General American

General American (abbreviated as GA or GenAm) is an umbrella variety of American English—a continuum of accents[1]—commonly attributed to a majority of Americans and popularly perceived, among Americans, as lacking any distinctly regional, ethnic, or socioeconomic characteristics.[2][3][4] Due to the perception of such a variety of English being widespread throughout the United States, General American is sometimes, though controversially,[5] known as Standard American English.[4][6][7] The precise definition and usefulness of "General American" continues to be debated,[8][9][10] and the scholars who use it today admittedly do so as a convenient basis for comparison rather than for exactness.[8][11]

Standard Canadian English is sometimes considered to fall under the phonological spectrum of General American,[7] 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.[12]



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."[13] In 1930, American linguist John Samuel Kenyon, who largely popularized the term, considered it equivalent to the speech of "the North," or "Northern American,"[13] but, in 1934, "Western and Midwestern."[14] Now, typically regarded as falling under the General American umbrella are the regional accents of the American West,[15][16] Western New England,[17] the American North Midland,[18] and arguably all of English-speaking Canada west of Quebec.[7] By 1982, according to British phonetician John C. Wells, two-thirds of the American population spoke with a General American accent.[4]

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,[19] the Inland Northern United States,[1] and Western Pennsylvania.[20] 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.[21] 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.[15]

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.[10]

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.[6] 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."[6] 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.[7]

Modern language scholars discredit the original notions of General American as being a single regional or unified accent, or a standardized form of English[8][11]—except perhaps as used by television networks and other mass media.[1][22] Today, the term is understood to refer to a continuum of American speech, with some slight internal variation,[8] 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,[23] 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).[8]

Geographical origins

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,[24] including interior Pennsylvania, upstate New York, and the adjacent Midwestern region, prior to the Northern Cities Vowel Shift of the mid-20th century.[1][25]

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.[26]

General American in the media

General American, like the British Received Pronunciation (RP) and the prestige accents of many other societies, has never been the accent of the entire nation.

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."[3] General American is sometimes promoted as preferable to other regional accents and prestigious.[27][28] 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,"[29] 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.[27][28]



A table containing the consonant phonemes is given below:

Consonant phonemes
Labial Dental Alveolar Post-
Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal m n ŋ
Stop p b t d k ɡ
Fricative f v θ ð s z ʃ ʒ h
Approximant l ɹ j (ʍ) w
T-glottalization and flapping
mountain (glottalized t)

partner (glottalized t)

grateful (glottalized t)

leader (t-flapping)

community (t-flapping)

party (t-flapping)


Monophthongs of typical Midwestern English, approximating GA. From Mannell, Cox & Harrington (2009a). The symbol "ɔ" here refers to r-colored /ɔː/ (/ɔːr/), found in such words as warm.
Ranges for GA and RP weak vowels. From Wells (2008, p. XXV)
Diphthongs of typical Midwestern English, from Mannell, Cox & Harrington (2009b).
• When monophthongized, // and // tend to be closer to cardinal [e] and [o], respectively.
• For many speakers, the first element of // is more front than what appears on this chart.

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.[15] The following charts present the vowels that these three dialects encompass as a perceived General American sound system.

Pure vowels

Pure vowels (Monophthongs)
English diaphoneme General American phoneme Example words
/æ/ [æ]  listen[39] bath, trap, yak
[æ~ɛə~eə][40][41] ban, tram, yeah
/ɑː/ [ɑ~ä]  listen[42] ah, father, spa
/ɒ/ bother, lot, wasp
[ɑ(ː)~ɒ(ː)~ɔ] [42] boss, dog, off
/ɔː/ all, bought, flaunt
/ɛ/ [ɛ]  listen[39] dress, met, bread
/ə/ [ə]  listen[39] about, syrup, arena
/ɪ/ [ɪ]  listen[39] kit, pink, tip
/iː/ [i(ː)]  listen[39] beam, chic, fleece
/i/ [i]  listen[39] happy, money, parties
/ɨ/ [ɪ̈~ɪ~ə]  listen[39] private, muffin, wasted
/ʌ/ [ʌ~ɐ]  listen bus, flood, what
/ʊ/ [ʊ]  listen[39] book, put, should
/uː/ [u̟ː~ʊu~ʉu~ɵu]  listen[43][44] goose, new, true

Gliding vowels

Gliding vowels (diphthongs)
English diaphoneme General American phoneme Example words
/aɪ/ [äɪ]  listen[44] bride, prize, tie
[äɪ~ɐɪ~ʌɪ][56] bright, price, tyke
/aʊ/ [aʊ~æʊ]  listen[39] now, ouch, scout
/eɪ/ [eɪ~ɛ̝ɪ]  listen[39] lake, paid, rein
/ɔɪ/ [ɔɪ~oɪ]  listen[39] boy, choice, moist
/oʊ/ [oʊ~ɔʊ~ʌʊ]  listen[44][57][58] goat, home, toe
This sound change began in the Northern, New England, and Mid-Atlantic regions of the country,[59] 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.

