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.
According to British phonetician John C. Wells, Standard Canadian English 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[newer figures?] of the U.S. population spoke General American English. 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.
History and definition
The term "General American" was first disseminated by American English scholar 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.
Anglicist 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.
Due to the prestige and prescriptivism potentially associated with a "General" variety of American speech, Kretzchmar prefers the term Standard American English, claiming it describes a level of 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 is also 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 continuum, has also been very recently suggested by sociolinguist Charles Boberg.
General American in the media
The General American accent is most closely related to a conservative, generalized Midwestern accent of the early 1900s 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," 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.
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 (// → [w]): The breathy "wh" sound is largely merged to a normal "w" sound [w] ( listen), so that, for instance, whale and wail sound exactly alike in most General American accents. 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/.
- Rhoticity (or '"r"-fulness): The General American accent is firmly rhotic, pronouncing the "r" sound in all environments, including after vowels, such as in pearl, car, and court. Americans realize the phoneme [ɹ] ( listen) (often transcribed as /r/) as postalveolar, like in most English varieties, though with some possible retroflexion (perhaps, even as [ɻ] ( listen)).
- "T"-glottalization and "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).
- 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: England's 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 obvious in General American; 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/).
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 dialects": Standard Canadian, Western American, and Midland American English. The following charts present the vowels that these three dialects share together as a perceived General American sound system.
|Pure vowels (Monophthongs)|
|English diaphoneme||General American phoneme||Example words|
|/æ/||[æ] ( listen)||bath, trap, yak|
|[æ̝~ɛə~eə]||ham, man, yeah|
|/ɑː/||[ɑ~ä] ( listen)||ah, father, spa|
|/ɒ/||bother, lot, wasp|
|Canada: [ɒ(ː)]( listen)
West: [ɑ(ː)] ( listen)
|boss, dog, off|
|/ɔː/||all, bought, flaunt|
|/ɛ/||[ɛ] ( listen)||dress, met, bread|
|/ə/||[ə] ( listen)||about, syrup, arena|
|/ɪ/||[ɪ] ( listen)||hit, skim, tip|
|/iː/||[i(ː)] ( listen)||beam, chic, flee|
|/i/||[i] ( listen)||happy, money, parties|
|/ɨ/||[ɪ̈~ɪ~ə] ( listen)||private, muffin, wasted|
|/ʌ/||[ʌ~ʌ̟~ɐ] ( listen)||bus, flood, what|
|/ʊ/||[ʊ] ( listen)||book, put, should|
West: [u̟ː~ʊu] ( 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 [ɛ̝ə̯] ( pronunciation of /æn/ as [ɛ̝ə̯n]; pronunciation of /æm/ as [ɛ̝ə̯m]), or, based on specific dialect, variously as [e̞ə̯] or [ɪə̯]. This phenomenon is called "/æ/ tensing" in phonological discourse.
- Father–bother merger (// → [ɑ]): Nearly all American accents merge the vowel sounds of words like spa and ah with the vowel sounds of words like spot and odd; therefore, con and Kahn 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 "broad a" vowel) and 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 more of a central or advanced back vowel [ä] (also transcribed as [a̠] or [ɑ̟] ( listen), while /ɔ/ is phonetically higher in the mouth and/or more rounded, closer 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 a full absence of a merger. 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 (known as "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 is even more drastically variable in the word miracle.
- Unstressed pure vowels:
- Weak-vowel merger: [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. However, [ə] and [ɪ̈] can frequently overlap and easily merge in American accents, especially towards the schwa [ə].
- Pure vowels that are not in stressed syllables may vary somewhat in quality, without any particular rules:
- 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/, and often even merges with /əl/, so that /ʌl/, as in full or bull, becomes [ʌɫ̩] or [ɫ̩].
- Fronting of "long oo" (// → [u̟]): The General American vowel /u/ (as in lose, loose, or loot) has a unique quality ( 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.
|Gliding vowels (Diphthongs)|
|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~o̞ɪ] ( listen)||boy, choice, moist|
West: [o̞ʊ~ʌ̈ʊ] ( listen)
|goat, home, toe|
|[o̞ʊ~o̞(ː)] ( listen)||goal, holy, toll|
- Raising of the start of the "long i" sound before voiceless consonants: The // 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). This phenomenon is growing in American English, first predominant historically in the Northern, New England, and Mid-Atlantic regions of the country. In the General American accent, this alone causes a distinction, for example, between the words rider and writer ( listen). Although now 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].
|English diaphoneme||General American phoneme||Example words|
|/ɑr/||[ɑɚ~ɑɹ] ( listen)||barn, car, park|
|/ɛər/||[ɛɚ] ( listen)||bare, bear, there|
|/ɜr/||[ɚ] ( listen)||burn, doctor, first,
herd, learn, murder
|/ɪər/||[iɚ~ɪɚ] ( listen)||fear, peer, tier|
|/ɔr/||[o̞ɹ~ɔɚ] ( listen)||horse, storm, war|
|/ɔər/||hoarse, store, wore|
|/ʊər/||[ʊɚ~o̞ɹ~ɔɚ]||moor, poor, tour|
|/jʊər/||[jʊɚ~jɚ] ( listen)||cure, Europe, pure|
- Horse–hoarse merger (// + // → [o̞ɹ]): 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 /ɔr/–/ɔər/ (horse–hoarse) sets. In the U.S. in particular, however, four words alone are exceptions (tomorrow, sorry, sorrow, borrow and, for some speakers, morrow), which more commonly use the sound [ɑɹ], uniquely merging with the // set (thus, sorry and sari become homophones, both rhyming with starry).
- In most American English, both // (or [ɝ]) and // (or [ɚ]) are actually pronounced, without much or any distinction, as [ɚ] ( listen); for example, the word worker /ˈwɜrkər/ is often realized with two rhyming syllables as [ˈwɚkɚ] ( listen).
- Wells (1982c:470)
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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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