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Stepping West - the story of the General American accent

When asked, “What is the General American accent?” some Americans might reply “Sorry? Is there such a thing?”. Others might reply “Well, the accent with no regional origin, the newsreaders accent" or “standard American”. One of the most fascinating things about accents is tracing their history and looking at the story of how they could possibly have come to be. So does a 'neutral’ accent with no regional origin mean a 'storyless' accent? Or, in the case of General American, does it tell the story of the fusion of speech characteristics of various migrants, who began stepping west into isolated, unknown and sometimes hostile landscapes to form remote communities with one thing in common: to start a new life. Well it turns out that from the 19th century onwards the 'General American' accent began its evolution. It began its new life.

It seems that General American is to American accents what RP (Received Pronunciation) is to British accents. The neutral, standard accent, is used by media, learnt by non-native learners, and perceived as the 'clear communicator', which makes one better understood among wider audiences. But the backgrounds are quite different. The 'neutral' British RP, although fairly regionless was, and still is to an extent, quite class associated, whereas General American is an organically formed accent, which evolved gradually from a melting pot of various accents as settlers followed the westward migration flow from the East coast areas. They mostly comprised working and lower middle class settlers, quite a few of them German and British, as well as some Irish, French and Spanish among others, whose speech features gradually homogenised to become 'General American'. The accents geographic belt stretches across the lower mid-western areas to the south of Chicago and westward from there.


It's difficult, but fun to speculate about exactly how certain features in the 'General American' accent came to be. What was it that gave the accent its distinctly clipped, fragmented, 'staccatoed' and level sound, with such a mid/back palatal voice placement? Well, since Germans and British formed a large proportion of these initial migrants, perhaps Germans' relatively flat intonation when speaking English could have played a part? How about fusions with native Indian accents? Is there is a real possibility that the slightly fragmented, staccatoed rhythm of general American have been ever-so-slightly historically influenced by their attempts to talk slowly to people of different linguistic backgrounds who formed the migrants? There are so many interesting questions around the origins of this fascinating accent. Overall however, General American is definitely less influenced by native American languages than by accents in the South East USA across the Appalachians towards Texas etc. There are several particularly striking questions about certain features of the General American accent.

'DARK /l/'; WHY IS /l/ SO DARK (VELARISED) BEFORE VOWELS? Many English accents have ‘dark l’, as well as most American accents, some northern accents of England, as well as Australian and Scottish, among others. But the General American accent's /l/ before vowels is particularly dark. This means it poses challenges to students learning the accent. The back, palatal 'twangy' voice placement, if not in place, makes it almost impossible to articulate 'l' far enough back. 

DISTRIBUTION OF /r/ IN GENERAL AMERICAN (RHOTICITY) General American is rhotic (pronounces every 'r' in spelling). This feature partially came from the preservation of 'r' in all environments in pre-19th century British speech. In southern England, speech only became non-rhotic in the early 19th century, after many of the migrants who would go on to contribute to the General American accent had long since left Britain for America in search of a better life. Other contributors to the rhotic feature in General American were Spanish, French and Irish migrants.

ACTING AND LEARNING So the next question is, just how easy is it for a non-native Americans to learn the General American accent? Well it tends to be more difficult for many British actors depending on their original accent. It is definitely easier for Scots, Irish and Australians, due to factors such as voice placement. Also, to an extent, dark l and / or rhoticity in their own accent makes it much more intuitive for these particular non-natives to learn. And for a non-native English speaker, it depends how similar their native voice placement and other features like 'r' distribution and 'l' type are, as well as certain vowels, to the General American accent. Actress Gillian Anderson gives some interesting perspectives about using American and British accents in this article

Some excellent examples of Australian actors who give great performances in American accents are Nicole Kidman, Naomi Watts, Russell Crow and Mel Gibson. The Australian voice placement and 'dark l' in all environments naturally sets an Australian at an advantage for learning General American. But overall, this fascinating General American accent has had a wonderful evolution, and continues to be mastered by non-natives globally. If you'd like to try your hand at the General American accent, why not check out these tips for learners:


• The General American accent generally has a resonance caused by a natural point of tension between the body of the tongue and the hard palate, giving a quite 'twangy' sound. 

•The General American accent generally has a resonance caused by a natural point of tension between the body of the tongue and the hard palate, giving a quite 'twangy' sound. »Like to try?

• /l/ is 'dark' or 'velarised' in all environments.This affects the quality of adjacent vowel sounds. 

• The General American/Midwest accent, and the majority of other U.S. accents are rhotic, so /r/ is pronounced in all environments. This affects the quality of preceding vowel sounds. Native speakers of the General American accent »always pronounce a word final /r/ and don't use the intrusive /r/

• /r/ is retroflex which means the tongue body and blade are very retracted toward the back of the hard palate. This affects the quality of adjacent vowel sounds.

• /j/ is dropped following alveolar consonants in words such as new, duty, tune, assume.

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