How did American English become standardized?

Someone asked me about General American (GA) dialect, sometimes called Standard American. This person specifically asked, “In the 30’s to 60, there was the transatlantic accent, but I was wondering when general american became the norm for tv / movies?”

General American is a variant of American Midland dialect. It’s considered to have its most representative form in a small area of the far western Lower Midwest, mostly but not entirely west of the upper Mississippi River: central-to-southern Iowa, northern Missouri, eastern Nebraska, and northwestern Illinois. Major mainstream media figures such as Ronald Reagan and Walter Cronkite came from this part of the country, Illinois and Missouri respectively.

The archetype of GA in broadcasting was Edward Murrow who was born in North Carolina but early on moved to the rhotic region of the Pacific Northwest, specifically Washington state. According to Thomas Paul Bonfiglio (Race and the Rise of Standard American, pp. 173-4), Murrow’s “nightly radio audience was estimated to be 15,000,000 listeners” and widely considered “the foremost American correspondent of that era.” Murrow’s career took off during WWII when America’s image of greatness finally took form (with the help of the destruction of Europe), and the voice that came to be identified with this new great America was that of GA-speaking Edward Murrow. He helped train and inspire an entire generation of broadcasters that followed him. Bonfiglio then states that,

Those who were hired and trained by Murrow in turn hired and trained Walter Cronkite, Mike Wallace, Harry REasoner, Roger Mudd, Dan Rather, and Chet Hunley (230). Walter Cronkite, who was often characterized as the most trusted man in America, characterized himself as a “direct descendent of the Murrow tradition”

There are variants of GA found across the Midwest, in the Far West, and along the West Coast. Many people working in radio, television, and movies speak GA—whether or not it was the dialect they spoke growing up. GA became standard because of a number of reasons, besides those already mentioned.

Let me begin with a discussion of the Midwest.

The Midwest for a long time has been the median and mean of the population in the United States. Between great soil and plentiful water for agriculture and industry, it attracted most of the immigrant population since the 1800s. Even most people heading further west passed through this region. For this reason, the early railroads were built heavily in the Midwest. Chicago, in particular, was in the past the hub of America. The ‘Midwest’ symbolically is quite broad, imaginatively encompassing almost the entirety of the American interior.

The Midwest was increasingly where large audiences could be reached, an important factor in early broadcasting. Another important factor was that the area of GA is most equidistant from all other areas of the country, and so the dialect is the most familiar to most Americans—i.e., it sounds neutral, as if without accent.

Some have gone so far as to argue that GA is inherently more of a ‘neutral‘ accent in that it is easier to speak or sing for most people; and if that were the case, it could have helped it have spread more easily. Interestingly, GA is in some ways closer to early British English than is contemporary British English, as rhotic pronunciation of ‘r’ sounds used to be the norm for British English and still is for GA. Rhotic English, in the United States, is also what distinguishes (Mid-)Western dialect from Eastern and Southern dialect.

By the way, Reagan worked in Midwestern broadcast radio before he became a Hollywood actor. Strangely, quite a few cowboy actors came from or near the area of GA dialect, such as John Wayne from southern Iowa (his father having been from Illinois and his mother from Nebraska). Wayne has a way of speaking that is hard to pinpoint regionally, other than it sounding vaguely ‘Western’, definitely not Eastern or Southern.

GA took longer to take hold in entertainment media, as regional dialects remained popular in many television shows. In 1934, there was the first “syndicated programming, including The Lone Ranger and Amos ‘n’ Andy” (Radio in the United States). It was news broadcasters that helped make GA the norm for the country, although even this took a while (Bonfiglio, p. 58): “Even in the late thirties, the idea of a standard American English had not yet been located in a specific region, and a sort of linguistic relativism in the field of pronunciation prevailed.” Besides those named above, there were others such Clifton Garrick Utley (along with his mother and father who also worked for NBC) and Vincent Pelletier or, even over in Ohio, someone like Lowell Jackson Thomas. Midwestern broadcasters like this only gained wider national audiences starting in the 1940s, and so they helped to define the emerging perception of a Standard American or General American dialect. The world war era helped fuel the seeking of a national identity and hence a national way of speaking. It helped that Western broadcasters like Edward Murrow similarly spoke rhotic GA.

Plus, the Midwest developed the only thriving regional public radio, partly because of the large number of land grant colleges. It’s not that public radio initially was all that important nationally. But it had great influence in the region. And it probably had some later influence on the eventual establishment of National Public Radio.

Still, early broadcasters do sound different than today. Even Cronkite in the beginning of his career had a more clipped style. This had less to do with regional dialect and maybe more to do with the medium itself at the time—as dthrasher explained: “I’d guess that the “50’s accent” you hear had much to do with the technology of AM and shortwave radio. Precise diction and a somewhat clipped style for words and phrases helped to overcome the crackle and hiss of static in radio reception.” He also points out “that many movie and television stars of that era got their start in theater,” a less casual way of speaking, but I’m not sure how much influence that would have had on the field of broadcasting.

