Just What is General American English?

Map of the midwest

The American Midwest

I’ve spent the last week on vacation with my girlfriend’s extended family. Most of them are from various parts of Pennsylvania, a state noted for its relative diversity of accents. Indeed, this was my experience throughout the week: I heard accents ranging from slightly Canadian-sounding (Northern/Central PA) to slightly Southern sounding (South/Western PA.)

And yet, as I suggested with my recent post about the Philadelphia accent, Pennsylvania is not much renowned for its accents. I believe this is because most accents in the Keystone state are only a few degrees removed from General American English (aka GenAm), the term used to describe American accents that aren’t overly Northern, Southern or Eastern. As such, PA accents haven’t gained the notoriety of more pronouncedly regional varieties of English.

But what accents, then, can be thought of as variants of GenAm? And at what point does an accent become “regional?”

Here’s the Wikipedia blurb about General American English, which sums up the commonly understood definition succinctly:

General American (GA), also known as Standard American English (SAE), is a major accent of American English. The accent is not restricted to the United States. 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.

So General American English is exclusive by definition. Nevertheless, it is often described as “typical,” “neutral,” or some other slightly biased adjective. After reading numerous definitions of GenAm, however, I’d say the term describes a spectrum of accents rather than a single monolithic standard.

In the narrowest sense, the General American “heartland” is found in a tiny chunk of the midwest.  This map, created by an astute Wikimedia Commons contributor (extrapolated from the work of renowned linguist William Labov), indicates where “classic GenAm” can be found. In this area, the accent is alleged to most closely resemble the standard phonetic description of General American:

Map of General American English

Indeed, famed investor Warren Buffet, who has spent nearly all his life in Omaha, exhibits about as middle-of-the-road a General American accent as you can find in this interview:

Broadly speaking, however, the spectrum of GenAm probably includes areas with more marked accents such as the American Midland (Southern Ohio, Missouri, Kansas, etc.); and the Inland North (Michigan, Wisconsin, etc.) To my ears, these accents don’t sound particularly “standard” or “neutral” (adjectives I don’t feel describe any accent), but I’d say they at least lie at extreme ends of the General American continuum.

But this definition covers a lot of ground. I therefore identify GenAm not by the presence or absence of regional features, but by the sheer number of these features present. Almost anyone, except those born in the stretch of the Midwest mentioned above, would be expected to exhibit some kind of regionalism (however slight). It’s the volume of these features that marks the difference, for me, between GenAm and “non-GenAm.”

For example, I’ve heard people from the Southern half of Pennsylvania who mostly speak General American English, but with the marked regionalism of fronting the “long o” in words like “goat” or “go” (i.e. IPA ɜʊ or “eh-oh”).  I’d still consider their speech “General American,” however, because I allow for an amount of “acceptable” variation within the GenAm category.

And yet there is clear bias in how we perceive some accents as General American and others as “regional.”  Certain features (for example, glide deletion in American Southern accents) are alone enough to exclude an accent from the GenAm clubhouse, while dozens of marked Northern accent features are accepted as minor deviations.

As you may gather, General American is a concept for which I’ve struggled to find a satisfying definition. British Received Pronunciation has “Near RP,” a type of accent which is fairly close to RP but with some regionalisms or other “idiosyncracies.” Is it maybe time for there to be a “Near GenAm?”

PS: My apologies for posting this a bit late. Travel back home took longer than expected. Reading through your many comments now!


About Ben

Ben T. Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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33 Responses to Just What is General American English?

  1. Henry says:

    A lot of people raised in Southern Florida have very few regionalisms. The cot-caught merger is widespread, though.

    • trawicks says:

      Florida (well, southern Florida) is definitely part of the GenAm belt, despite being technically part of the South.

      I actually think, though, that Florida was simply the earliest example of an ongoing trend in the South: urban areas shifting into GenAm territory due to huge numbers of transplants from elsewhere.

  2. Marc Leavitt says:

    Despite its location in the midwest by some linguists, famous or otherwise, I, personally, define “General American English” in my mind merely as “American English,” just as most Americans refer to the English of Great Britain as “British English.” Obviously, depending on your knowledge, both terms serve as catch-alls, with many sub-types, but in both cases, I think the terms are merely useful for macro-identification. Here in New Jersey, despite its small size, I can identify at least three major sub-dialects of “General American,” although, according to most of what I’ve read, the experts divide New Jersey into New York- and Philadelpia-influenced dialects. I look at it as a convenience for taxonomic purposes (We’re primates, but of the Homo Sapiens persuasion).

