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Standard American English

What's Standard English? According to The American Heritage Dictionary it's the speech of  educated speakers. So  where do we find the model? Chicago? Miami? New York? L.A.?

The Midwest Accent
A region without an accent? Fuhgeddaboudit. 

How Hamlet Lost his Drawl
Acting students learn to speak "unaccented" American, an idealized form of speech.

My True Voice
Elementary students in Pittsburgh learn poetry and to enunciate more precisely.

los angeles students playing language jeopardy game

videoJeopardy! (with a twist)
L.A. students play a version of the TV game where challengers translate phrases into SAE.

Ask a group of experts to define Standard  American English, and you'll find, paradoxically, there's no standard answer. Even the editors of The American Heritage Dictionary are careful to qualify their definition. They note:

People who invoke the term Standard English rarely make clear what they have in mind by it, and tend to slur over the inconvenient ambiguities that are inherent in the term.

American Heritage goes on to explain that the term:

is highly elastic and variable, since what counts as Standard English will depend on both the locality and the particular varieties that Standard English is being contrasted with. A form that is considered standard in one region may be nonstandard in another...

Where does this leave us? American Heritage suggests there's no single, universally accepted standard for how to speak or write American English. Even so, school systems, professional communicators and businesses all have standards and, not surprisingly, the rules (at least for grammar) do not vary dramatically from place to place.

regional american dialect map/pisoni & clopper

What's more elusive is finding an accent that sets the standard. The variety of English spoken in the nation's Midland areas is often pointed to as sounding most neutral or "mainstream." It's frequently identified as the speech of broadcasters. But as linguist  Matthew Gordon explains, it too is not unaccented English. For a variety of reasons, over time, the Midland variety may lose its status as the vox media.

Not Really Real

The "unaccented" variety that is sometimes called Standard American or Standard Speech is one taught by accent coaches. This form is actually an idealized dialect - meaning, it's not really spoken anywhere, but instead is acquired through professional training. Actors and professional communicators (including some from the Midlands!) often take classes in "accent reduction" to lose any regional or social sounds in their speech. It takes a lot of work.

Natalie Baker-Shirer, an accent coach and acting teacher at Carngie Mellon University explains:

"Standard Speech" is spoken nowhere in America, as such. It is based on RP (British Received Pronunciation) which was adopted with American alterations in the early 20th century by linguist William Tilly. These alterations, this authentic "American" sound was loosely based on the speech of North Eastern population of the US. It was spoken by the cultured, well educated, well traveled people of the time. Listen to old movies to hear it.

Baker-Shirer, like The American Heritage Dictionary, qualifies whether this kind of speech is "correct". She writes:

According to Daniel Jones, An English Pronouncing Dictionary, "There are innumerable other ways of pronouncing English in existence, and I do not claim that RP is intrinsically "better" or more "beautiful" than any other form of pronunciation."

Formal Language Legislation?

Because the use of American English worldwide is pervasive, does it make sense to continue to have no formal standard? The answer may be moot. Unlike some nations, the United States has no official department of language and seems no closer to creating one today than it did in the years just after American Revolution. So a universal standard for American English is unlikely to emerge any time in the foreseeable future. (A bit Jeffersonian - and definitely very American.)

Suggested Reading/Additional Resources

  • Sterling, Polly. "Identity in Language: An Exploration into the Social Implications of Linguistic Variation." Agora Journal (Winter, 2000): Texas A&M University.    PDF version     HTML version
  • Rosina Lippi-Green. English with an Accent. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Sponsored by:

National Endowment for the Humanities Hewlett Foundation Ford Foundation   Arthur Vining Davis Foundations Carnegie Corporation

National Endowment
for the Humanities

William and Flora Hewlett
Foundation

Ford
Foundation

Rosalind P.
Walter

Arthur Vining
Davis Foundations

Carnegie
Corporation of New York