What exactly changed, besides technology, in the mid-20th century? Bonfiglio emphasizes that there was a growing desire for standardization in the 1940s. An obvious reason for this was the rise of the public school movement as part of the response to the perceived threat of ethnic immigrants who weren’t assimilating fast enough for many WASPs. As Bonfiglio writes (p. 59):

In 1944, the New York State Department of Education formed a committee to decide on standards of pronunciation to be taught in public schools (C. K. Thomas 1945). The committee was comprised of over a dozen national language experts, who decided that the pupils should all become acquainted with the three types of American pronunciation: “Eastern, Southern and General American.”

So, it wasn’t (Mid-)Westerners declaring themselves as speaking General American. Apparently, even those outside of the (Mid-)West acknowledged that there was this broadly American dialect that was neither Eastern nor Southern. But why did this matter?

The South obviously wouldn’t become the standard because it is the region that started and lost the Civil War. Besides, the South didn’t have a large concentrated population as did the North, a major reason for their having been overwhelmed by the Union army. That still leaves the upper East Coast region, as it did initially dominate early entertainment media. The mid-Atlantic consisted of a massive population, from the 1800s into the early 1900s. The problem was that this massive population was also massively diverse, with a large influx of Southern and Eastern Europeans, including many non-Protestants (Jews, Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox).

This led many to look to the (Mid-)West for a ‘real’ American identity, probably related to the growing popularity of movie Westerns and all that they mythologized in the public mind. Americans early on came to symbolize their aspirational identity with the West, the Midwest being the first American West. A state like Iowa, west of the upper Mississippi River, was a clear demarcation point for where dialect was most distinct from the East and South, a place where there were few Jews and blacks.

The rhotic dialect was quite broadly distributed in the Western United States, even being heard from a Texan like Dan Rather, though it is true his mother and her family came from Indiana—it does make me wonder what dialect he spoke as a child and young adult. It should be noted that Texas received a fair amount of German immigrants, many having passed through the Midwest before settling in Texas. Then there are other broadcasters such as Tom Brokaw from South Dakota and Peter Jennings from Canada, both areas of rhotic accent among other shared linguistic characteristics. Standard Canadian English is closely related to Standard American English and, indeed, there was much early immigration between Canada and (Mid-)Western United States.

Following the Civil War and into the 20th century, the population was simultaneously growing in the Midwest and West Coast. This represented the future of the country, not just major agricultural regions but the emergence of major industries and new centers of media.

The first movie shot in Hollywood happened in 1910. That was a silent movie and hence accent wasn’t yet an issue. It would be a couple of decades before films with sound became common. I was reading that it was WWI that disrupted the film production in other countries. With California becoming an emerging center, the studio system and star system having developed there.

The numbers moving westward increased vastly following the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Many of those who ended up in California came from the Midwest, the area of the greatest population and the origin of what has come to be called Standard American English.

The far Middle West accent had already established itself as important. The earliest radio broadcasters that reached the largest numbers of listeners often came from the Midwest or otherwise similarly speaking regions. When so many Midwesterners moved to California, they brought their accent with them. Midwestern broadcasters like Ronald Reagan sometimes became movie stars. Consider also the stereotypical California surfer dude made famous through Hollywood movies. Many of the movie stars and movie extras were of German and Scandinavian ancestry, which had been concentrated in the Midwest. Beach movies came to replace Westerns, but I’m not sure how that might have played into changing attitudes about General American.

The boom of the defense industry and population in California after WWII made it a more important center of culture and media. California even became the center of a religious movement that would take the country by a storm, the new mega-churches that reached massive television audiences. One of these California preachers was Robert H. Schuller who was born and raised in Iowa.

I suppose it took decades for the new accent to become more common mainstream media. By the 1990s, Standard American English definitely had won out as the new dominant accent for the country. It was becoming more common in the 1980s tv, such as with Roseanne which began in 1988. New York City is still a major media center, but it is mostly now known for print media. Even so, there remains a media nostalgia in making movies about New York City, whether or not they are still made there.

The transition to GA dominance wasn’t an accident. There were demographic reasons that made it more probable. But it must be noted that many intentionally promoted it. The Midwest represented a tradition that simultaneously included immigrant diversity and assimilation. This tradition at times was promoted quite forcefully, such as by Klansmen of the Second Klan who hated non-WASP ethnic-Americans (i.e., hyphenated Americans). Mainstream media corporations as gatekeepers were quite self-conscious in their establishing English standardization. The media companies, as stated by Bonfiglio, went so far as to hire professionals from the early speech correction field to teach their broadcasters to speak this at the time newly emerging mainstream standard of American English.

The person who posed the question to me about General American, followed up with this comment: “Even Rosanne doesn’t sound all GA to me. And John Goodman sounds southernish. Was just wondering. I notice some say that after 60s black and white tv it became standard. But I really don’t see that to be the case at all.”

The Roseanne cast had a diverse group of actors. Roseanne Barr was born in Utah, but when she was still young she moved to Colorado which is partly in the Midlands dialect region—her accent is a mix. Several of the other people on the show were born in the Midwest, specifically three from Illinois and one from Michigan. A few were from California and probably spoke more GA, although it’s been a long time since I’ve watched the show.

