General American (abbreviated as GA or GenAm) is the umbrella variety of American English—the continuum of accents—commonly attributed to a majority of Americans and popularly perceived, among Americans, as lacking any distinctly regional, ethnic, or socioeconomic characteristics. According to William Labov, 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. 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. Some scholars, despite controversy, prefer the term Standard American English.
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.
History and 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 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.
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 possibly implied by calling one variety of American speech the "general" variety, 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 notion of General American as 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).
Though General American accents are not commonly perceived as associated with any region, their sound system does, in fact, 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 that was itself initially settled by speakers of Western New England English: interior Pennsylvania, upstate New York, and the adjacent "Midwest" or Great Lakes region. Ironically however, since the early to middle twentieth century, deviance away from General American sounds started occurring, and is ongoing, in the eastern Great Lakes region due to its Northern Cities Vowel Shift 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). Western New England English is defined by a moderately advanced form of the Northern Cities Vowel Shift. 
Linguists have proposed multiple factors contributing to the popularity of rhotic General American speech throughout the United States. Most factors focus on the first half of the twentieth century, though a basic General American pattern 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 in England or German dialects in 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, which, 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 is then the result of 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 General American speech) following the region's rapid industrialization 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 accent system. A third possible factor is that various sociological (often race- and class-based) forces unconsciously repelled socially-conscious Americans away from pronunciations associated with African Americans and poor white communities in the South and with Southern and Eastern European immigrant communities (for example, Russian Americans) in the coastal Northeast, instead settling upon or favoring pronunciations more prestigiously associated with White Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture in the remainder of the country: namely, the West, Midwest, and western New England. There's also preference towards General American over Chicano American English, where it is often portrayed negatively in the Anglo viewpoint.
Influential to the "standardization" of General American pronunciation 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. Ironically, Kenyon's home state of Ohio, far from being an area of "non-regional" English, has emerged now as a crossroads for at least four distinct regional accents, according to late twentieth-century research, and 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 the 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.
General American is often associated with the speech of North American newscasters and radio and television announcers; this has led General American to being sometimes referred to as a "newscaster accent", "television English", or "Network Standard". General American is commonly promoted as preferable to more evidently regional accents and is regarded as prestigious. In the United States, instructional classes promising "accent reduction", "accent modification", or "accent neutralization" usually attempt to teach General American accent patterns. A common experience among many American celebrities is having worked hard to lose their native accents in favor of 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.
The shift in American media from a non-rhotic standard to a rhotic one cemented only in the late 1940s, after the triumph of the Second World War, with the patriotic incentive for a more inclusively all-American "heartland variety" in television and radio.
- 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 /r/ as postalveolar [ɹ̠] ( ), as in most varieties of English, but sometimes as retroflex [ɻ] ( ). 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: /t/ is pronounced as a glottal stop before a syllabic [n̩], as in button [ˈbʌʔn̩] ( ).
- Flapping: /t/ and /d/ become an alveolar flap, written [ɾ] ( ), between vowels or liquids (l and r), as in water [ˈwɔɾɚ] ( ), party [ˈpɑɹɾi], model [ˈmɑɾɫ̩], and what is it? [wʌɾˈɪzɪt].
- Yod-dropping: After consonants formed with the tongue touching the ridge on the roof of the mouth (alveolar consonants), the historical sound /j/ is most commonly "dropped" or "deleted", so that, for example, new /nju/ becomes /nu/, duke /djuk/ becomes /duk/, and tube /tjub/ becomes /tub/.
- L-velarization: The distinction between a clear l (i.e. [l] ( )) and a dark l (i.e. [ɫ] ( )) 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/).
|Diphthongs||aɪ ɔɪ aʊ|
- Vowel length is not phonemic in General American, and therefore vowels such as /i/ are 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 /p, t, k, tʃ, f, θ, s, ʃ/ within the same syllable and long [ɪː, iː, ʊː, uː, eːɪ, oːʊ, ɛː, ʌː, ɔː, æː, ɑː, aːɪ, ɔːɪ, aːʊ] 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 /ʌr/ (which corresponds to the NURSE vowel /ɜː/ in RP) has the same allophones as phonemic monophthongs: short [ɚ] before fortis consonants and long [ɚː] 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/ can be said to form a natural class of tense monophthongs in General American, especially for speakers with the cot–caught merger. This 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 with the lax /a/). Additionally, all but /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 [ɪː, ʊː, ɛː, ʌː, æː] 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 [ɡʊːd].
- In General American, the vowels [ə] and [ʌ] may be considered allophones of a single phoneme, since these vowels usually do not contrast in General American and tend to occur in complementary distribution: [ə] in unstressed syllables and [ʌ] in stressed syllables. Because General American lacks a truly contrastive NURSE vowel, pairs like forward vs. foreword (distinguished in RP as /ˈfɔːwəd/ and /ˈfɔːwɜːd/, respectively) are most typically homophonous as [ˈfɔɹwɚd]. Similarly, the two vowels of the word further /ˈfʌrðər/ (RP: /ˈfɜːðə/) are realized with the same r-coloration and vowel quality (i.e. [ˈfɚðɚ]).( ).
