UM Library Celebrates Language

General American English

The English Language is Constantly Changing  

In the United States, language change is often most detectable in the nation's various regional spoken dialects. The areas with the most distinctive traits include: Eastern New England, New York, Philadelphia, the Midland dialect region, the Northern, the Southern, and the West.  

North American English

William Labov, The Atlas of North American English: Phonetics, Phonology, and Sound Change (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2006).

General American English

Linguists acknowledge a standard, or general, American English. The so-called "rhotic" pronunciation is its most recognizable quality. The rhotic phoneme is the fully-sounded "r" before a consonant or at the end of an utterance (e.g., in words like "work" or "bar"). In "British Received Pronunciation" and other varieties of English, the rhotic r is typically absent or replaced by a diphthong ending in a schwa (e.g., "near" is pronounced as "nee-uh").

Several regions in the United States retain the "non-rhotic" pronunciation. Many speakers from eastern New England, New York, the "Deep South,” and African American Vernacular communities demonstrate significant non-rhotic traits. These patterns were in large part established by colonists in the major population centers of Early America (Puritan immigrants from East Anglia who settled the Massachusetts Bay colony in the Seventeenth Century, Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam, and Western English immigrants who settled in Virginia during the English Civil War). 

Curiously, the "rhotic" nature of general American English is traceable to Philadelphia, where a high proportion of Scots-Irish speakers, a group that emphasized its "r's," landed shortly before the Revolutionary War and then continued to migrate west. Their legacy, "General American English," is also known as "Midland speech" and is common in most of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska, Kansas, northern Oklahoma, and much of the American west.


George Grosz, Manhattan (New York: Abrams, 1981).

Speech Habits

Speech habits tend to catalyze all sorts of social anxieties in the United States. For the most part, debate over “good” or “bad” English is often based on unfounded assumptions about the relationship between rules of standardization and socio-cultural superiority or inferiority. Some fret that their own speech is an "incorrect" form of the ideal. Others express concern that the ideal is vulnerable to outside forces of corruption. In fact, the dialect diversity across the major, "standard" US groups alone suggests there cannot be one stable "American English." This point is further illustrated by the prestige gains and losses experienced by major dialect groups in the last century. Prior to World War II, for example, New York speech was valued for its closer proximity to British patterns, but after the war Western speech rose to prominence. Each owes a debt to many waves of immigrants for its unique vocabulary and pronunciation features. Present concern in certain quarters over Spanish-speaking immigration or popular culture's embrace of "Black English" should be taken with a grain of salt, as these changes are really more in keeping with a history of adaptation than they are at odds with any stable proprieties. 

New Orleans

Thomas Neff, et al. Before (During) After: Louisiana Photographers' Visual Reactions to Hurricane Katrina