John Goodman was born in St. Louis, Missouri—what many would consider as culturally part of the Midwest, although there is a Southern influence in Missouri. I’ve even heard a Southern accent in southeast Iowa, from someone who lived just across the Mississipi River. Western Illinois and northern Missouri are part of the specific subset of Midlands dialect (i.e., pure GA) that has become so well known in the mainstream media.

My mother grew up in the Midlands region, central Indiana to be precise. Even she had a Southern-like accent when she was younger, the Hoosier accent that is akin to what is heard in the Upper (Mountain) South. She lost it early on in and now speaks GA. As a speech pathologist, it was part of her job to teach students to speak GA.

I spent many formative years right in the heart of the heart of General American. Even after spending years in the South, it didn’t take long to start speaking GA once I was back in Iowa. It drove my mother wild when I picked up some Southern dialect and she would correct my language, as is her habit. Maybe she was happy when I returned to speaking solid Midwestern dialect.

About early television shows, one to consider is Happy Days. It was set in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. One of the actors was from Wisconsin. Some others were from Minnesota, Oklahoma, illinois, and California. There were a few New Yorkers in that cast as well.

Oddly, one of its spin off shows, Laverne & Shirley, was also supposedly set in the same Milwaukee location. But it’s cast was overwhelmingly from New York. Another spin off from Happy Days was Mork & Mindy, which was supposed to be set in Boulder, Colorado. The two main actors were from Illinois and Michigan, Robin Williams being from Chicago. Of the rest of the cast, two were from Ohio, two from Texas, and one from New York.

From my childhood and young adulthood, there were popular shows like The Wonder Years. The main actor and the actress playing his mother were both from Illinois. By the time that show was on, it probably didn’t matter where actors/actresses came from. Most of them were learning to speak GA. It was probably in California, not the Midwest, where most people in entertainment media learned to speak GA. A Southerner like Stephen Colbert is a good example of someone losing a distinctly regional accent in order to speak GA, although he probably didn’t need to go to California.

If I had to guess, GA came to dominate news reporting and Hollywood movies before it came to dominate tv shows. I’m not sure why that might be. If that is the case, your guess would be as good as mine. One guess might be that tv shows never drew as large of audiences and so General American was less important. New reporting once it became national, on the other hand, demanded an accent that was understandable to the most people. Hollywood movies likewise had larger and more diverse audiences.

According to one theory, General American simply happens to be the accent most Americans can understand the most easily and clearly. Bonfiglio, however, considers that to be an ethnocentric and racist rationalization for the dominance of the (Mid-)Western equivalent of the Aryan race, that perceived superior mix of Anglo-Saxon British and Northern European ancestries. Maybe so or maybe not.

About my mother’s career as a speech pathologist teaching ‘proper’ GA English, my interlocutor then asked the following set of questions, “Just wondering, what era was this? I just find it odd when I watch so much 80s tv and movies, GA isn’t used. What did she teach them for? And was the GA that she taught the one that you mention today? was the accent even remotely similar to what we consider GA today?”

Having been born in the 1940s, my mother started work in the late 1960s and continued until the 2000s. So, she grew up and worked in the precise period of GA dialect fully taking over.

I talked to my mother. We discussed the changes in her own speech.

She doesn’t clearly remember having a Southern-sounding accent or rather a Hoosier accent, but it clearly can be heard on an old audio of her from back in the late 1960s, in the time of her life when she had recently finished college and had begun her career as a speech pathologist.

I asked her if her professors spoke GA. She said that they probably did. She does remember when she was younger that she pronounced in the same way the words ‘pool’, ‘pull’, and ‘pole’. And, when she was in college, a professor corrected her for saying ‘bof’ in place of ‘both’. My mother still will occasionally fall into Hoosier dialect by saying ‘feesh’ for ‘fish’ and ‘cooshion’ for ‘cushion’, the latter example happens commonly in her everyday speaking.

For the most part, my mom speaks GA these days. There is no hint of a Hoosier accent. And, around strangers, she is probably more careful in not using those Hoosier pronunciations. But, even as late as the early 1980s, some people in northern Illinois told my mother that she had what to them sounded like a slight Southern accent. For the time we lived in Illinois and Iowa, we were in the area of GA which probably helped my mom lose what little she had of her childhood dialect.

I also asked my mother about her career as a speech pathologist. She said that early on she thought little about dialect, either in her own speaking or that of students. She did work for a few years in the Deep South before I was born, when my dad was stationed at a military base. She would have corrected both black and white Southern children without any thought about it. Compared to Deep Southern dialect, I’m sure my mother even when young sounded Midwestern, an approximation of the rhotic GA dialect.

It was the late 1980s when our family moved to the South Carolina. My mother said that is the first time she was told to not correct the dialect of black students. She still did tell her black students the different ways to pronounce sounds and words and she modeled GA, but she couldn’t technically teach them proper English. At that time, she also wasn’t allowed to work with kids who had English as a second language, for there were separate ESL teachers. Yet, back in the early 1980s, she worked with some Hispanic students in order to teach them proper English.

