“I don’t have an accent." You’ve likely heard this sentiment before. But what does it mean, exactly?
When we encounter an accent that’s particularly striking, it’s because it varies greatly from the accent we’re used to hearing. Accents come down to perspective and contrast. For example, a thick Scottish accent might be noteworthy when encountered in a small Midwestern town, but it would blend right in in Glasgow.
When someone says “I don’t have an accent” in the United States, they likely have the General American (or Standard American) accent.
First coined by descriptive linguist George Philip Krapp in 1925, the General American (also sometimes shortened to GenAm) accent describes the accent that was becoming the norm in American English. Individuals who sound markedly American, yet not associated with any particular region of America, likely speak with the General American accent.
One of Krapp’s most notable achievements is his book titled Modern English: Its Growth and Present Use, originally published in 1909.The book studies the evolution of the English language from Old English to Middle English and finally Modern English, noting the evolution of vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation as well as the factors that influenced that evolution.
The General American accent, like all elements of language, has shifted over time. Certain regions, such as Pittsburg, are showing trends of younger generations adopting speech patterns much more similar to the General American accent when compared to older generations in the same region. It’s possible, if not likely, that Pittsburg and other regions will be included in the General American grouping in the relatively near future.
There also exist certain regions that almost, though not entirely, match the pronunciations of the General American accent. Canadian speakers, for example, largely exhibit pronunciations that are extremely close to the General American way of speaking. Although they differ in that Canadians typically exhibit Canadian vowel raising, many individuals would not notice a clear distinction in regular conversation.
The US is home to a wide variety of accents and dialects. From the New Orleans drawl to Boston’s unique inflections, American accents vary regionally across the country.
The General American accent encompasses the regional accents of the West, Western New England, and the North Midland. It is also the standard way of speaking of highly educated Americans nationwide.
Let’s take a moment to explore some regional US accents and the features that distinguish them from the General American accent.
Speakers from Eastern New England, such as Boston, do not speak with the General American accent. Instead, they exhibit distinct speech patterns that are strongly associated with their region.
For example, listen to Ben Affleck’s character in Good Will Hunting.
Notice how he drops his “r” sounds when he speaks. This is because Boston is a non-rhotic accent, while General American is rhotic - more on this later.
The Southern US is a vast area, filled with local dialects and regional differences in terms of accents. However, most Southerners tend to speak in an accent that shares many common characteristics.
Take President George W. Bush, who grew up in Texas, for example.
Often called a “cowboy,” Bush represents a modern Southern accent. Most if not “r” sounds are fully pronounced, and he exhibits drawn out vowels as well as certain vowel shifts. Pay attention to how he pronounces words like “class,” noticeably lengthening the vowel and almost turning it into a diphthong - two vowel sounds in a single syllable - rather than as a pure vowel.
The New Orleans accent is particularly unique, presenting as almost an intermediate accent between Southern pronunciations and a typical New York accent. Speakers from New Orleans tend to drop their “r”s, rhyme the words “quarter” and “water,” and say “doze” instead of “those.”
These variations are due to the historical influence of various countries on the New Orleans population, most notably the Irish, Italian, and French influence.
The General American accent is said to be “unmarked.” A marked accent is noted by its inclusion of particularly notable elements. For instance, the California Vowel Shift marks the distinctive “valley girl” or “surfer dude” accent. An unmarked accent is the opposite - it’s classified by its lack of notable elements.
As an unmarked accent, Standard American English pronunciation refers to the most typical, neutral way of speaking in the US. If you can pinpoint the specific area that an American is from based on the way that they speak, they likely do not exhibit the General American accent.
Although General American English lacks notable marked characteristics, we can still distinguish specific phonetic patterns.
The General American accent features rhoticity, meaning that speakers fully pronounce all “r” sounds.
This rhoticity is a good example of why the General American accent is considered to be unmarked. As a rhotic accent, speakers of the General American accent will pronounce an “r” anytime it appears in the spelling of a word. By contrast, a non-rhotic accent drops the pronunciation of an “r” when it appears at the end of a word or before another consonant. This non-rhotic feature is a distinct element, giving those accents a marked quality while General American and its rhoticity remains unmarked.
Chris Hemsworth, Australian actor, is a great example of a non-rhotic accent. Notice how he drops “r” sounds at the end of words and before other consonants, for example, in the word “parking.”
The interviewer, however, exhibits a General American accent with rhoticity. Pay attention to how Jimmy Fallon pronounces “parking” and compare that to Hemsworth’s pronunciation of the same word.
