Aggregation of accents typical of English in the United States and largely Canada
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General American (abbreviated as GA or GenAm) is the umbrellavariety of American English—the continuum of accents—spoken by a majority of Americans and popularly perceived, among Americans, as lacking any distinctly regional, ethnic, or socioeconomic characteristics. 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 continues to be debated, and the scholars who use it today admittedly do so as a convenient basis for comparison rather than for exactness. Some scholars, despite controversy, prefer the term Standard American English.
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 linguistJohn 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 developing Canadian features, including vowel raising, 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.
English-language scholar 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. In fact, he argues, a General American accent is merely any in which American speakers have suppressed 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 first suggested by Charles Boberg in 2004.
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 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).
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).
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 travelled 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.
Influential to codifying General American pronunciation standards in writing was John Samuel Kenyon, author of American Pronunciation (1924) and pronunciation editor for the second edition of Webster's New International Dictionary (1934), who used as a basis his native Midwestern (specifically, northern Ohio) pronunciation. Kenyon's home state of Ohio, 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 supreme standard of American speech.
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 often associated with the speech of North American radio and television announcers, promoted as prestigious in their industry, where it is sometimes called a "newscaster accent", "television 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 journalistLinda Ellerbee, who stated that "in television you are not supposed to sound like you're from anywhere", as well as political comedian Stephen Colbert, both of whom reduced their Southern accents (Colbert completely so), because of the common portrayal of Southerners as stupid and uneducated on American television.
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 /r/ as postalveolar [ɹ̠] (listen), 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 some 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".
Yod-dropping: After consonants formed with the tongue touching the ridge on the roof of the mouth (alveolar consonants), a formerly present /j/ is normally "dropped" or "deleted" in syllables bearing full or partial stress, so that, for example, suit/sjut/ has become /sut/, new/nju/ has become /nu/, endure/ˌɛnˈdjʊr/ has become /ˌɛnˈdʊr/, and attitude/ˈætɪˌtjud/ has become /ˈætɪˌtud/.
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 (RP), 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/).
Wine–whine merger: The consonants spelled w and wh are usually pronounced the same, as in most modern English dialects worldwide. A separate phoneme /ʍ/ (wh) is present only in certain dialects. /ʍ/ is often analyzed as a consonant cluster of /hw/.
Monophthongs of General American, from Wells (1982, p. 486). The exact height of /ɔ/ and the backness of /ɑ/ vary from speaker to speaker.
Diphthongs of General American, from Wells (1982, p. 486). The exact height and/or backness of the starting points is somewhat variable.
Vowel length is not phonemic in General American, and therefore vowels such as /i/ are usually transcribed without the length mark. Phonetically, the vowels of GA are short [ɪ, i, ʊ, u, eɪ, oʊ, ɛ, ʌ, ɔ, æ, ɑ, aɪ, ɔɪ, aʊ] when they precede the fortis consonants /p, t, k, tʃ, f, θ, s, ʃ/ within the same syllable and long [ɪˑ, iˑ, ʊˑ, uˑ, eˑɪ, oˑʊ, ɛˑ, ʌˑ, ɔˑ, æˑ, ɑˑ, aˑɪ, ɔˑɪ, aˑʊ] elsewhere. This applies to all vowels but the schwa /ə/ (which is typically very short [ə̆]), so when e.g. /i/ is realized as a diphthong [ɪ̝i] it has the same allophones as the other diphthongs, whereas the sequence /ɜr/ (which corresponds to the NURSE vowel /ɜː/ in RP) has the same allophones as phonemic monophthongs: short [ɚ] before fortis consonants and long [ɚˑ] elsewhere. The short [ɚ] is also used for the sequence /ər/ (the LETTER 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 /i/ in lead is noticeably longer than in leadership.
