The United States Of Accents: General American
People love pointing out each other's accents, but what about Americans who don't seem to have one?
Do you have an accent? Think about it for a moment. If you said yes, it’s probably because you’ve encountered people who go up to you and say, “Hey, you have an accent.” If you said no, well — you’re wrong. There is a reason you might think that way, though, and that’s because of an accent commonly called General American.
First, everyone has an accent, even those who think they don’t. Great evidence for this is a study done in Michigan, which asked people to rate how residents of other states sound, in terms of correctness and pleasantness. The resulting map of all the ratings showed that, surprise surprise, the accent people in Michigan had was the most pleasant and most correct. It’s been pretty well-documented that a lot of Michigan people don’t think they have an accent at all. The state with the least correctness, according to the Michiganders, was Alabama.
Fortunately, Alabama had its chance to respond. On the pleasantness scale, Alabama, like Michigan, rated itself as the best. This makes sense, as you’re likely to find the accent of your parents and your friends the most pleasant. If it were just the case that everyone thought their own accent was the best in every way, then this would be an open-and-shut case: the American accent is whatever you happen to speak. However, when asked about correctness, the responses were not as clear-cut. Alabama ranked Maryland and the surrounding area as having the “most correct” English, which means there’s something else going on here.
General American: The ‘Unmarked’ Accent
The idea that there is one accent that is the most neutrally American has been around for a long time, and it is usually called “General American.” The term was coined in 1925 by the descriptive linguist George Philip Krapp as a way to describe the accent he thought was becoming the norm in the United States. Almost a century later, there’s still no "normal" accent, but the term has survived to describe what is considered the most correct, or the unmarked, American accent.
The word “unmarked” is pretty loaded when referring to accents, though. After all, what makes something “marked”? If you think about accents from around the country, you can probably think of some characteristics: the lack of “r”s in Boston (“Pahk the cah” and so forth), and the vowels of the Midwest that bring to mind Fargo. These may seem marked, but you could say that the General American accent is marked because it pronounces the "r"s and has its own strange vowels.
If someone is speaking General American, they supposedly sound distinctly American, but it’s impossible to place exactly where they’re from.
Regional accents are not any less correct than any other way of talking. People from England would say that the entirety of the United States is just butchering their accent. As a side note, England actually does have an official "General British” called Received Pronunciation, which is a way of speaking associated with the upper classes and royalty.
But What Does General American Sound Like?
Brendan Houdek, an associate instructor at New York Speech Coaching, says "To put it simply, this term is typically utilized when referring to a dialect that is clearly American, but has none of the distinctive features that categorize a particular region, ethnic group, or socioeconomic status. Upon hearing someone speak with this particular dialect, it would be difficult to determine where he or she is from, other than being from the United States of America." But what does General American sound like? It’s hard to define.
If someone is speaking with a General American accent, they supposedly sound distinctly American, but it’s impossible to place exactly where they’re from. There are attempts to define General American’s sound, but because it is only defined in relationship with other accents, it is a slippery concept. It simply does not exist in nature. Houdek says that it’s "more of a spectrum of dialects than one particular set of speech rules," so there’s no way to nail it down.
Perhaps the most popular representation of General American is in newscasting. There is an ongoing expectation that all news anchors and reporters should speak the same way. There’s a belief that you should be able to watch any broadcast in the United States and it will sound the same. This doesn’t always happen, though; Atlas Obscura looked into this and determined that, actually, while the accents are certainly less noticeable, most people are unable to completely eradicate their regional ways of speaking.
There is one newscaster, or “newscaster,” who provides a great example of General American: Stephen Colbert. While it certainly doesn’t sound like it, Colbert is from South Carolina, but he has mastered the newscaster accent, based on the legendary Stone Phillips. For a sample of this, here’s an interview he did on Meet the Press.
In a different interview, this time with 60 Minutes, Colbert explained why he decided to get rid of his Southern accent and learn what Morley Safer called the “boring baritone":
At a very young age, I decided I was not going to have a Southern accent. When I was a kid watching TV, if you wanted to use a shorthand that the character was stupid, you gave the character a Southern accent. Now that’s not true, Southern people are not stupid. But I didn’t want to seem stupid, I wanted to seem smart. You can’t tell where newsmen are from.
While Colbert is not a linguist, he clearly understands a lot about accents on instinct. It also shows why people in Alabama rated themselves low on the correctness scale. It’s an unfortunate fact that all accents have stereotypes attached to them. Even General American, despite supposedly being a neutral accent, has its own assumptions; dialect coach Erik Singer points out that this accent is closely associated with being white, male and upper middle class.
Why Do People Learn General American?
There are a number of services that teach people General American, usually called accent reduction, modification or acquisition. Houdek, who coaches in accent reduction, says there are a few reasons people seek him out.
"The first reason is that some individuals find that their accent is to such a degree that it makes it hard for native speakers to understand them," Houdek said. "Secondly, some individuals want to sound more like those around them and find that the accent that is present due to the influence of their native language makes them feel somewhat like an outsider … Thirdly, some individuals feel that the accent or dialect they have is one that they simply do not identify with personally."
Learning the General American accent can be useful for people, but it is important to keep in mind that a lot of its utility comes from some harmful stereotypes: Californians being laid-back, New Yorkers being angry and, as Colbert said, Southerners being unintelligent. A number of linguists have argued that attitudes about accents are just attitudes about people in disguise. What causes this most of all, though, is a lack of exposure. Mass media is much to blame for this because when so many "intelligent" people on television and radio speak General American, it makes it hard to get past your own subconscious stereotypes.
General American doesn’t seem to be going anywhere soon. It will continue to be an aid to people in the United States. Houdek captures this, saying, "All accents are beautiful and are great reminders of the wonderful diversity that exists in the way individuals of different cultures speak. There is no ‘need’ to impose one way of speaking on someone else." The option is there for people to change their accent if they want to, but we shouldn’t overlook how great it is that people speak differently all across the country.