General American English (Accent and Dialect)

Father welcoming son to his home.
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General American English is a somewhat vague and outdated term for a variety of spoken American English that seems to lack the distinctive characteristics of any particular region or ethnic group. Also called network English or newscaster accent.

The term General American (GA, GAE, or GenAm) was coined by English professor George Philip Krapp in his book The English Language in America (1925). In the first edition of History of the English Language (1935), Albert C. Baugh adopted the term General American, calling it "the dialect of the Middle States and the West."

General American  is sometimes broadly characterized as "speaking with a midwestern accent," but as William Kretzschmar observes (below), there has "never been any single best or default form of American English that might form the basis for 'General American'" (A Handbook of Varieties of English, 2004).

Examples and Observations

  • "The fact that I conjugate my verbs and speak in a typical Midwestern newscaster voice--there's no doubt that this helps ease communication between myself and white audiences. And there's no doubt that when I'm with a Black audience, I slip into a slightly different dialect."
    (U.S. President Barack Obama, quoted by Dinesh D'Souza in Obama's America: Unmaking the American Dream. Simon & Schuster, 2012)
  • "The term 'General American' is sometimes used by those who expect for there to be a perfect and exemplary state of American English . . .. However, in this essay the term 'Standard American English' (StAmE) is preferred; it designates the level of quality (here of pronunciation) that is employed by educated speakers in formal settings. StAmE pronunciation differs from region to region, even from person to person, because speakers from different circumstances in and different parts of the United States commonly employ regional and social features to some extent even in formal situations."
    (William A. Kretzschmar, Jr., "Standard American English Pronunciation." A Handbook of Varieties of English, ed. by Bernd Kortmann and Edgar W. Schneider. Mouton de Gruyter, 2004)
  • "[T]he standard assumption for American English is that even educated speakers, from certain regions at least (most notably New England and the South), at times use regional pronunciation characteristics and thus speak 'with an accent'; hence, despite the persistent belief in a homogenous 'General American' accent or notions like 'network English' there is in fact no single norm of pronunciation that corresponds to RP [received pronunciation] in England, being a non-regional class dialect."
    (Edgar W. Schneider, "Introduction: Varieties of English in the Americas and the Caribbean." A Handbook of Varieties of English, ed. by Bernd Kortmann and Edgar W. Schneider. Mouton de Gruyter, 2004)

Variants in Network English

  • "It is important to note that no single dialect--regional or social--has been singled out as an American standard. Even national media (radio, television, movies, CD-ROM, etc.), with professionally trained voices have speakers with regionally mixed features. However, 'Network English,' in its most colourless form, can be described as a relatively homogenous dialect that reflects the ongoing development of progressive American dialects (Canadian English has several notable differences). This dialect itself contains some variant forms. The variants included within this targeted accent involve vowels before /r/, possible differences in words like 'cot' and 'caught' and some vowels before /l/. It is fully rhotic. These differences largely pass unnoticed by the audiences for Network English, and are also reflective of age differences."
    (Daniel Jones, English Pronouncing Dictionary, 17th ed. Cambridge University Press, 2006)

​​General American vs. the Eastern New England Accent

  • "A few examples of differences between some regional dialects and General American or Network English are in order here, though these are necessarily selective. In the characteristic speech of Eastern New England, for instance, rhotic /r/ is lost after vowels, as in far or hard, while it is retained in all positions in General American. A rounded vowel has been retained in Eastern New England in words like top and dot, whereas General American uses an unrounded vowel. Another Eastern New England characteristic is the use of /ɑ/ in words like bath, grass, last, etc., where General American uses /a/. In these respects the New England accent shows some similarities with British RP."
    (Diane Davies, Varieties of Modern English: An Introduction. Routledge, 2013)

Challenges to the Concept of General American

  • "The belief that American English consists of General American and the Eastern (Northern) and Southern dialect varieties was called into question by a group of American scholars in the 1930s. . . . In 1930 [Hans] Kurath was named the director of an ambitious project called The Linguistic Atlas of the United States and Canada. He patterned the project on a similar European undertaking that had been completed some years before the American project started: Atlas linguistique de la France, which ran between 1902 and 1910. Given the results of their work, Kurath and his co-workers challenged the belief that American English had the varieties Eastern, Southern, and General American. Instead, they suggested that American English is best viewed as having the following major dialect areas: Northern, Midland, and Southern. That is, they did away with the elusive notion of 'General American' and replaced it with the dialect area that they called Midland."
    (Zoltán Kövecses, American English: An Introduction. Broadview, 2000)
  • "Many Midwesterners are under the illusion that they speak without an accent. They may even believe that they speak Standard American English. But most linguists understand that there is not a single, correct way to speak English. So, yes, even Midwesterners speak with an accent."
    (James W. Neuliep, Intercultural Communication: A Contextual Approach, 6th ed. SAGE, 2015)
  • "It should be emphasized that everyone speaks with an accent; it is as impossible to speak without an accent as to speak without making sounds. When people deny they have an accent, this is a statement of social prejudice and not linguistics."
    (Howard Jackson and Peter Stockwell, An Introduction to the Nature and Functions of Language, 2nd ed. Bloomsbury Academic, 2011)

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Nordquist, Richard. "General American English (Accent and Dialect)." ThoughtCo, Jan. 24, 2021, Nordquist, Richard. (2021, January 24). General American English (Accent and Dialect). Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "General American English (Accent and Dialect)." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 27, 2023).