Until South Carolina, she says she never considered dialect in terms of her speech work. It seems that the language professions were rather informal until later in her career. She spent the longest part of her career in South Carolina where she worked for two decades. Her field had become extremely professionalized at that point and all the language fields were territorial about the students they worked with and the type of language issues they specialized in.

So, my mother’s own way of speaking English changed over her career as the way she taught language changed. By the end of her career, she says even a speech pathologist from the South and working in the South with Southern students would have taught GA, at least to white students and probably informally to black students as well. She said that speech pathologists ended up teaching code switching, in that they taught kids that there were multiple ways of speaking words. She pointed out that many older blacks she worked with, including a principal, didn’t code switch—that makes sense, as they probably were never taught to do so.

My mother’s career wasn’t directly involved in dialect and accent. She was a speech pathologist which means she largely focused on teaching articulation. She never thought of it as teaching kids GA, even if that was the end result.

That field is interesting. When my mother started, it was called speech correction. Then early in her career it was called speech therapy. But now it is speech-language pathology. The change of name correlated to changes in what was being taught in the field.

I don’t know if General American itself changed over time. It’s interesting to note that many of the earliest speech centers and speech corrections/therapy schools in the US were in the Midwest, where many of the pioneers (e.g., Charles Van Riper) in the field came from—such as Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa. Right here in the town I live in, Iowa City, was one of the most influential programs and one of the main professors in that program was born in Iowa City, Dean Williams. As my mother audited one of Williams’ classes, she got to know him and he worked with my brother’s stuttering. Interestingly, Williams himself came in contact with the field because of his own childhood stuttering, when Wendell Johnson helped him. My mother heard Williams say that, while he was in the military during WWII, Johnson sent him speech journals as reading material which inspired him to enter the field when he returned after the war.

So, it appears at least some of the speech fields in the US developed in or near the area of General American dialect. Maybe that is because of the large non-English immigrant populations that settled in the Midwest. German-Americans were the largest demographic in the early 20th century and, accordingly, to mainstream WASP culture this was one of the greatest threats. Even in a college town like Iowa City, the Czechs felt compelled to start their own Catholic church because they couldn’t understand the priest at the German Catholic church. Assimilation was slow to take hold within ethnic immigrant communities. Language standardization and speech correction became a priority for the purveyors of the dominant culture.

Let me point out one thing in relation to my mother. She went to Purdue. The head of her department was Max David Steer, having been in that position from 1963 to 1970, the exact years my mother spent at Purdue. He was a New Yorker, but he got his Ph.D. from the University of Iowa here in Iowa City. Like Williams, he probably also learned under Johnson. The field was small at that time and all of these figures would have known each other.

Here is an amusing side note.

My mother began her education when the field was in transition. Speech corrections/therapy had only been a field distinct from psychology since after WWII, although the program at Purdue started the same year my mother started school, 1963. When she got her masters degree, 1969-70, they had just begun teaching transformational linguistic theory. She says it was highly theoretical and way over her head. Guess who was one of the major influences on this development: the worldwide infamous left-winger, Noam Chomsky. So, my mother learned a bit about Chomskyan linguistic theory back in the day.

By the way, listening to Chomsky speak, it definitely is more or less GA. He grew up in Pennsylvania. It was Pennsylvanian culture that some argue was the greatest influence on Midwestern culture. This is because so many early immigrants entered the United States through Pennsylvania and from there settled in the Midwest. But there is a definite accent that can be found among many Pennsylvanian natives. It’s possible that Chomsky picked up the GA dialect later in life. Anyway, he personifies the neutral/objective-sounding intellectuality of GA in its most standardized mainstream form—so straightforward and unimposing, at least in the way Chomsky speaks it.

I get the sense that, going back far enough, few overtly worried about standardized English. It was simply considered proper English, at least by the mid-20th century. I have no idea when it first became considered proper English in the US. If I had to hazard a guess, the world war era probably helped to establish and spread General American since so many soldiers would have come from the (Mid-)West, the greatest proportion of population in the country—larger than the Southern, Mid-Atlantic, and Northeastern populations combined. It might be similar to how a distinct Southern accent didn’t exist until the Civil War when Southern soldiers fought together and came to share a common identity. Edward Murrow, of course, played a role as the manly voice of WWII describing firsthand accounts of fighting and bombings to the American public back at home.

Whether or not it deserves this prominent position, I suspect General American dialect is here to stay. To most people of this country and around the world, this dialect represents American society. It has become not just dominant here but in most places where English is spoken.

GA has even come to be promoted in the non-entertainment media of the British Broadcasting Company (BBC), specifically for news shows directed at the non-British, as the BBC reaches an international audience. Hollywood has, of course, spread GA English to other countries. So have video games, as the largest consumers of this product are Americans, which creates a bias in the entire industry. More English-speakers in the world have a GA dialect than any other dialect.

General American has become the unofficial standard of English almost everywhere. It is the English dialect that most people can easily understand and not recognize as being a dialect.

20 thoughts on “How did American English become standardized?