/i, u, eɪ, oʊ, ɑ/ are considered to compose a natural class of tense 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 /ɑ/ rather than lax /æ/ (as in RP, which mirrors the German pronunciation /man/, which also has a lax vowel). All of the tense vowels except /ɑ/ can have either monophthongal or diphthongal pronunciations (i.e. [i, u ~ ʉ, e, o] vs [ɪ̝i, ʊ̝u ~ ʊ̝̈ʉ, eɪ, oʊ]). The diphthongs are the most usual realizations of /eɪ/ and /oʊ/, which is reflected in the way they are transcribed. In the case of /i/ and /u/, the monophthongal pronunciations are in free variation with diphthongs. Even the diphthongal pronunciations themselves vary between the very narrow (i.e. [ɪ̝i, ʊ̝u ~ ʊ̝̈ʉ]) and somewhat wider (i.e. [ɪi ~ ɪ̈i, ʊu ~ ʊ̈ʉ]), with the former being more common. As indicated in above phonetic transcriptions, the backness of /u/ varies from fairly back to central; the same applies to /ɑ/, which is realized as [ɑ ~ ä].
Before the dark l, /i, u/ and sometimes also /eɪ, oʊ/ are realized as centering diphthongs [iə, uə, eə, oə] or even as disyllabic sequences [i.jə, u.wə, e.jə, o.wə]. Therefore, words such as peel and fool and sometimes also rail and role are pronounced [ˈpiəɫ ~ ˈpi.jəɫ], [ˈfuəɫ ~ ˈfu.wəɫ], [ˈɹeəɫ ~ ˈɹe.jəɫ], [ˈɹoəɫ ~ ˈɹo.wəɫ]. This can even happen word-internally before another morpheme, as in peeling[ˈpiəɫɪŋ ~ ˈpi.jəɫɪŋ] and fooling[ˈfuəɫɪŋ ~ ˈfu.wəɫɪŋ].
When prosodically salient, the lax vowels /ɪ, ʊ, ɛ, ʌ, æ/ tend to be realized as centering diphthongs [ɪə, ʊə, ɛə, ʌə, æə] instead of the more usual long monophthongs [ɪˑ, ʊˑ, ɛˑ, ʌˑ, æˑ] when they precede a word-final voiced consonant, so that the word good in the sentence that's very good! tends to be pronounced [ɡʊəd] instead of [ɡʊˑd].
General American does not have the opposition between /ɜr/ and /ər/, which are both rendered [ɚ] (listen); therefore, the vowels in further/ˈfɜrðər/ are typically realized with the same segmental quality as [ˈfɚðɚ](listen). This also makes homophonous the words forward/ˈfɔrwərd/ and foreword/ˈfɔrwɜrd/ as [ˈfɔɹwɚd], which are distinguished in Received Pronunciation as [ˈfɔːwəd] and [ˈfɔːwɜːd], respectively. Therefore, /ɜ/ is not a true phoneme in General American but merely a different notation of /ə/ preserved for when this phoneme precedes /r/ and is stressed—a convention adopted in literature to facilitate comparisons with other accents. What is historically /ʌr/, as in hurry, is also pronounced [ɚ](listen), so /ʌ/, /ɜ/ and /ə/ are all neutralized before /r/. Furthermore, some analyze /ʌ/ as an allophone of /ə/ that surfaces when stressed, so /ʌ/, /ɜ/ and /ə/ may be considered to be in complementary distribution and thus comprising one phoneme.
The phonetic quality of /ʌ/ is typically somewhat advanced [ʌ̟], which is still somewhat more back than the corresponding RP realization [ɐ].
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 [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. For the purposes of the chart below, [eə] represents a very tense vowel, [ɛə] a somewhat tense (or intermediate) vowel, and [æ] a non-tense (or lax) vowel, and the symbol "~" represents a continuous system in which the vowel may variably waver between two pronunciations.
absolve, abstain, add, ash, as, bad, badge, bash, cab, cash, clad, crag, dad, drab, fad, flash, glad, grab, had, halve (varies by speaker), jazz (varies by speaker), kashmir, mad, magnet, pad, plaid, rag, raspberry, rash, sad, sag, smash, splash, tab, tadpole, trash, etc. In NYC, this environment, particularly, /v/ and /z/, has a lot of variance and many exceptions to the rules. In Philadelphia, bad, mad, and glad alone in this set become tense. Similarly, in New York City, the /dʒ/ set is often tense even in open syllables (magic, imagine, etc.)
Nearly all American English speakers pronounce /æŋ/ somewhere between [æŋ] and [eɪŋ], though Western speakers specifically favor [eɪŋ].