    • trawicks says:

      I believe I’ve read there’s also a “transitional” area in New Jersey in the central part of the state that doesn’t quite fall into either (at least in terms of the tense-lax split). I’d need to read more to get the details.

      • E.C. says:

        I’m from Central Jersey (linguistically defined, it stretches from roughly Bordentown in the southwest to Elizabeth in the northeast). I definitely think it’s a transitional area: we have many NYC features, but not the whole set (the rhoticity of Central Jersey English is a definite marker compared to its relatives to the north and [in Staten Island] east; plus, there are some Philadelphia areal features too…

        In terms of the tense-lax split: tensing occurs here (the vowel quality is clearly different in “Can you go? No, I can’t!”), but not in others (“cab, lab” not tensed, as in NYC). The Philadelphia influence is apparent elsewhere, though–I dipthongize the vowel in “day” but not “date”, as you point out…

        Lexically, there’s not much from the south here (the amazing frozen-dessert chain Rita’s calls its product “water ice” south of the Millstone River, but “Italian ice” north of it). It’s “sub”, “sprinkles”, and “cart” vs. “hoagie, jimmies, wagon.”

        Labov (originally from North Plainfield) is actually a native speaker of my dialect, which is just awesome; he apparently got into linguistics at an early age, when he moved to Rutherford (in NJ but fully part of the NYC dialect zone)…

        • David says:

          No nitpicking intended, but I believe that Rutherford, NJ, which IS in northern New Jersey, either is part of the NEW JERSEY dialect zone just like the central part of the state or, like Newark (but unlike its fellow Essex County municipalities, straddles both the New Jersey (read: Central and most of North Jersey) and NYC dialect zones.

  3. IVV says:

    What is the geographic range of “Pennsylvanian o-fronting”? I was reviewing your Pittsburghese blog post, and remembering my experiences going to Penn State. State College had o-fronting (and, to be honest, I think /ɜʊ/ only begins to describe the sound–it’s quite distinct and unique). I don’t remember hearing it among Philadelphians.

    • trawicks says:

      /ɜʊ/ is fairly conservative, I’ll admit–the offglide can be quite fronted as well. I think in Philadelphia it can mostly be found in very broad accents, while middle- and upper-middle class speakers have more GenAm like varieties.

      The GOAT vowel is quite fascinating in Pennsylvania: It can range from a monophthongal/back [o:] in Northern/Central areas, to a very fronted and low vowel in the Southern part of the state. Why the degree of GOAT fronting increases so quickly from the Northern to Southern parts of this state is something I’ve never really understood.

  4. Jim Johnson says:

    I think you’re right about the core home of the GA accent – I’m from NW Iowa, just on the edge of the area you have highlighted, and that’s an active division of my town, even: Some fall within GA; some are more of the upper midwest sound.

    I think the larger scope of GA, however, extends into Kansas and South Dakota, and even as far west as Wyoming and Colorado. It can also extend east to Indiana and Ohio, though the southern parts of both tend more… southern…

    Keep up the great work!

    • trawicks says:

      Thanks, Jim! I had a co-worker from NE Iowa who sounded startlingly Minnesotan to me at the time. I think it may also depend on the history of the area: his town saw huge waves of Scandivanian and German immigration, which I believe give that region much of its distinctive sound.

  5. JSchlet says:

    You should think about doing a post on the variety of accents in St. Louis. It’s at a crossroads of several regions and is known for being very schizophrenic in that regard – people from different parts of town can sound like they came from entirely different parts of the country, or just plain weird in some cases.

    • trawicks says:

      Very true! I’ve heard some people there who sound nearly Chicagoan. But travel ten or fifteen miles down the road and it’s very South Midlands.

      • JSchlet says:

        I grew up in the St. Louis area, and studied music at the University of Kansas (the one famous for the Jayhawks), which is only about 300 miles away. On the first day of a music theory class during my sophomore year, the professor asked me what country I was from after I introduced myself. I really didn’t know what to say!

        • Ellen K. says:

          And if you’re like me, you don’t even notice the locals having an accent different than yours.