  1. I don’t know if I agree with this. There’s lots of regional shows on TV. Many many people on Fox news, CNN, MSNBC all speak with new york sounding accents. There’s tons of regional TV shows that have regionalism. I never really understood this ideology that nearly everyone speaks GA on TV. I hear this often and never undstood this. I think it’s false to say this.

    • A central point I made was that General American was spread primarily through news and sports broadcasting. I offered evidence that this was done intentionally. It isn’t an ideology. It’s a conclusion based on research.

      You could read the scholarly book I cited throughout this piece. You could even disagree with it. But you’ve offered little counter-evidence. I hear General American constantly on the news media. I’m not sure what news media you listen to, but General American isn’t hard to find. Even regional accents have become increasingly muted toward General American, something you notice when listening to the heavy accents in some early media.

      If you didn’t want to look at the evidence for a view you disagreed with, then why did you bother asking? Your response is odd and disrespectful. You could have acted grateful for my doing all of this research that you obviously were unwilling to do for yourself.

      There is nothing that makes me special. I don’t even have a college degree or anything. You could read well-researched books, as easily as I can. If you’re willing to make an evidence-based argument for the opposite position, I’m willing to listen. But at present, you’re offering nothing I can really respond to in any useful way.

      What were you expecting from me? Just to agree with you and dismiss all the evidence I found? What does it even mean to declare evidence as ‘false’ without explanation, to simply wave it away? I just don’t know. I have no desire to try to force you to understand something you don’t want to understand.

      You have your own opinion. I get it. So?

    • I get the sense that you’re acting defensive. But I’m not sure what you might be perceiving as a ‘threat’. Do you see me as challenging your worldview somehow? I sensed an antagonism in your last few comments in the Open Thread discussion. It is almost like you suddenly decided I’m part of the enemy camp and therefore I must be dismissed. Why is that? Did I say something to offend you?

      • Not at all. And I like differing opinion. I really enjoy your blog Ben! So sorry if I’m coming off as confrontational. I’m a pretty blunt person. In terms of this topic, on news you have Bill Oreilly, Shawn Hannity, countless other fox news show (please just watch a round table on fox, they have regional speech) host that to me sound northeastern. Wolf Blitzer, Anderson Cooper on CNN. That Matt lauer guy. Then you have famous late night show host like John Stewart, jimmy kimmel, jimmy falon, conan obrein/etc etc etc. Certainly you see that many of the shows on netflix aslo keep regionalism? Even a new sitcom I watch called “The Ranch” that I recently watch keeps regionalism. GA is certainly on tv, but I don’t think it’s this big defacto standard that many tout it as. Even Tim Allen to me doesn’t sound GA on his new show.

        I guess I’d also like to say that I don’t think GA is the only midwest speech. There’s 3-4 different accents int he midwest. (inland north and north central come to mind immediately)

        Sorry if I myself come off as confrontational. I myself am cynical and am very blunt about my opinions.

        • That is fine. I was honestly just confused. That comment above seemed to contradict what you said in your first comment to me. It seemed like you were disagreeing with yourself. One of the first things you stated was this, a question:

          “In the 30’s to 60, there was the transatlantic accent, but I was wondering when general american became the norm for tv / movies?”

          The premise of the question was when, not if, GA became the “norm for tv / movies.” You initially stated the assumption that GA was the norm. It was you who offered this conclusion as the starting point. I merely accepted your premise, as it seemed reasonable to me. But then after I took this premise in order to answer your question, it seemed you were now denying the very premise you made. It was as if you were claiming your own premise as having been a false ideology. In this comment above, you appear to claim in contradiction to your first comment that:

          “I never really understood this ideology that nearly everyone speaks GA on TV.”

          In that case, why did your first comment proclaim a false ideology as an assumed fact? That threw me for a loop. I didn’t know how to respond. But the comment you just left now clears it up a bit.

          Fox News is maybe different, in that it is purposely targeting specific demographic sub-populations that likely are different than other news outlets. Shep Smith, for example, is a Southerner for the first decades of his life—although I wouldn’t know he was a Southerner if I hadn’t looked it up in his biographical details.

          In the past, I never could pinpoint his way of speaking, not that I paid much attention. Listening carefully, I can hear some slight traces of Southern dialect (such as a rare elongated vowel that slips out), but he obviously has gone to great effort to learn to speak closer to GA or something like it, at times maybe sounding a tad Eastern. It almost sounds like he has overcompensated. But I bet people from Mississippi know he is from Mississippi. He claims that at one point his “accent was so thick they didn’t understand me — and that was in Destin, Fla., the Redneck Riviera” ( He probably had speech training in college or early in his career.

          I would note that Glenn Beck is from Washington state, where Edward Murrow grew up. I’m not sure why Fox News chooses someone like O’Reilly, though. I don’t know which audience he is supposed to appeal to. The wealthy white suburban East Coast demographic? Still, he doesn’t have a strong accent, although not Midwestern-sounding. Even Fox News hosts from places like New York have almost entirely lost their accents, assuming they ever had one. Megyn Kelly was born and educated in New York, but she sounds GA of maybe a more West Coast variety.

