During my many years of working individuals who speak English as a second language, only one of my students has ever asked me what Standard American English is and how it originated. While I always knew what the term meant, I never really knew how or when it originated. I thought this was a great question! So I dedicate this article to my student, JZ and hope this article answers his question. I’m sure many of you out there have wondered the same thing.
The term “General English” was first described by an American English scholar, named George Philip Krapp, in 1925. At that time, he used the term to describe the accent used more in the western part of the United States. Over the next 20 years or so, other linguistic scholars added to the term, and it expanded to mean any American accent excluding certain parts of the United States, specifically the southern states, New England and New York. A revision to the term was made one more time in the 1960’s to exclude the Mid-Atlantic region and Pennsylvania.
In general terms, we can say that “General kindergarten school American English” is used to describe an American accent with no identifying sounds that identify what part of the United States a person is from. All that means is that when you hear a person speak, you can’t really tell what part of the country they are from. The Midwest has always been the region that comes closest to fitting this description.
English scholar, William A. Kretzchmar, Jr feels that there is really no justification for why the term “General English” exists or any circumstances to support its use. He also goes on to say that it has become synonymous with the best accent an American can have. He prefers the term “Standard American English,” to describe the accent used by well-educated and successful people. A good example of this would be local and national news broadcasters in the United States. Regardless of where they are from, they all use the same accent when they speak on television. Of course, when they are not speaking publicly, they use their natural accent.
In summary, there are several different accents recognized in the United States, depending on the region in which people reside. The “Standard American” accent has come to be recognized as what I refer to as the “professional accent.” It is the accent that many people associate with a high level of education and success and is used as a model for public speakers. There will most likely always be controversy over the details of what this accent involves, and all linguists will never completely agree. For now, we can safely say that most people feel that the Midwest accent comes closest to what is termed the “Standard American” accent.