General American English or General American (abbreviated GA or GenAm) is the umbrella accent
of American English
spoken by a majority of Americans and widely perceived, among Americans, as lacking any distinctly regional, ethnic, or socioeconomic characteristics. In reality, it encompasses a continuum of accents
rather than a single unified accent. Americans with high education, or from the North Midland
, Western New England
, and Western
regions of the country, are the most likely to be perceived as having "General American" accents. The precise definition and usefulness of the term "General American" continue to be debated, and the scholars who use it today admittedly do so as a convenient basis for comparison rather than for exactness. Other scholars prefer the term Standard American English.
Standard Canadian English
accents are sometimes considered to fall under General American, especially in opposition to the United Kingdom
's Received Pronunciation
; in fact, typical Canadian English accents align with General American in nearly every situation where British and American accents differ
History and modern definition
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 West
, Western New England
, and the North Midland
(a band spanning central Ohio, central Indiana, central Illinois, northern Missouri, southern Iowa, and southeastern Nebraska), plus the accents of highly educated Americans nationwide. Arguably, all Canadian English
accents west of Quebec
are also General American, though Canadian vowel raising
and certain newly developing features may serve to increasingly distinguish such accents from American ones. Similarly, William Labov
et al.'s 2006 ''Atlas of North American English
'' identified these three accent regions—the Western U.S., Midland U.S., and Canada—as sharing those pronunciation features whose convergence would form a hypothetical "General American" accent.
Regarded as having General American accents in the earlier 20th century, but not by the middle of the 20th century, are the Mid-Atlantic United States
, the Inland Northern United States
, and Western Pennsylvania
. However, many younger speakers within these regions have reversed away from mid-20th century accent innovations back towards General American features.
Accents that have never been labeled "General American", 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
. In 1982, British phonetician John C. Wells
wrote that two-thirds of the American population spoke with a General American accent.
William A. Kretzchmar, Jr. explains in a 2004 article that the term "General American" came to refer to "a presumed most common or 'default' form of American English, especially to be distinguished from marked regional speech of New England or the South" and especially to speech associated with the vaguely-defined "Midwest
", despite any historical or present evidence supporting this notion. Kretzschmar argues that a General American accent is simply the result of American speakers suppressing regional and social features that have become widely noticed and stigmatized.
Since calling one variety of American speech the "general" variety can imply privileging and prejudice
, Kretzchmar instead promotes the term ''Standard American English'', which he defines as 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, the term "standard" may also be interpreted as problematically implying a superior or "best" form of speech. The term ''Standard North American English'', in an effort to incorporate Canadian speakers
under the accent continuum, was also suggested by .
Modern language scholars discredit the original notion of General American as a single unified accent, or a standardized form of English
—except perhaps as used by television network
s 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
Though General American accents are not commonly perceived as associated with any region, their sound system
does have traceable regional origins: specifically, the English of the non-coastal Northeastern United States in the very early twentieth century. This includes western New England
and the area to its immediate west, settled by members of the same dialect community: interior Pennsylvania
, Upstate New York
, and the adjacent "Midwest"
or Great Lakes region
. However, since the early to middle twentieth century, deviance away from General American sounds started occurring, and may be ongoing, in the eastern Great Lakes region due to its Northern Cities Vowel Shift
(NCVS) towards a unique Inland Northern accent
(often now associated with the region's urban centers, like Chicago and Detroit) and in the western Great Lakes region towards a unique North Central accent
(often associated with Minnesota, Wisconsin, and North Dakota).