- The phonetic quality of /ʌ/ is typically advanced back [ʌ̟], which is a somewhat more back vowel 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.
|/æ/||[æ] (||bath, trap, yak|
|[eə~ɛə~æ]||ban, tram, yeah (/æ/ tensing)|
|/ɑː/||/ɑ/||[ɑ~ä] ( )||ah, father, spa|
|/ɒ/||bother, lot, wasp (father–bother merger)|
|/ɔ/||[ɑ~ɔ̞]||boss, cloth, dog, off (lot–cloth split)|
|/ɔː/||all, bought, flaunt (cot–caught variability)|
|/oʊ/||/o/||[oʊ~ɔʊ~ʌʊ~o] ||goat, home, toe|
|/ɛ/||[ɛ] ( )||dress, met, bread|
|/eɪ/||[eɪ~e̞ɪ~e] ( )||lake, paid, rein|
|/ə/||[ə] ( )||about, syrup, arena|
|/ɪ/||[ɪ] ( )||kit, pink, tip|
|[ɪ̈~ɪ~ə] ( )||private, muffin, wasted (unstressed /ɪ/ allophone)|
|/iː/||/i/||[i ( )~ɪi]||beam, chic, fleece|
|happy, money, parties (happY tensing)|
|/ʌ/||[ʌ̟] ( )||bus, flood, what|
|/ʊ/||[ʊ] ( )||book, put, should|
|/uː/||/u/||[u̟~ʊu~ʉu~ɵu] ( )||goose, new, true|
- Raising of short a before m and n sounds: For most speakers, the short a sound, transcribed as [æ] ( ), 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 and ), or, based on a specific dialect, variously as [eə] or [ɪə]. This phenomenon is called /æ/-tensing in phonological discourse.
|/æ/ tensing in North American English|
|Consonant after /æ/||Syllable type||Example words||New York City & New Orleans||Baltimore & Philadelphia||Eastern New England||, Midland U.S., & Western U.S.||Canadian, Northwestern U.S., & Upper Midwestern U.S.||Southern U.S. & African American Vernacular||Great Lakes|
|/b/, /d/, /dʒ/, /ʃ/, /v/, /z/, /ʒ/||Closed||[eə]||[æ~ɛə]||[æ]|
|/f/, /s/, /θ/||Closed||[eə]|
|All other consonants||[æ]|
- Father–bother merger (/ɒ/ → [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 ( ). Among speakers who distinguish between the two, the vowel of cot (usually transcribed in American English as [ɑ] ( )), may be a central or advanced back vowel [ä] ( )) or [ɑ̟], while /ɔ/ is pronounced with more rounded lips and/or phonetically higher in the mouth, close to [ɒ] ( ) or [ɔ] ( ), 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.
- Vowel mergers before r (before a vowel): General American participates in some mergers of vowel sounds only when such a vowel occurs before an /r/ 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 /ær/ (as in the first syllable of parish), /ɛr/ (as in the first syllable of perish), and /ɛər/ (as in pear or pair); the merged sound ranges between [ɛɹ] and [ɛːɹ]. 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 /ə/ 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 /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 in some General American accents, usually to [i]. 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 being an unofficial IPA extension symbol) 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:
- Fronting of long oo (/u/ → [u̟]): The vowel /u/ (as in lose, loose, or loot) has a unique quality in the United States ( ); 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 realization||Example words|
|/aɪ/||[äɪ] ( )||bride, prize, tie|
|[äɪ~ɐɪ~ʌ̈ɪ]||bright, price, tyke|
|/aʊ/||[aʊ~æʊ] ( )||now, ouch, scout|
|/ɔɪ/||[ɔɪ~oɪ] ( )||boy, choice, moist|
- Raising of the start of the long i sound before voiceless consonants: The long i vowel (/aɪ/), as in pine or pie—pronounced [aɪ] ( ) 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 ( ) 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 [ˈhɐɪskuɫ]; however, a high school in the literal sense of "a tall school" would be pronounced [ˌhaɪˈskuɫ].
- This sound change began in the Northern, New England, and Mid-Atlantic regions of the country, and is becoming more common. This is one of the two types of so-called Canadian raising, even though it occurs in the U.S. as well as in Canada.
|English diaphoneme||General American realization||Example words|
|/ɑːr/||[ɑɹ] ( )||barn, car, park|
|/ɛər/||[ɛɹ] ( )||bare, bear, there|
|/ɜːr/||[ɚ] ( )||burn, doctor, first,|
herd, learn, murder
|/ɪər/||[iɹ~ɪɹ] ( )||fear, peer, tier|
|/ɔːr/||[ɔɹ~oɹ] ( )||horse, storm, war|
|hoarse, store, wore|
|/ʊər/||[ʊɹ~oɹ~ɔɹ] ( )||moor, poor, tour|
|/jʊər/||[jʊɹ~jɚ] ( )||cure, Europe, pure|
- 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 /ʌr/ and /ər/ are neutralized, resulting in both pronounced as [ɚ] ( ); so the vowels in further /ˈfʌrðər/ are typically realized with the same segmental quality as [ˈfɚðɚ] ( ).
- "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).
|/ɒr/ and /ɔr/ followed by a vowel, compared with other dialectsGeneral American|
|Pronounced [ɒɹ] in RP and [ɑɹ~ɒɹ] in eastern coastal American English||Pronounced [ɔːɹ] in RP and eastern coastal American English|
|Pronounced [ɔɹ] in Canadian English|
|Pronounced [ɒɹ~ɑɹ] in||Pronounced [ɔɹ] in General American|
|only these four or five words:||Words containing /ɒr-/:||Words containing /ɔːr-/:|
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- English phonology
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