          I don’t think any of the people you mentioned have a strong regional accent. What accents they do have are extremely moderated toward GA dialect and accent, such as the rhotic pronunciation of words. If you want to know what accents sound like, listen to the earliest mainstream media. Compare a New York City Jew like Jon Stewart with a New York City Jew from more than a half century ago—e.g., Gertrude Berg from the original The Goldbergs. There is no comparison. You’d never hear strong accents entirely distinct from GA like that today in the MSM.

          It’s hard to find a hardcore Southern drawl in the MSM right now. I lived in South Carolina and I know what a Southern drawl sounds like when spoken by older Southerners, the kind of drawl that is becoming less distinct even in the South with the younger generations. I pointed to Shep Smith who, though not a perfect GA, definitely doesn’t sound like an older Mississippian. Or take a South Carolinian like Stephen Colbert who states he intentionally learned GA to get into mainstream media.

          Tim Allen grew up in Michigan. The rhotic is also spoken in the Inland North. But certain vowel mergers aren’t heard. Even these distinctions aren’t absolutely clear. In Iowa, the Inland North is a short distance away. Someone from Wisconsin, for example, won’t necessarily sound any different than someone from Iowa. Younger generations are concentrated in urban areas where regional accents are heard less over time. General American, since the 1930s, has often been used to describe all American English that isn’t Southern, Mid-Atlantic, or New England. The defining feature of General American seems to be the rhotic ‘r’. General American was a broad category:

          “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.””

          Let me give a personal example.

          My paternal grandparents divorced. My Texan/Oklahoman grandmother moved to the West Coast where she raised my aunt. My father and uncle, however, remained in Indiana where they both finished high school and attended college. My aunt has stayed on the West Coast and my uncle never left Indiana, whereas my father moved around. Yet all of their accents and dialects sound about the same. And I, who has never lived in Indiana, also sound about the same as my parents and my paternal aunt and uncle, although my mother’s family does speak slightly differennt, more of the Hoosier dialect. Even that Hoosier dialect has begun to disappear with the younger generations of my mother’s family in Indiana. The ‘feesh’ pronunciation of ‘fish’ has mostly disappeared with the death of my maternal grandmother. My mother would rarely say ‘feesh’ these days.

          If you listen carefully enough, you can find minor differences in speech patterns within a single state like Indiana or Iowa. But the differences are usually minor. And I suspect the differences are lessening. Western Iowa, for example, is filled with mostly an aging and shrinking demographic with most of the population having become concentrated in the eastern Iowan industrial cities and college towns. Plus, the younger generations are moving around so much that the commonalities of dialect are becoming greater than the differences. The distance from GA has become less for almost all Americans. A large reason is the loss not only of small towns and rural communities but also the loss of ethnic neighborhoods and islands, not to mention the loss of ethnic churches and civic institutions. In this town, there are no longer separate German and Czech churches and neighborhoods as there once were. The Iowa City German-Americans and Czech-Americans these days sound like any Anglo-American around here. The only distinct ethnic dialect are the more recent arrivals of Hispanics and Asian foreign students.

          The strong ethnic and regional dialects are mostly only heard among the older generations. At this rate, these dialects won’t last much longer. When I lived in South Carolina, a large number of people I knew there had little accent or even no clear accent at all. Between the university and the military base, the capital of South Carolina had become quite moderate in dialect.

          Here is how strong dialects once sounded even in national tv shows in the mid-20th century, the kind of dialect you’d never hear today in the MSM. Many of the younger generation of Americans might find this nearly indecipherable:

          • I don’t think I’d call someone like Bill Oreilly, Shawn Hannity or even Megyn Keppy as speaking GA. Megyn Kelly to me definitely has quite a bit of New York (or around that area) in her speech. I personally wouldn’t call it GA.
            In terms of what american sounded like decades ago? I agree. But I’ve also heard that southerners didn’t develop the southern accent as we know it today until way after the civil war. I’ve heard this from multiple sources when I did research for this (including you in this write up.) I wonder what a southerner sounded like in the late 19th century compared to how a Bill Clinton sounds today.

          • If a New Yorker from a century or even a half century ago heard someone like Megyn Kelly speak, they probably wouldn’t identify her as a New Yorker. She speaks a dialect closer to GA than many ethnic Americans in the Midwest spoke earlier last century. Dialects have moved toward GA, as GA itself has become more standardized.

            It seems that a GA might have been forming that has nothing to do with any particular region. It maybe involves people who have moved around a lot, have intentionally lost their accent often for professional reasons, or simply grew up a cosmopolitan suburban area. It’s maybe similar to the old Transatlantic accent, which was invented and didn’t exist in any region. The Platonic ideal of Transatlantic or GA in the media maybe rarely exists in part of the general population. Dialects can take on a life of their own in the media, mutating into new forms of professional speaking style.

            The first mention of GA back in the early 1900s uses the label to describe nearly all English in the Lower Midwest, Upper Midwest, Far West, Pacific Northwest, Californian West Coast, and maybe parts of the Southwest such as northern Texas.

