɹ~ɔɚ] listen||moor, poor, tour|
|/jʊər/||[jʊɚ~jɚ] listen||cure, Europe, pure|
- Horse–hoarse merger (// + // → [ɔɚ]): As in most modern varieties of English around the world, words like war and wore are pronounced the same in General American English. Words with these r-colored vowels, such as north and horse, are usually transcribed /nɔɹθ/ and /hɔɹs/, but may be closer in General American English to [no̞ɹθ] and [ho̞ɹs]. Thus, in these cases, the [ɔ] before /ɹ/ can be analyzed as an allophone of /o/.
- "Short o" before r (before a vowel): In typical North American accents (U.S. and Canada alike), the phoneme // (a short o sound followed by r and then another vowel, as in orange, forest, moral, and warrant) is realized as [oɹ~ɔɹ], thus further merging with the already-merged /ɔːr/–/ɔər/ (horse–hoarse) set. In the U.S., four words (tomorrow, sorry, sorrow, borrow and, for some speakers, morrow) usually contain the sound [ɑɹ] instead, and merge with the // set (thus, sorry and sari become homophones, both rhyming with starry).
- In General American English, both // (or [ɝ]) and // (or [ɚ]) are actually pronounced, without much or any distinction, as [ɚ] ( listen); for example, the word worker /ˈwɜːrkər/ is often realized with two rhyming syllables as [ˈwɚkɚ] ( listen).
- List of dialects of the English language
- List of English words from indigenous languages of the Americas
- Accent reduction
- African-American English
- American English
- Chicano English
- English phonology
- English spelling reform
- Hawaiian Pidgin
- Mid-Atlantic English
- Northern cities vowel shift
- Received Pronunciation
- Regional vocabularies of American English
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- 'Hover & Hear' pronunciations in a General American accent, and compare side by side with other English accents from the US and around the World.
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