NBC Pronunciation Standards

Edward R. Murrow (wikimedia)

Edward R. Murrow (wikimedia)

While browsing in a book shop recently, I found a dusty manual titled NBC Handbook of Pronunciation. From the 1940′s through the early 1960′s, NBC published this dictionary of sorts establishing a “standard pronunciation” for newscasters.

It is clear from the book’s introduction what kind of accent the network preferred:

…when a broadcaster speaks over a powerful station or nation-wide hookup, he will be most readily understood by the majority of his listeners if he uses the pronunciation called by phoneticians “General American.” That is the standard presented in this book.

But is this the same type of General American English that educated Americans speak today? Or has the accent evolved?

There are slight differences between then and now. For instance, the NBC guide prescribes that the final vowel in words like “happy” and “silly” be the same vowel in KIT (hæpɪ and sɪlɪ). This matches my impressions of Eisenhower-era newsmen (“John F. Kennedeh spoke today…”). It’s such a subtle difference that most listeners will hear something “old-fashioned” in 1950s anchor-speech without being able to pinpoint what.

In a similar vein, the guide advocates using a reduced vowel in words like “Tuesday” and “Thursday,” so that these are somewhat more like “Tuesdee” and “Thursdee.” Although still common in some American regional accents, almost all variants of GenAm fully pronounce the “-day.”

Vowels before /r/ seem to constitute the chief difference between mid-century GenAm and today’s GenAm. Unlike many Americans today, the NBC accent distinguished between words like “Merry” and “Marry.” It describes “Marry” as having the vowel in TRAP (mærɪ), while “terry” has the vowel in SET (tɛrɪ). Oddly, however, the guide transcribes the “a” in “arrow” as having the vowel in SET as well (ɛro). This suggests some acknowledgement that pronunciation was changing.

For the most part, however, post-war GenAm is hardly different from today’s GenAm. What has changed the most, perhaps, is our expanded definition of this accent. We allow a lot of variation these days–the Cot-Caught merger, fronting of the vowels in GOOSE and GOAT–while still placing certain accents within the loosely defined spectrum of “standard” American English.

Still, I was surprised by the book’s enlightened attitude toward linguistic diversity. Here is what the introduction says about attempts to speak “correctly:”

It should be pointed out that this book does not pretend to prescribe how words should be pronounced according to some arbitrary standard; it merely records how they are pronounced by educated speakers across the greater part of the United States. Americans have never consented to have “correct” pronunciation laid down for them by a government academy, as is done in several European nations.

This was the era in which General American English was becoming the de facto standard, and from this description, one sees why it took hold in such a populist nation. Perhaps because early proponents of General American avoided proselytizing, we were less averse to “Middle-Western English” as a national standard.

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About Ben Trawick-Smith

Ben Trawick-Smith began 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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49 Responses to NBC Pronunciation Standards

  1. dw says:

    What does it say about T-lenition?

    Also, what is its publication date?

    Thanks.

    • The one I bought was the last of the first wave of editions (1964). My guess is that it would not have changed substantially from earlier editions, since it had the same editorial staff since 1951. (There was, by the way, an attempt to revive the Handbook in the 1980′s, but it appeared to have been compiled by a different set of editors.)

      The Handbook doesn’t indicate anything about t-lenition. To cite a typical example, “nautical” is transcribed [ˈnɔtɪkəl], with no indication that /t/ is anything other than [t]. On the one hand, lack of t-lenition did seem typical of some broadcasters from that era. You can hear indications of such pronunciations in this legendary clip of Edward R. Murrow–the /t/ in “legislating” and “prosecuting” isn’t tapped or voiced. On the other hand, the transcriptions in the book aren’t exactly the narrowest, so I’m not sure how rigidly enforced the /t/ thing was.

      • Jo says:

        Maybe it’s because I ‘m not a native speaker (I’m French) but I think the clip of Edward R. Murrow differs a good deal from American accents I usually hear today : little d/t flapping inside a word, FACE is closer to a monothong, the vowel in “can” seems less diphthongal, but I still struggle to hear a big Cot/caught distinction (though the vowel is clearly rounded in “cause”) and his LOT vowel doesn’t seem as centralized as today unmerged “General American English”.
        Thanks for the clip

      • Ben W says:

        I’ve heard that t-flapping in the U.S. dates to the 19th century. Certainly, the vast majority of the intervocalic t’s are flapped. T-flapping doesn’t occur before a vowel with any amount of stress (except across word boundaries), so the non-flapped /t/ in “legislating” and “prosecuting” may simply be because he was strongly emphasizing these words and as a result put secondary stress on -ing. Any newscasters who regularly didn’t flap their t’s would be putting on an affectation. BTW flapping of t’s was never indicated in any of the dictionaries I used growing up (which normally used a non-standard, non-IPA pronunciation key in any case). Given that it’s allophonic this isn’t so surprising.