            That was at a time when non-rhotic dialect dominated the South and Northeast while also being heard in the invented non-regional Transatlantic dialect. Since then, the non-rhotic dialect is disappearing even in its strongholds, especially among the young and in urban areas. Most Americans now speak rhotic, not just those with pure GA. That is particularly obvious in media where non-rhotic is pretty much non-existent at this point. The rhotic seems to have won the war of dialects.

            New distinctions seem to have to do with vowel shifts and mergers. My mother when younger had the vowel merger of pool/pole/pull. Some people merge those with other words such as poll and Paul. There is supposedly a merger like that found in North Midland. I’m not sure where my mother would have picked it up, but I always assumed it was Kentuckiana dialect. The whole vowel issue seems complicated and there are a bunch of opinions about it. Some speculate regional vowel shifts are happening while others say it’s too early to tell.

            Populations move around so much these days. The dialect differences between older rural demographics and younger urban demographics maybe are becoming more noticeable than the dialect differences between regions. Younger generations increasingly moving to urban areas relates to younger generations increasingly being college educated, having professional careers, generally moving around more, and being exposed to more national and international media.

            People doing factory work in ethnic neighborhoods or as farm work in small rural communities are becoming rare. When living and working around people who spoke like you, dialect didn’t matter. But younger people are coming into more contact with people different from themselves and mass media has grown immensely.

            Many professionals, not just in the media, get coaching to lose their regional dialects and accents in order to be better understood by more people. Professionals need to be able to communicate well, no matter who they are speaking to.

            Enunciating clearly all letter sounds, instead of dropping or merging them, is more easily understood by more people. It just so happens that certain dialects drop and merge the fewest number of letter sounds and so get favored by professionals. It’s not that (Mid-)Western speaking doesn’t have regional differences, but the point is that they are closer to broad GA than are other regional dialects and those other regional dialects have over time also moved closer to the GA ideal.

            There is a good reason why strong regional dialects die out over time in this age of globalization and mass media. Communication is more important than ever. When I moved to South Carolina, some black kids spoke with such a heavy combination of Southern accent and inner city slang that I was literally unable to comprehend what was being said to me. I eventually learned to understand, but it took time. If such a Southerner ever hopes to move outside of the South, work a professional job, etc, then they’ll be forced to lose or lessen that way of speaking and learn to speak closer to GA. There is no way getting around that.

            That is why it is impossible to find anyone with an old school strong accent working as a professional anywhere in the national mainstream media. Even in movies and tv shows, the characters with regional accents barely have accents compared to what one hears from the oldest generations not working as professionals. It used to be that accents were so strong that people from different regions had a hard time even understanding each other. That is no longer the case. All accents have slowly averaged out and this averaging out has moved toward a particular standardized ideal.

            This seems like a reasonable explanation to me. But if you disagree, that is fine. I’m not going to argue endlessly about it. It’s not as if I’m claiming everyone should speak the same way. I actually like regional accents. I’m just trying to make sense of what I know from personal experience, from listening to the media, and from what I’ve read.

    • I get some of the strangest responses online. Is this how you would treat someone in person? Why ask someone a question and then call their sincere answer as ‘false’ and mere ‘ideology’? I was kind and generous enough to give you a large amount of my time and energy. Even if you disagreed, you could have done so with respect and appreciation for what I offered.

  2. Bad Language: Are Some Words Better than Others?
    By Edwin L. Battistella
    Kindle Locations 1459-1475

    “The popular stereotypes are not, however, just amusing examples of our ability to poke fun at regional differences. The view of dialect as metaphoric infection perhaps no longer predominates, but regional speakers still perceive that their abilities and social class are judged from their speech. In the documentary American Tongues, for example, a sales representative from New York complains that when she attends meetings ings elsewhere in the country people don’t listen to what she says but instead focus on how she speaks. Reflecting on reactions to her dialect, she remarks that “Automatically when they hear this Brooklyn accent, they think like you grew up in a slum, hanging out on a corner, and you know, they get the wrong impression.”” Research by Patricia Cukor-Avila and Dianne Markley tested the idea that accent creates an impression of ability. Cukor-Avila and Markley asked 56 human resource source professionals to assess the education, initiative, and personality of potential employees based on a 45-second reading sample and to recommend the best type of job for the speaker. They found that job seekers with identifiable accents, such as a heavy Southern or New Jersey sey accent, were more often recommended for lower-level jobs with little customer interaction. Those with less identifiable accents were more often recommended for high contact and high profile jobs.23