The Great Lakes dialect traditionally tenses /æ/ in all cases, but reversals of that tensing before non-nasal consonants (while often maintaining some of the other vowel shifts of the region) has been observed recently where it has been studied, in Lansing and Syracuse.
The NYC, Philadelphia, and Baltimore dialects' rule of tensing /æ/ in certain closed-syllable environments also applies to words inflectionally derived from those closed-syllable /æ/ environments that now have an open-syllable /æ/. For example, in addition to pass being tense (according to the general rule), so are its open-syllable derivatives passing and passer-by, but not passive.
Father–bother merger (/ɒ/ → [ɑ]): Nearly all American accents merge the short o of words like spot and odd to the sound of ah in words like spa and ah; therefore, sob and Saab 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 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 central[ä] (listen) or advanced back[ɑ̟], while /ɔ/ is pronounced with more rounded lips and/or phonetically higher in the mouth, close to [ɒ] (listen) or [ɔ] (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]. 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.
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 /ær/ (as in the first syllable of parish), /ɛr/ (as in the first syllable of perish), and /ɛər/ (as in pear or pair). 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/ʌ/ and furry/ɜ/ are merged in most General American accents to [ə~ɚ]. Only 10% of English speakers across the U.S. acknowledge the distinct hurry vowel before /r/, according to a 2003 dialect survey.
Mirror–nearer merger in transition: The pre-r vowels in words like mirror/ɪ/ and nearer/i/ are merged or at least close in General American accents. The quality of the historic mirror vowel in the word miracle is quite variable.
Unstressed pure vowels:
Weak vowel merger: /ə/ and /ɪ/ are neutralized in unstressed positions, so that abbot and rabbit rhyme. The quality of the merged vowels varies considerably, though typically closer to [ɪ] when followed by a consonant and to [ɐ] when word-final.
Raising of the start of the long i sound before voiceless consonants: The long i vowel (/aɪ/), as in pine or pie—pronounced [aɪ](listen) in North America—has a starting sound (an "on-glide") in which the tongue is raised towards [ɐɪ] or [ʌ̈ɪ] whenever it appears before a voiceless consonant (such as /t, k, θ, s/, for instance, in pike or python). Because of this sound change, the words rider and writer(listen), for instance, remain distinct from one another by virtue of their difference in height (and length) of the diphthong's starting point, even though the letters d and t represent as alveolar flaps [ɾ]. The sound-change 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 [ˈhɐɪskuɫ]; however, a high school in the literal sense of "a tall school" would be pronounced [ˌhaɪˈskuɫ].
Horse–hoarse merger (/ɔr/ + /oʊr/ → [ɔɹ]): 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 /nɔrθ/ and /hɔrs/, but may be closer in General American English to [no̞ɹθ] and [ho̞ɹs]. Thus, in these cases, the [ɔ] before /r/ can be analyzed as an allophone of /oʊ/.
The vowel sounds of both /ɜr/ and /ər/ are neutralized, resulting in both pronounced as [ɚ](listen); so the vowels in further/ˈfɜrðər/ are typically realized with the same segmental quality as [ˈfɚðɚ](listen).
"Short o" before r before a vowel: In typical North American accents (U.S. and Canada alike), the historical sequence /ɒr/ (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/–/oʊr/ (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 /ɑr/ set (thus, sorry and sari become homophones, both rhyming with starry).
General American /ɒr/ and /ɔr/ followed by a vowel, compared with other dialects
^Labov, William; Ash, Sharon; Boberg, Charles (1997). "A National Map of the Regional Dialects of American English" and "Map 1". Department of Linguistics, University of Pennsylvania. "The North Midland: Approximates the initial position|Absence of any marked features"; "On Map 1, there is no single defining feature of the North Midland given. In fact, the most characteristic sign of North Midland membership on this map is the small black dot that indicates a speaker with none of the defining features given"; "Map 1 shows Western New England as a residual area, surrounded by the marked patterns of Eastern New England, New York City, and the Inland North. [...] No clear pattern of sound change emerges from western New England in the Kurath and McDavid materials or in our present limited data."
^Kortmann (2004), p. 262: '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.'
^: "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".
^Labov, William (2012). Dialect diversity in America: The politics of language change. University of Virginia Press. pp. 1-2.
^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 /æ/ is generally tensed and raised [...] only before nasals, a raising environment for most speakers of North American English".
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