Standard American English
from “Do You Speak American” on http://www.pbs.org/speak/seatosea/standardamerican/
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.
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 Carnegie 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.)
Answer each of the following questions in complete sentences:
1. How does the article define Standard American English?
2. How do you define Standard American English?
3. Should the US adopt a formal standard of English? Why or why not?
4. How might the adoption of an English standard in the US be problematic?