      • Ben W says:

        @Jo — I’m not surprised you have a hard time hearing the cot/caught distinction. In my speech, for example, it’s consistent but the two sounds are quite close, something like [ɑ] (slightly fronted) vs. [ɒ], although the quality of the latter sound is often made more by velarization than by rounding. (I can in fact make the latter sound without rounding my lips at all.) The sound of [ɒ] is similar to the sound found in French “dans” (minus the nasalization) and (AFAIK) in traditional pronunciations of words like “bas” and “cas”. One significant complication is that the vowel written “o” can have either sound — generally [ɒ] occurs before /f/, /s/, /θ/, /g/, /ŋ/, and [ɑ] elsewhere, although with exceptions going both ways. An additional problem is the large number of speakers who merge the sounds, and the variation on how this merged sound is pronounced. (I’m pretty sure many speakers with the merger still have an allophonic distinction conditioned by the same consonants listed above. California speakers, meanwhile, often use [ɒ] everywhere, or at least before /l/, so that “dollar” sounds like “dawler” to me. I think this pronunciation is spreading, along with so many other California features — or at least, I hear lots of them among the undergraduates here in Austin, Texas.)

  2. Sam Huddy says:

    I’ve read before that Standard American English has moved around a lot in the second half of the 20th century. At some point, the standard was strongly New York-ish. On the other hand, I’ve heard that Chicago (!) was considered the standard in the 1970s and ’80s. These days it seems (annoyingly to this writer’s ears) to be General Western.

  3. Sooryan FM says:

    The Chicago accent cannot be the standard nowadays because of the NCVS.
    It seems that everyone in Chicago has it.

    The Californian vowel shift is common only in some sociolects (Valley girls, Surfer’s dude, Gay speech). Most people in California DON’T round the Cot/Caught vowel ( ”MOM” is an exception) nor they shift E’s to A’s (Yallow, In the U-ASS…this sounds very marked…Valspeak or Gayspeak).
    The lowering of A is common though, as in contemporary RP, and it is not marked. So LAST and LOST may contrast in frontness-backwardness only, in many speakers, both vowels being low and unrounded.

    • dw says:

      So LAST and LOST may contrast in frontness-backwardness only, in many speakers, both vowels being low and unrounded.

      I live in California, and I’ve never heard this.

      In any case, I doubt that the acoustic difference between [a] and [ɑ] is great enough to sustain a phonemic contrast in any language, unless reinforced by a secondary dimension such as length.

      • Phil says:

        I’ve read that ride vs. rod in Southern American English is an example of [a] contrasting with [ɑ]. But maybe there is also a length difference between the two that I’m not aware of. Also I think the pronunciation of ride as [ra(:)d] is variable.

      • IVV says:

        I’m inland Californian, and I have a difference between [a] and [ɑ]. I call it the difference between “Ah” and “Aw”. I don’t round either vowel (unlike others I know in other parts of the country). “Aw” is backed compared to “Ah”.

        • dw says:

          @IVV

          Do you have a link to any audio/video (either of you yourself or of other speakers that have a similar accent) that exemplifies this split? Thanks!

        • IVV says:

          I can’t access Youtube at this time, but if you search for Bella Viva Farms and listen to Michael, their spokesman, you will hear my native accent very clearly.

        • dw says:

          Thanks a lot. My first impression (purely by ear) is that there is a rounding difference here: this speaker’s LOT vowel seems significantly more rounded than his TRAP vowel. Do you not agree?

        • m.m. says:

          I have to agree with dw, his LOT/BOT sounds pretty backed with some rounding.

          His TRAP/BAT doesnt sound shifted at all to me, which i hear as odd sounding

        • IVV says:

          Okay, I’ll accept your judgement.

        • Ben W says:

          This guy sounds typically Californian — “… baunds with the auxygen maulecule …” plus that strong surfer-dude prosody.

        • m.m. says:

          “… baunds with the auxygen maulecule …”

          im like, [baʊndz]??? but then i realized youre trying to convey roundness via layman fauxnetics xD

          and he definitely has the surfer dude prosody down

        • IVV says:

          Dude, totally.

          But I like him as a reference point because he speaks clearly and grew up just miles from my childhood home.

          (He’s also an amind-knock-the-L-out speaker.)

        • Sarah says:

          “(He’s also an amind-knock-the-L-out speaker.)”

          Huh?

        • IVV says:

          It’s from an earlier discussion of the Californian pronunciation of “almond.” He’s from one of the original Californian almond grower families, and his rules of pronunciation are quite specific to the area. Check the comments here.

      • Derek says:

        dw: “…I doubt that the acoustic difference between [a] and [ɑ] is great enough to sustain a phonemic contrast in any language, unless reinforced by a secondary dimension such as length.”

        What about contemporary RP bad [baːd] vs. bard [bɑːd]? Or does that not count?