T and D flapping is another feature of the General American accent. This occurs when a “t” or a “d” is positioned between vowels and before an unstressed syllable. In the standard US accent, these consonants are replaced with a flap. You might have noticed American speakers use this flap when they pronounce words like "butter" as "budder."
Many British accents, however, do not exhibit T and D flapping. Take this interview between American Stephen Colbert and British Hugh Laurie, for example.
Almost 3 minutes into the interview, Laurie expresses that New York can be an intimidating city. Notice the difference between how Laurie and Colbert pronounce the word “intimidating” - Laurie fully pronounces each “t,” whereas Colbert replaces the second “t” with a flap sound. This is because he is speaking with the General American accent.
We can find patterns in vowel pronunciation as well. Individuals with this accent exhibit the father-bother merger, for example. Speakers pronounce both of these words as a perfect rhyme because their accent produces an unrounded “o” in “bother,” with no length distinction made between the “a” in “father” and the “o” in “bother.”
Listen to the variation between the British and American pronunciation of the word “bother.”
You can compare these pronunciations to the word “father” here. Notice how in the General American version, both words rhyme, whereas the vowels are pronounced differently in the British pronunciations and therefore do not rhyme.
Public figures from across the country exhibit the General American accent.
Take Stephen Colbert, for example. Although he grew up in South Carolina, Colbert made the conscious choice to transform his speech habits and unlearn his Southern accent in order to broaden his career prospects. He provides not only an excellent example of the General American accent, but he is also living proof that the accent can be learned and perfected as an adult.
We can turn to news anchors for examples of the General American accent as well. Newscasters are intentional about the way that they speak, aiming to be easily understood by viewers nationwide with no obvious regional bias in their speech.
Iconic newscaster Walter Cronkite is an example of someone with "broadcast English."
The General American accent is all around us. Keep your ears open, and you’re sure to hear it!
Linguistic diversity is a beautiful thing. A person’s natural accent is linked to their history, their culture, and the experiences they’ve gained along their language-learning journey. With that being said, there are some indisputable advantages to speaking with the General American accent.
We as humans can be quick to cast judgment. Unfortunately, certain accents are associated with negative stereotypes that can impact a person’s experience as they interact with their community and navigate the corporate world.
A Southern accent is often associated with a lack of sophistication, for example. This stereotype is not founded in reality, however due to the portrayal of Southerners in the media, the association has stuck. Just like Stephen Colbert sought to adopt a General American accent in place of his Southern accent to improve his career prospects, many language learners may opt to do the same in order to alter the way that they are perceived in North America and across the English-speaking world.
Language is all about communication. Mastering the vocabulary and grammar of the English language can only get you so far if your accent is holding you back; perfecting the General American accent demonstrates a speaker’s language proficiency, improves their confidence when speaking, and ensures smooth communication with other English speakers. This has astounding impacts not only in a person’s social life, but in their professional life as well.
The General American accent is the most widely-understood accent within the United States, and it provides the most benefits to immigrant professionals and other English-learners looking to pursue professional opportunities in North America.
Various studies support these facts. Take this study focusing on the impact of accent-switching and adopting a General American accent for African immigrants. The study found that Black and African speakers of English as a foreign language stand to benefit from emulating a General American accent because it improves how others perceive that speaker’s intelligence as well as sociability, giving them advantages in contexts like debates, discussions, presentations, and job interviews.
This phenomenon is not unique to African immigrants, but to speakers of all origins who live and thrive in America. Speech confidence has a snowball effect as well; as speakers speak more clearly and are more positively received, their confidence grows, which then results in even more advanced speech and improved social and professional results.
You’ve decided to learn the General American accent - that’s wonderful! So, how exactly do you go about it?
Take in as many examples as you can of your target accent and try to mimic what you hear. Watch American news clips, listen to radio shows, and absorb any media you can get your hands on! Listen to the nuances of the accent and practice reproducing the pronunciations you hear. Remember, consistency is key - incorporating accent learning into your daily routine will greatly accelerate your progress.
Practice without feedback can only get you so far. Feedback is essential to highlighting areas for improvement and achieving a native proficiency in pronunciation.
Seek out feedback from a language expert or a native speaker. Alternatively, advanced AI technology like the BoldVoice app can provide valuable feedback through expert-verified speech recognition that corrects pronunciation and enables speakers to fine tune their accent.
The General American accent represents the most quintessential American way of speaking, and it’s an extremely valuable tool for English learners to have in their arsenal in order to excel both socially and professionally in the US.
Through listening exercises, consistent practice, and individualized feedback, speakers can adopt the nuances of the General American accent and communicate with other US English speakers clearly and confidently. Get started on perfecting your General American accent today.