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.