General American

General American (abbreviated as GA or GenAm) is the umbrella variety of American English—the continuum of accents[1]—spoken by a majority of Americans and popularly perceived, among Americans, as lacking any distinctly regional, ethnic, or socioeconomic characteristics.[2][3][4] Americans with high education,[5] 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.[6][7][8] The precise definition and usefulness of the term continues to be debated,[9][10][11] and the scholars who use it today admittedly do so as a convenient basis for comparison rather than for exactness.[9][12] Some scholars, despite controversy,[13] prefer the term Standard American English.[4][5][14]

Standard Canadian English is sometimes considered to fall under the phonological spectrum of General American,[14] 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.[15]


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".[16] In 1930, American linguist John Samuel Kenyon, who largely popularized the term, considered it equivalent to the speech of "the North" or "Northern American",[16] but, in 1934, "Western and Midwestern".[17] Now typically regarded as falling under the General American umbrella are the regional accents of the West,[18][19] Western New England,[20] and the North Midland (a band spanning central Ohio, central Indiana, central Illinois, northern Missouri, southern Iowa, and southeastern Nebraska),[21][22] plus the accents of highly educated Americans nationwide.[5] Arguably, all Canadian English accents west of Quebec are also General American,[14] though developing Canadian features, including vowel raising, may serve to increasingly distinguish such accents from American ones.[23] 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,[6] the Inland Northern United States,[1] and Western Pennsylvania.[6] 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.[24] In 1982, British phonetician John C. Wells wrote that two-thirds of the American population spoke with a General American accent.[4]

Disputed usage[]

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.[25]

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.[5] However, the term "standard" may also be interpreted as problematically implying a superior or "best" form of speech.[26] 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.[14]

Modern language scholars discr the original notion of General American as a single unified accent, or a standardized form of English[9][12]—except perhaps as used by television networks and other mass media.[1][27] Today, the term is understood to refer to a continuum of American speech, with some slight internal variation,[9] 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,[28] 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).[9]


Regional origins[]

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.[29] This includes western New England and the area to its immediate west, settled by members of the same dialect community:[30] interior Pennsylvania, upstate New York, and the adjacent "Midwest" or Great Lakes region. However, since the early to middle twentieth century,[1][31] 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).[32]

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.[33] 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.[34] 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.[35] 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.[36]

Influential to codifying General American pronunciation standards in writing was John Samuel Kenyon, author of American Pronunciation (1924) and pronunciation or for the second ion of Webster's New International Dictionary (1934), who used as a basis his native Midwestern (specifically, northern Ohio) pronunciation.[37] 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.[38] Furthermore, Kenyon himself was vocally opposed to the notion of any supreme standard of American speech.[39]

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.[40] 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.[41]

General American is thus often associated with the speech of North American radio and television announcers, promoted as prestigious in their industry,[42][43] where it is sometimes called a "newscaster accent", "television English", or "Network Standard".[3] 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",[44] 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.[42][43]



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


Monophthongs of General American without the cot–caught merger, from Wells (1982, p. 486).
Monophthongs of General American with the cot–caught merger, from Mannell, Cox & Harrington (2009).
Diphthongs of General American, from Wells (1982, p. 486). The exact height and/or backness of the starting points is somewhat variable.
Wells's vowel phonemes in General American
Front Central Back
lax tense lax tense
Close ɪ i ʊ u
Mid ɛ ə ʌ
Open æ ɑ (ɔ)
R-colored ɜ
Diphthongs   ɔɪ  

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.[64] The following charts (as well as the one above) present the vowels that these three dialects encompass as a perceived General American sound system.