    “Just as teachers with nonnative accents have been referred for speech correction, it was not so long ago that teachers with regional dialects were subject to the same regimen. Linguist Raven McDavid, in his essay “Linguistics, Through the Kitchen Door,” reported that in 1937 when he was teaching at the Citadel, the college president ordered him to summer school to take refresher courses in elocution to lose his accent.24 Today, many native speakers still invest in accent-reduction courses with the idea of suppressing a regional accent. A 1998 New York Times report on accent reduction, for example, refers to the many executives in major corporations who have sought out voice training to combat monotony, nasality, shrillness, rapidity, and accents. In the story, a Julliard-trained voice coach stresses that “Certain accents-not just foreign either-can give a negative impression .112′ The broadcast media dia has also reinforced the idea of a more desirable general American dialect. Manuals of pronunciation for broadcasters link efficient communication munication with “Western, Middle Western, or General American” can” speech.26 The view that the regional dialects of the South and East are leveled in the Midwest is also a factor in other communications industry choices, such as the concentration of telemarketing firms in certain areas and the selection of the voice of directory assistance. In American Tongues, Ramona Lenny, who was for many years the voice of directory assistance, remarks that the telephone company was “looking ing for generic speech. Or some people call it homogenized speech. Speech that would float in any part of the country and didn’t sound like it came from somewhere in particular, perhaps the voice from nowhere.”27”

  3. I gave one compelling example earlier. I compared Jon Stewart to Gertrude Berg. Both are native-born New York City Jews born to immigrant parents born elsewhere. But Berg has a strong accent whereas Stewart doesn’t. The only difference is that there is more than a half century between their being in the mainstream media.

    Here is a different kind of example. It is Megyn Kelly. She is also a New Yorker. She is Catholic which makes it likely she is of non-English stock. But as far as I know, her parents were born in the US. She doesn’t have a strong accent. What is nice about this video, though, is that it shows a clip of her younger self. It does seem she maybe moderated an accent a bit.


    “American English is predominantly rhotic today, but at the end of the nineteenth century non-rhotic accents were common throughout much of the Eastern U.S. and through much of the South along the Gulf Coast. This trend reversed during the mid 20th century, in large part due to the influence of television, as well as the increasing political influence of states to the west (the upper Midwest, and then California and Texas). Non-rhotic pronunciations have increasingly been seen as foreign with rhotic accents increasingly seen as American.[19]

    “Today, non-rhoticity in the Southern dialects is found primarily among older speakers, and only in some areas such as central and southern Alabama; Savannah, Georgia; and Norfolk, Virginia,[20] as well as in the Yat accent of New Orleans. The local dialects of eastern New England, especially Boston, Massachusetts, extending into the states of Maine and New Hampshire, are largely non-rhotic, as well as the traditional Rhode Island dialect; however, this feature has recently been receding. The Greater New York City dialect is traditionally non-rhotic, though William Labov more precisely classifies its current form as variably rhotic,[21] with many of its sub-varieties now fully rhotic, such as in northeastern New Jersey.

    “African American Vernacular English is largely non-rhotic, and in some non-rhotic Southern and AAVE accents, there is no linking r, that is, /r/ at the end of a word is deleted even when the following word starts with a vowel, so that “Mister Adams” is pronounced [mɪstə(ʔ)ˈædəmz].[22] In a few such accents, intervocalic /r/ is deleted before an unstressed syllable even within a word when the following syllable begins with a vowel. In such accents, pronunciations like [kæəˈlaːnə] for Carolina, or [bɛːˈʌp] for “bear up” are heard.[23] This pronunciation also occurs in AAVE.[24]

    “Typically, even non-rhotic modern American English varieties do pronounce the /r/ in /ɜːr/ (as in “bird,” “work,” or “perky”), realizing it, as in most of the U.S., as [ɝ] or [ɚ]”


    “The term “General English” was first described by an American English scholar, named George Philip Krapp, in 1925. At that time, he used the term to describe the accent used more in the western part of the United States. Over the next 20 years or so, other linguistic scholars added to the term, and it expanded to mean any American accent excluding certain parts of the United States, specifically the southern states, New England and New York. A revision to the term was made one more time in the 1960’s to exclude the Mid-Atlantic region and Pennsylvania. “


    “Anybody who’s research Southern accents knows that non-rhoticity has met a rather grim fate. By the mid-20th-Century (at the latest), this feature was confined to the Atlantic South (North Carolina, Coastal Virginia, etc.) and the deep south (Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana). Over the next few decades it would recede rapidly in those areas as well: looking at Rick Aschmann’s dialect map (which also includes data from William Labov), contemporary non-rhoticity is confined to a modest band of territory in the Gulf states and a few small patches on the Atlantic coast. Even in many of those areas, I’m betting non-rhoticity is mostly prevalent in older speakers.”


    “This stage style steadily gave way to more relaxed American pronunciations (and acting styles). A careful study by Nancy C. Elliott of a sample of American actors in American films made from the 1930s through the 1970s shows a steady decline in the average rates of R-dropping, from about 60 percent in the 1930s to zero percent in the 1970s. Even individual performers with long careers modified their pronunciation over time. In this, broadcasting seems to have been different from films. Due to limited technology, radio broadcasting originally only reached local listeners, and regional varieties of speech were commonly heard over the airwaves. (Even now, we often hear local speech varieties in local newscasts; even more so in local commercials.) However, once national radio networks came into being, their central offices adopted network-wide pronunciation standards for employees to use on the air. These standards came to be based on the speech of the Inland Northeast and the Northern Midwest regions, whose dialect group, Inland Northern, had a plurality of speakers in America by the 1930s.”

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