Theories about prevalence
Linguists have proposed multiple factors contributing to the popularity of a rhotic
"General American" class of accents throughout the United States. Most factors focus on the first half of the twentieth century, though a basic General American pronunciation system may have existed even before the twentieth century, since most American English dialects have diverged very little from each other anyway, when compared to dialects of single languages in other countries where there has been more time for language change
(such as the English dialects of England
or German dialects of Germany
One factor fueling General American's popularity was the major demographic change of twentieth-century American society: increased suburbanization
, leading to less mingling of different social classes and less density and diversity of linguistic interactions. As a result, wealthier and higher-educated Americans' communications became more restricted to their own demographic. This, alongside their new marketplace that transcended regional boundaries (arising from the century's faster transportation methods), reinforced a widespread belief that highly educated Americans should not possess a regional accent. A General American sound, then, originated from both suburbanization and suppression of regional accent by highly educated Americans in formal settings. A second factor was a rise in immigration to the Great Lakes area (one native region of supposed "General American" speech) following the region's rapid industrialization period after the American Civil War
, when this region's speakers went on to form a successful and highly mobile business elite, who traveled around the country in the mid-twentieth century, spreading the high status of their accents. A third factor is that various sociological (often race- and class-based) forces repelled socially-conscious Americans away from accents negatively associated with certain minority groups, such as African Americans
and poor white communities in the South and with Southern and Eastern European immigrant groups (for example, Jewish communities) in the coastal Northeast. Instead, socially-conscious Americans settled upon accents more prestigiously associated with White Anglo-Saxon Protestant
communities in the remainder of the country: namely, the West, the Midwest, and the non-coastal Northeast.
Kenyon, author of ''American Pronunciation'' (1924) and pronunciation editor for the second edition of ''Webster's New International Dictionary
'' (1934), was influential in codifying General American pronunciation standards in writing. He used as a basis his native Midwestern (specifically, northern Ohio) pronunciation. Kenyon's home state of Ohio, however, far from being an area of "non-regional" accents, has emerged now as a crossroads for at least four distinct regional accents, according to late twentieth-century research. Furthermore, Kenyon himself was vocally opposed to the notion of any superior variety of American speech.
[Hampton, Marian E. & Barbara Acker (eds.) (1997). ''The Vocal Vision: Views on Voice.'' Hal Leonard Corporation. p. 163.]
In the media
General American, like the British Received Pronunciation
(RP) and prestige accents
of many other societies, has never been the accent of the entire nation, and, unlike RP, does not constitute a homogeneous national standard. Starting in the 1930s, nationwide radio networks adopted non-coastal Northern U.S.
rhotic pronunciations for their "General American" standard. The entertainment industry similarly shifted from a non-rhotic
standard to a rhotic one in the late 1940s, after the triumph of the Second World War
, with the patriotic incentive for a more wide-ranging and unpretentious "heartland variety" in television and radio.
General American is thus sometimes associated with the speech of North American radio and television announcers, promoted as prestigious in their industry,
where it is sometimes called "Broadcast English" "Network English",
or "Network Standard". Instructional classes in the United States that promise "accent reduction
", "accent modification", or "accent neutralization" usually attempt to teach General American patterns. A common experience among many American celebrities is having worked hard to lose their native regional accents in favor of a more mainstream General American sound, including television journalist Linda Ellerbee
, who stated that "in television you are not supposed to sound like you're ''from'' anywhere",
as well as political comedian Stephen Colbert
, who said he consciously avoided developing a Southern American accent
in response to media portrayals of Southerners as stupid and uneducated.
Typical General American accent features (for example, in contrast to British English) include features that concern consonants, such as rhoticity
(full pronunciation of all sounds), T-glottalization
(with ''satin'' pronounced , not ), T- and D-flapping
(with ''metal'' and ''medal'' pronounced the same, as ), L-velarization
(with ''filling'' pronounced , not ), as well as features that concern vowel sounds, such as various vowel mergers before (so that, ''Mary'', ''marry'', and ''merry'' are all commonly pronounced the same
after alveolar consonant
s (with ''new'' pronounced , not ), raising of pre-voiceless (with ''price'' and ''bright'' using a higher vowel sound than ''prize'' and ''bride''), raising and gliding of pre-nasal (with ''man'' having a higher and tenser vowel sound than ''map''), the weak vowel merger
(with ''affected'' and ''effected'' often pronounced the same), and at least one of the vowel mergers (the – merger
is completed among virtually all Americans and the – merger
among nearly half). All of these phenomena are explained in further detail under American English's phonology section
. The following provides all the General American consonant and vowel sounds.