Pure vowels[]

Pure vowels (monophthongs)
/æ/ [æ][65] bath, trap, yak
[eə~ɛə~æ][66][67] ban, tram (/æ/ tensing)
/ɑː/ /ɑ/ [ɑ~ä] (About this soundlisten)[68] ah, father, spa
/ɒ/ bother, lot, wasp (father–bother merger)
/ɔ/ [ɑ~ɔ̞][68][69] boss, cloth, dog, off (lot–cloth split)
/ɔː/ all, bought, flaunt (cot–caught variability)
/oʊ/ /o/ [oʊ~ɔʊ~ʌʊ~] About this soundlisten[70][71][72] goat, home, toe
/ɛ/ [ɛ] (About this soundlisten)[65] dress, met, bread
/eɪ/ [e̞ɪ~eɪ~e] (About this soundlisten)[65] lake, paid, feint
/ə/ [ə] (About this soundlisten)[65] about, syrup, arena
/ɪ/ [ɪ] (About this soundlisten)[65] kit, pink, tip
[ɪ̈~ɪ~ə][65] private, muffin, wasted (unstressed /ɪ/ allophone)
/iː/ /i/ [i (About this soundlisten)~ɪi][65] beam, chic, fleece
happy, money, parties (happY tensing)
/ʌ/ [ʌ̟] (About this soundlisten) bus, flood, what
/ʊ/ [ʊ][65] book, put, should
/uː/ /u/ [u̟~ʊu~ʉu~ɵu] (About this soundlisten)[73][70] goose, new, true
/æ/ raising in North American English[75]
Environment Dialect
Consonant after /æ/ Syllable type Example words New York City & New Orleans Baltimore & Philadelphia Eastern New England General American, Midland U.S., & Western U.S. Canadian, Northwestern U.S., & Upper Midwestern U.S. Southern U.S. & African American Vernacular Great Lakes
/r/ Open
arable, arid, baron, barrel, barren, carry, carrot, chariot, charity, clarity, Gary, Harry, Larry, marionette, maritime, marry, marriage, paragon, parent, parish, parody, parrot, etc.; this feature is determined by the presence or absence of the Mary-marry-merry merger
[æ] [æ~ɛə] [ɛə]
/m/, /n/ Closed
Alexander, answer, ant, band, can (the noun), can't, clam, dance, ham, hamburger, hand, handy, man, manly, pants, plan, planning, ranch, sand, slant, tan, understand, etc.; in Philadelphia, began, ran, and swam alone remain lax
[eə] [æ~eə] [æ~ɛə] [ɛə~eə] [eə]
amity, animal, can (the verb), Canada, ceramic, family (varies by speaker),[76], gamut, hammer, janitor, manager, manner, Montana, panel, planet, profanity, salmon, Spanish, etc.
/ɡ/ Closed
agriculture, bag, crag, drag, flag, magnet, rag, sag, tag, tagging, etc.
[eə] [æ] [æ] [æ~eə] [æ~ɛə] [æ~eə]
agate, agony, dragon, magazine, ragamuffin, etc.
/b/, /d/, /dʒ/, /ʃ/, /v/, /z/, /ʒ/ Closed
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.)
[eə] [æ~ɛə] [æ]
/f/, /s/, /θ/ Closed
ask, bask, basket, bath, brass, casket, cast, class, craft, crass, daft, drastic, glass, grass, flask, half, last, laugh, laughter, mask, mast, math, pass, past, path, plastic, task, wrath, etc.
All other consonants
act, agony, allergy, apple, aspirin, athlete, avid, back, bat, brat, café, cafeteria, cap, cashew, cat, Catholic, chap, clap, classy, diagonal, fashion, fat, flap, flat, gap, gnat, latch, magazine, mallet, map, mastiff, match, maverick, Max, pack, pal, passive, passion, pat, patch, pattern, rabid, racket, rally, rap, rat, sack, sat, Saturn, savvy, scratch, shack, slack, slap, tackle, talent, trap, travel, wrap, etc.
  1. Nearly all American English speakers pronounce /æŋ/ somewhere between [æŋ] and [eɪŋ], though Western speakers specifically favor [eɪŋ].
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Gliding vowels[]

Gliding vowels (diphthongs)
English diaphoneme General American realization Example words
/aɪ/ [äɪ] (About this soundlisten)[70] bride, prize, tie
[äɪ~ɐɪ~ʌ̈ɪ][84] bright, price, tyke
/aʊ/ [aʊ~æʊ] (About this soundlisten)[65] now, ouch, scout
/ɔɪ/ [ɔɪ~oɪ] (About this soundlisten)[65] boy, choice, moist
This sound change began in the Northern, New England, and Mid-Atlantic regions of the country,[85] 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.