        • dw says:

          Touche! I believe you’re right.

        • Ben W says:

          dw, there’s nothing strange about having two phonemic low vowels (front vs. back) in a language. Tons of languages have this. A three-way front vs. central vs. back distinction would be more unusual though, and probably wouldn’t be stable. BTW Old English had at least SIX low vowels — [æ], [ɑ] and [æɑ], each in both short and long varieties.

    • Nicholas L. says:

      Well I’m sure it’s difficult for a Brit to hear accent differences in America (and vice versa). All American English probably sounds the same to you. But I assure you that Americans can hear accent differences between different regions of their homeland, however difficult it may be for you to believe.

    • Sam Huddy says:

      What I find really interesting is that New English and Southern English have never been standard accents, and those are the most stigmatized accents in American culture.

    • m.m. says:

      Actually, vowel lowering/backing before /l/ has been shown by quite a few to be a consistent productive environment. I cant tell you how many times ive heard [ɛl] -> [æl]/[ɐl] from speakers from all over north america, and even engEng speakers.

      • Peter S. says:

        [ɛl] -> [æl] and (at least for me) [æl] becomes a diphthong [æəl].

      • BenPH says:

        Actually, I believe that the reason that Southern American English has been stigmatized so badly is because they are seen as the losers in the Civil War. If it had turned out differently, it would have been seen as a different accent in it own right much like a Canadian or Australian accent. But instead, it has become stigmatized as some kind of backward, racist degenerate version of English.

        The New England dialect I don’t think is really stigmatized so much as you simply don’t hear it any more, and it is dying out and sounds more quaint. If anything, it sound like some rich “old white dude” accent the way it is sometime portrayed.

        • Ben W says:

          It’s a bit more complicated. The Southern accent we know now didn’t exist at the time of the Civil War. It’s known from early recordings that it began around 1875 or 1880 or so. It may well be that this happened because the Civil War and its aftermath intensified the regionalist feelings of the South. As for the New England dialect, it’s definitely stigmatized relative to General American — that’s why it’s dying out. It just may not be *as* stigmatized to a Northerner as are Southern accents. (And Southern accents aren’t stigmatized to most Southerners.)

        • Sam Huddy says:

          I’d think the traditional southern accent existed earlier in the mountains, just not elsewhere. Some places around the coast don’t sound southern at all!

        • Richard P says:

          Ben W:
          “…that’s why it’s dying out…”

          How do you know this? Has there been any research on the topic?

          Sam:
          “Some places around the coast don’t sound southern at all!”

          Could you give me some examples of coastal places in the South that you don’t think have Southern accents? That is, of course, just your opinion, but I’m just curious what places you have in mind when you say that.

  4. Jan says:

    I learned to talk in the 40′s. I’ve always been intrigued by the reduced vowel at the end of words such as city, Kennedy, etc. I think it was a little more common when I was young, but not much. I still hear it from time to time. I read somewhere that it was much more common in the 19th century. Anyone know?

    • Sam Huddy says:

      In British English, that pronunciation was the standard; it still is in the north of England. The current shift is called “happy-tensing.” Interestingly, happy-tensing has always existed in Australian, northern American, Canadian, and South African English. This suggest that the “y” vowel was originally tense, then laxed in the 19th century, and tensed again in the 20th.

    • Richard P says:

      Hmm…I’m not so sure that it’s “standard” in the north of England. It seems to me that it’s people with stronger, working-class accents there who are most likely to lack “happy tensing”.

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  6. Keith Ivey says:

    Doesn’t President Obama have the KIT vowel at the end of “happy” and “silly”?

  7. TD says:

    Ben –

    ‘In a similar vein, the guide advocates using a reduced vowel in words like “Tuesday” and “Thursday,” so that these are somewhat more like “Tuesdee” and “Thursdee.” Although still common in some American regional accents, almost all variants of GenAm fully pronounce the “-day.” ‘

    I’m from Monmouth County (East Central New Jersey, but not the Shore) and my grandparents, whose families had farmed there since before the Revolution, pronounced the days of the week with a “-dee” ending. I was under the impression that this was a strictly local pronunciation and not more broadly utilized. (And one I dropped from use when I went to university.)

    My grandfather also regularly used a word which sounded like “pitnear”, which I learned was an 18th c. pronunciation of “pretty near” and used in the sense of “approximately”.

    I’m not a linguist and this is my first visit to your site – it’s been a great introduction by you and your contributors. Thanks so much.

    • Rodger C says:

      WV, born 1948. I’ve always pronounced “Thursday” with the vowels of “thirsty,” and not until I read this thread did I realize that I’ve been hearing the written vowel being restored around me for quite a while now.

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  9. Barbara says:

    Why do write 1940′s and 1960′s? Surely there’s no need for an apostrophe?!

  10. 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?

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