Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
General American is a notional accent of American English based on speech patterns common in the Midwest of the United States and those used by many American network television broadcasters. It is also sometimes called Standard Midwestern. The General American accent or dialect is not thought of as a standard language in the sense that Received Pronunciation (RP) is standard in England, but its speakers are perceived as "accentless" by most Americans. The idea of a uniform media American accent has declined in popularity since the late 1960s.
Within American English, General American and accents approximating it are contrasted with Southern American English, several Northeastern accents, and other distinct regional accents and social group accents like African American Vernacular English.
General American in the media
Like the British RP, General American was never the accent of the entire nation. Rather, it was derived from a generalized Midwestern accent and is spoken particularly by many newscasters, in part because the national broadcasters preferred to hire people who spoke in this way. The famous news anchor Walter Cronkite popularized this accent. Since Cronkite was born in Missouri, some assumed that General American was the regional accent of the state, although Cronkite grew up in Texas, which is not known for having "accentless" speakers. General American is sometimes promoted as preferable to other regional accents; in the U.S., classes promising "accent reduction" generally attempt to teach this accent. As the well-known television journalist Linda Ellerbee, who worked hard early in her career to eliminate a Texas accent, has said, "in television you are not supposed to sound like you're from anywhere." General American is also the accent generally taught to foreigners learning English as a second language in the U.S.
Regional home of General American
The Telsur Project of William Labov and others examines a number of phonetic properties by which regional accents of the U.S. may be identified. The area that is most free of these regional properties is indicated on the map: eastern Nebraska (including Omaha and Lincoln), southern and central Iowa (including Des Moines), and northern Illinois (including Peoria and the Quad Cities but not the Chicago area). It may therefore be the case that the accents spoken in this region are deemed the most "neutral" by Americans. This is borne out in an article in the November, 1998, issue of National Geographic, in which the locals' "neutral accents" are cited as a reason why Omaha is home to a large number of telemarketing companies. Lincoln is home to several of these as well. Other notable media personalities from this region include longtime NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw and CNN Headline News anchor Chuck Roberts, both of whom were local news anchors in Omaha.
Characteristics of General American
While there is and can be no single formal definition of General American, various features are considered to be part of it, including rhotic pronunciation, which maintains the coda in words like pearl, car, and court. Unlike RP, General American is characterized by the merger of the vowels of words like father and bother, flapping, and the reduction of vowel contrasts before [ɹ]. General American also generally has yod-dropping after alveolar consonants. Other phonemic mergers, including the cot-caught merger, the pin-pen merger, and the whine-wine merger, may be found optionally at least in informal and semiformal varieties; however, the most formal varieties tend to be more conservative in preserving these phonemic distinctions.
One phenomenon apparently unique to General American is the behavior of words that in RP have [ɒrV] where V stands for any vowel. Words of this class include, among others:
These words are treated differently in different North American accents: in New York-New Jersey English they are all pronounced with [-ɑr-] and in Canadian English they are all pronounced with [-ɔr-]. But in General American there is a split: the majority of these words have [-ɔr-], like Canadian English, but the last four words of the list above have [-ɑr-], like New York-New Jersey English, for many speakers (Shitara 1993).
- American English
- International Phonetic Alphabet for English
- IPA chart for English
- Received Pronunciation
- Regional Vocabularies of American English
- Shitara, Yuko. 1993. A survey of American pronunciation preferences. Speech Hearing and Language 7:201-32.
- Silverstein, Bernard. 1994. NTC's Dictionary of American English Pronunciation. Lincolnwood (Chicago), Ill.: NTC Publishing Group.
- Wells, J. C.. 1982. Accents of English. 3 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Wells, J. C. 2000. Longman Pronunciation Dictionary. 2nd edition. Harlow, Essex: Longman.
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