R-colored vowels[]

R-colored vowels
English diaphoneme General American realization Example words
/ɑːr/ [ɑɹ] (About this soundlisten)[65] barn, car, park
/ɛər/ [ɛɹ] (About this soundlisten)[65] bare, bear, there
/ɜːr/ [ɚ] (About this soundlisten)[65] burn, doctor, first,
herd, learn, murder
/ɪər/ [iɹ~ɪɹ] (About this soundlisten)[65] fear, peer, tier
/ɔːr/ [ɔɹ~oɹ] (About this soundlisten)[65] horse, storm, war
hoarse, store, wore
/ʊər/ [ʊɹ~oɹ~ɔɹ] (About this soundlisten) moor, poor, tour
/jʊər/ [jʊɹ~jɚ] (About this soundlisten) cure, Europe, pure
General American /ɒr/ and /ɔr/ followed by a vowel, compared with other dialects
Pronounced [ɒr] in RP and [ɒr], [ɒːr] or [ɑːr] in eastern coastal American English Pronounced [ɔːr] in RP and eastern coastal American English
Pronounced [ɔːr] in Canadian English
Pronounced [ɑːr] in General American Pronounced [ɔːr] in General American
only these four or five words:
borrow, sorry, sorrow, tomorrow (morrow)
Words containing /ɒr/:
corridor, euphoric, foreign, forest, Florida, historic, horrible, majority, minority, moral, orange, Oregon, origin, porridge, priority, quarantine, quarrel, sorority, warranty, warren, warrior (etc.)
Words containing /ɔːr/:
aura, boring, choral, deplorable, flooring, flora, glory, hoary, memorial, menorah, orient, oral, pouring, scorer, storage, story, Tory, warring (etc.)

See also[]


  1. ^ a b c d Wells (1982), p. 470.
  2. ^ Van Riper (2014), pp. 123.
  3. ^ a b Kövecses, Zoltán (2000). American English. An Introduction. Peterborough, Canada: Broadview Press. pp. 81-2.
  4. ^ a b c Wells (1982), p. 34.
  5. ^ a b c d Kortmann (2004), p. 257.
  6. ^ a b c Van Riper (2014), pp. 128–9.
  7. ^ 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."
  8. ^ Clopper, Cynthia G., Susannah V. Levi, and David B. Pisoni (2006). "Perceptual Similarity of Regional Dialects of American English". The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 119.1. pp. 566–574. See also: map.
  9. ^ a b c d e Wells (1982), p. 118.
  10. ^ Van Riper (2014), pp. 124, 126.
  11. ^ Kortmann (2004), p. 262.
  12. ^ a b Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006), p. 263.
  13. ^ Van Riper (2014), pp. 125–6.
  14. ^ a b c d Boberg, Charles (2004). "Standard Canadian English". In Raymond Hickey. Standards of English: Codified Varieties Around the World. Cambridge University Press. p. 159.
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  16. ^ a b Van Riper (2014), p. 124.
  17. ^ Van Riper (2014), p. 125.
  18. ^ Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006), p. 146.
  19. ^ Van Riper (2014), p. 130.
  20. ^ Van Riper (2014), pp. 128, 130.
  21. ^ Van Riper (2014), pp. 129–130.
  22. ^ Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006), p. 268.
  23. ^ Harbeck, James (2015). "Why is Canadian English unique?" BBC. BBC.
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  25. ^ 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.'
  26. ^ : "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".
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  86. ^ Wells (1982), p. 479.


Further reading[]

External links[]