By Stephen Kaufman
When you meet Americans, can you tell which part of the country they are from simply by listening to them? Or if someone asked you to imitate an American, would you try to sound like you were from Texas, Southern California or somewhere else? Chances are, it would be an accent you heard in a film or TV show rather than what you learned in class.
The American accent most nonnative speakers learn is just one among many used daily across the United States. Known as General American (GenAm), it is the same accent you would typically hear on network news, nationally syndicated radio, films and other media where the speakers do not want to draw attention to their background.
GenAm has its roots in Pennsylvania, Ohio and other areas that make up “the Rust Belt,” and it followed settlers westward through the Midwest to California and the Pacific Northwest. The rise of radio and television in the 20th century led media outlets to investigate which American accent seemed the most “neutral” to the public and would therefore be understood by the widest audience.
While most Americans can easily identify a Southern or New England accent, for example, GenAm has become the national standard, even though its native speakers are confined to a small area of the Midwest.
Most Americans grow up speaking the same way as their parents and neighbors, but sometimes they adopt more common language characteristics to sound less regional or better educated. For example, as a child with a strong Mid-Atlantic background, I once pronounced the U.S. capital city as “Warshington” and the nearby city of Baltimore as “Bawldimer.” My Virginia-born grandfather also worked hard to lose his Southern accent when he moved to New York, since regional accents often invite biased social judgments about the speaker.
BRITISH VERSUS AMERICAN ENGLISH
All Americans have some kind of an accent. Natives of a relatively small area of the Midwest are closest to the standard known as “General American.”
Like the United States, the United Kingdom has its own diversity of regional accents, and it has adopted a standard known as Received Pronunciation (RP) that is heard on the BBC and other national news outlets. If you are learning British English, you are most likely learning RP, which spread from southern England among the upper classes in the 18th and 19th centuries.
One noticeable difference is the American use of the flat “a,” so the word “dance” does not sound like “dahnce.” Perhaps the most easily identified difference between RP and GenAm is the pronunciation of the letter “r” in some words, which phoneticians call rhotacism. For example, an American newsreader will pronounce the r in “hard,” but on British media it will sound more like “hahd.”
Some American accents, especially in the South, New England and New York, where port cities maintained close trading ties with England, joined their British counterparts in dropping the r sound, but 18th- and 19th-century Americans living inland, many of whom were immigrants from Scotland, Ireland or northern England where the r is pronounced, kept the rhotic accent.
In fact, at the time of the American Revolution, the English language being spoken on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean was rhotic. Despite many films that show colonial Americans speaking in a modern British accent, it did not become fashionable to start dropping the r in places like Massachusetts and South Carolina until after the United States gained its independence.
English actor Hugh Laurie, famous for his role on the TV show House, has described American r’s and l’s as the “twin demons for anyone trying to do an American accent.” In a 2012 interview with National Public Radio, he said he warms up for his character by practicing the word “really.” Laurie’s accent is so good that the executive producer of House is said to have been completely unaware that he was English when he auditioned.
Along with helping to preserve the r sound, American speech has also retained several words and expressions that have fallen out of use in the United Kingdom. For example, Americans will still use “mad” for “angry” and “fall” for “autumn.”
Thanks to American films, music, TV shows and other media, American accents are becoming more familiar to nonnative English speakers. Some of the most famous examples of regional dialect have come from U.S. politicians. Compare the New England accent of President John F. Kennedy to Arkansas-native President Bill Clinton’s Southern style of speaking. Of course, both men, like most Americans, probably grew up thinking they didn’t have any kind of an accent!