R-colored vowels

R-colored vowels
English diaphoneme General American phoneme Example words
/ɑːr/ [ɑɚ~ɑɹ]  listen[39] barn, car, park
/ɛər/ [ɛɚ]  listen[39] bare, bear, there
/ɜːr/ [ɚ]  listen[39] burn, doctor, first,
herd, learn, murder
/ɪər/ [iɚ~ɪɚ]  listen[39] fear, peer, tier
/ɔːr/ [ɔɚ~oɹ]  listen[39] horse, storm, war
/ɔər/ hoarse, store, wore
/ʊər/ [ʊɚ~oɹ~ɔɚ]  listen moor, poor, tour
/jʊər/ [jʊɚ~jɚ]  listen cure, Europe, pure

See also


  1. 1 2 3 4 Wells (1982b:470)
  2. Van Riper (2014:123)
  3. 1 2 Kövecses, Zoltán (2000). American English. An Introduction. Peterborough, Canada: Broadview Press. pp. 81-2.
  4. 1 2 3 Wells (1982a:34)
  5. Van Riper (2014:125–6)
  6. 1 2 3 Kortmann (2004:257)
  7. 1 2 3 4 Boberg, Charles (2004). "Standard Canadian English." In Raymond Hickey. Standards of English: Codified Varieties Around the World. Cambridge University Press. p. 159.
  8. 1 2 3 4 5 Wells (1982a:118)
  9. Van Riper (2014:124, 126)
  10. 1 2 Kortmann (2004:262)
  11. 1 2 Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006:263)
  12. Wells (1982b:491)
  13. 1 2 Van Riper (2014:124)
  14. Van Riper (2014:125)
  15. 1 2 3 Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006:146)
  16. Van Riper (2014:130)
  17. Van Riper (2014:128, 130)
  18. Van Riper (2014:129–130)
  19. Van Riper (2014:128-129)
  20. Van Riper (2014:128-129)
  21. Van Riper (2014:123, 129)
  22. Labov, William (2012). Dialect diversity in America: The politics of language change. University of Virginia Press. pp. 1-2.
  23. Van Riper (2014:129)
  24. Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006:190)
  25. "Talking the Tawk". The New Yorker. Condé Nast. 2005.
  26. Seabrook (2005)
  27. 1 2 Gross, Terry (January 24, 2005), "A Fake Newsman's Fake Newsman: Stephen Colbert", Fresh Air, National Public Radio, retrieved 2007-07-11
  28. 1 2 Safer, Morley (August 13, 2006), The Colbert Report: Morley Safer Profiles Comedy Central's 'Fake' Newsman, 60 Minutes, retrieved 2006-08-15
  29. You Know What The Midwest Is?
  30. 1 2 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.
  31. Collins, Beverley; Mees, Inger M. (2002). The Phonetics of Dutch and English (PDF) (5 ed.). Leiden/Boston: Brill Publishers. p. 178.
  32. Hallé, Best & Levitt (1999:283) citing Delattre & Freeman (1968), Zawadzki & Kuehn (1980), and Boyce & Espy-Wilson (1997)
  33. Collins, Beverley; Mees, Inger M. (2002). The Phonetics of Dutch and English (PDF) (5 ed.). Leiden/Boston: Brill Publishers. pp. 181, 306.
  34. Wolchover, Natalie (2012). "Why Do Americans and Brits Have Different Accents?" LiveScience. Purch.
  35. Wells (1982a:247)
  36. Grzegorz Dogil, Susanne Maria Reiterer, and Walter de Gruyter, eds. (2009). Language Talent and Brain Activity: Trends in Applied Linguistics. Walter de Gruyter GmbH. p. 299. ISBN 978-3-11-021549-6.
  37. Jones, Roach & Hartman (2006:xi)
  38. Rogers (2000:120–121)
  39. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 Kortmann (2004:263, 264)
  40. Labov et al. (2006:180)
  41. Kortmann (2004:315, 340)
  42. 1 2 3 4 Wells (1982b:476)
  43. Kortmann & Boberg (2004:154, 343, 361)
  44. 1 2 3 Heggarty, Paul et al., eds. (2015). "Accents of English from Around the World". Retrieved 24 September 2016. See under "Std US + ‘up-speak’"
  45. 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."
  46. Labov et al. (2006), p. 182.
  47. Boberg, Charles; Strassel, Stephanie M. (2000). "in Cincinnati: A change in progress". Journal of English Linguistics. 28: 108–126. doi:10.1177/00754240022004929.
  48. Trager, George L. (1940) One Phonemic Entity Becomes Two: The Case of 'Short A' in American Speech: 3rd ed. Vol. 15: Duke UP. 256. Print.
  49. Labov (2006:61)
  50. Vaux, Bert and Scott Golder (2003). "Do you pronounce 'cot' and 'çaught' the same?" The Harvard Dialect Survey. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Linguistics Department.
  51. Vaux, Bert and Scott Golder (2003). "How do you pronounce Mary / merry / marry?" The Harvard Dialect Survey. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Linguistics Department.
  52. Kortmann (2004:295)
  53. Vaux, Bert and Scott Golder (2003). "flourish." The Harvard Dialect Survey. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Linguistics Department.
  54. Vaux, Bert and Scott Golder (2003). "the first vowel in "miracle"." The Harvard Dialect Survey. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Linguistics Department.
  55. 1 2 3 Wells (2008:XXV)
  56. Boberg, Charles (2010). The English Language in Canada: Status, History and Comparative Analysis. Cambridge University Press. p. 156. ISBN 978-1-139-49144-0.
  57. Kortmann (2004:343)
  58. Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006:104)
  59. Labov et al. (2006:114): "where Canadian raising has traditionally been reported: Canada, Eastern New England, Philadelphia, and the North"
  60. Wells (1982:479)


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Further reading

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