          I grew up in the St. Louis suburbs, and now live in the Kansas City area (which Lawrence is either on the edge of or just outside of) and even lived in Lawrence for a while. I don’t the difference. Well, except for my husband’s pronouncing pin and pen the same. But, when the subject came up, my husband said I have an accent.

  6. Amy Stoller says:

    General American is a fictional construct, and personally I find it a very, very unsatisfying one. It’s defined as North American English that is not Northeastern or Southern US. Obviously that covers massive amounts of territory comprising areas with easily identifiable regional accents to anyone with half an ear. There are all the regional variations in Canada to be considered, for one thing – and certainly a Minnesota accent and a Southern California one are not the same, nor would either be confused with, say, northeast Texas. It doesn’t take long to conclude that there is just no such thing as General American (which, even if it did exist, would not be comparable with RP.)

    I also don’t like the term Neutral, because there is nothing whatever neutral about any form of speech; people will judge people on the basis of their speech no matter what that speech is.

    So I prefer the term Non-Regional American, which I admit is also unsatisfying, as the best of a bad lot. All I mean by Non-Regional American is American English not readily identifiable as belonging to any particular region of the US. There are many speakers of American English whose regional origin isn’t immediately apparent from their speech; they can, despite individual differences in their speech, be considered speakers of Non-Regional American.

  7. Amy Stoller says:

    (Continued from the above) … they can, despite individual differences in their speech, be considered speakers of Non-Regional American.

    Which is not to say that they all sound the same, with no variation from speaker to speaker. Just that their regional origins can’t be pinned down beyond “somewhere in the USA.”

  8. Peter S. says:

    Can you really say that the Midland accent is General American? My mother comes from Decatur, IL (very close to where people supposedly speak General American), and in her speech (and mine) the vowel a in bang, bag, bank, and rhyming words is pronounced /æɪ/. I’ve heard this in a number of other people’s speech, and the ones I’ve asked about it (only two or three) have also come from the Midwest. But this feature certainly shouldn’t be considered General American, but a Midlands regionalism.

    I would describe General American as the Midlands dialect with all regional features present in only a few American dialects removed.

    • trawicks says:

      I think it depends on where in the Midland we’re talking about. I’d say the North Midland (as defined by William Labov) at least falls into the GenAm spectrum. As with the South, though, there’s probably something of a urban-rural divide (as indicated by the comment about St. Louis above).

    • m.m. says:

      The /æ/ raising/diphthongizing in “bang” and “bank” is part of the same system before other nasals, which is not only common throughout the country, it’s generally not even noticed by speakers. The same cannot be said for “bag” though, which is definitely seen as a regionalism.

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  10. Neen says:

    I, myself, am Irish but have a good knowledge of American accents. My boyfriend is from Oregon and I would say that he has a VERY standard American accent.

    • trawicks says:

      Oregonians sound mostly like General Americans to me. Although I have noticed that some older Pacific Northwesterners can have some slightly “Canadian sounding” features. Back before I was a bit more adept at recognizing North American regional accents, I remember mistaking the accent of Bill Gates (from Seattle) and Kyle Maclachlan (from Yakima) for that of our neighbors to the North.

  11. Leslie says:

    General American is spoken in Denver, Salt Lake City and Phoenix.

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  14. Victor Hugenay says:

    “And indeed there is such a standard, used by most radio and television news staff throughout the U.S. Applying such a definition rigorously leaves us with the orange striped areas on the map, in parts of the Central Midland and South Florida, and the southern fringe of the North. “http://aschmann.net/AmEng/
    I’ve always thought that South Florida had a Western style American Accent!
    Can somebody please wise me up?

  15. Victor Hugenay says:

    Thank you very much for the information! I really appreciate it!

  16. Jim Harris says:

    I’m from the Maryland suburbs of DC. My accent seems pretty typical of newscasters and TV professionals and pretty General American-ish. My question is why isn’t the DC area part of the General American-speaking area, since almost everyone from here who isn’t African American doesn’t have anything like either a Southern or Baltimore, Philly, or New York accent. The one thing that we do differently, I think, is that most people have an almost complete caught-cot merger and that words like zoo and you sound more like ew.

  17. Jim Harris says:

    The answer to that is yes, of course, we do have our own culture, but we and a lot of other places in the US have lost unique speech features. That doesn’t mean we consider ourselves to speak like Midwesterners, we just think we speak without an accent or with a generalized American one as opposed to any kind of regional accent.

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