A table containing the consonant phoneme
s is given below:
* Vowel length is not phonemic
in General American, and therefore vowels such as are usually transcribed without the length mark. Phonetically, the vowels of GA are short when they precede the fortis
consonants within the same syllable and long elsewhere. (Listen to the minimal pair of ) This applies to all vowels but the schwa (which is typically very short ), so when e.g. is realized as a diphthong it has the same allophones as the other diphthongs, whereas the sequence (which corresponds to the vowel in RP) has the same allophones as phonemic monophthongs: short before fortis consonants and long elsewhere. The short is also used for the sequence (the vowel). All unstressed vowels are also shorter than the stressed ones, and the more unstressed syllables follow a stressed one, the shorter it is, so that in ''lea
d'' is noticeably longer than in ''lea
dership''. (See Stress and vowel reduction in English
* are considered to compose a natural class
monophthongs in General American, especially for speakers with the ''cot–caught'' merger
. The class manifests in how GA speakers treat loanwords, as in the majority of cases stressed syllables of foreign words are assigned one of these five vowels, regardless of whether the original pronunciation has a tense or a lax vowel. An example of that is the surname of Thomas Mann
, which is pronounced with the tense rather than lax (as in RP, which mirrors the German pronunciation , which also has a lax vowel). All of the tense vowels except and can have either monophthongal or diphthongal pronunciations (i.e. vs ). The diphthongs are the most usual realizations of and (as in ''stay'' and ''row'' , hereafter transcribed without the diacritics), which is reflected in the way they are transcribed. Monophthongal realizations are also possible, most commonly in unstressed syllables; here are audio examples for ''potato'' and ''window'' . In the case of and , the monophthongal pronunciations are in free variation
with diphthongs. Even the diphthongal pronunciations themselves vary between the very narrow (i.e. ) and somewhat wider (i.e. ), with the former being more common. varies between back and central . As indicated in above phonetic transcriptions, is subject to the same variation (also when monophthongal: ), but its mean phonetic value is usually somewhat less central than in modern RP.
* Before dark in a syllable coda
, and sometimes also are realized as centering diphthongs . Therefore, words such as ''peel'' and ''fool'' are often pronounced and .
* General American does not have the opposition between and , which are both rendered ; therefore, the vowels in ''further'' are typically realized with the same segmental quality as . This also makes homophonous
the words ''forward'' and ''foreword'' as , which are distinguished in Received Pronunciation as and , respectively. Therefore, is not a true phoneme in General American but merely a different notation of preserved for when this phoneme precedes and is stressed—a convention adopted in literature to facilitate comparisons with other accents. What is historically , as in ''hurry'', is also pronounced , so , and are all neutralized
before . Furthermore, some analyze as an allophone of that surfaces when stressed, so , and may be considered to be in complementary distribution
and thus comprising one phoneme.
* In contemporary General American, the phonetic quality of () may be a back vowel , an advanced back vowel , or the same as in RP, i.e. a central vowel .
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 (as well as the one above) present the vowels that these three dialects encompass as a perceived General American sound system.
* Raising of short ''a'' before ''m'' and ''n'' sounds
: For most speakers, the short ''a''
sound, transcribed as , is pronounced with the tongue raised in the mouth
, followed by a backward glide
, whenever occurring before a nasal consonant
(that is, before , and, for some speakers, ).
[Boberg, Charles (Spring 2001). "Phonological Status of Western New England". ''American Speech'', Volume 76, Number 1. pp. 3-29 (Article). Duke University Press. p. 11: "The vowel is generally tensed and raised ..only before nasals, a raising environment for most speakers of North American English".]
This sound may be narrowly transcribed as (as in and ), or, based on a specific dialect, variously as or . See the chart for comparison to other dialects.
* List of dialects of the English language
* List of English words from indigenous languages of the Americas
* Accent reduction
* African-American English
* American English
* California English
* Chicano English
* English phonology
* English-language spelling reform
* Hawaiian Pidgin
* Northern Cities Vowel Shift
* Received Pronunciation
* Regional vocabularies of American English
* Standard Written English
* Transatlantic accent
Comparison with other English accents around the world