Standard American English in the Media

Introduction

General American:

NOUN:

The speech of native speakers of American English that many consider to be typical of the United States , noted for its exclusion of phonological forms readily recognized as regional or limited to particular social groups and for its frequent use as a norm of pronunciation by national broadcasters.

USAGE NOTE:

The label General American is often used to describe a variety of speech that lacks any of the stereotypical markers of regional speech or of the speech of particular social groups, as in the omission of the (r) sound in words like car and card. It should be noted, however, that this label still permits a great deal of regional and social variation. In other words, General American should not be identified with any specific American accent.

The American Heritage ® Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition. 2000.

Purpose of S.A.E.: A manner of speech that communicates the content of the written word with clarity and consistency.
- Natalie Baker-Shirer , Carnegie Mellon University


Why S.A.E. is used by the broadcast media:

Standard American English usage is linguistic good manners, sensitively and accurately matched to context—to listeners or readers, to situation, and to purpose.

Influential people fully in command of the standard language speak and write it at different levels to meet the demands of different contexts. A great many of us use American English, and we differ a good deal in what we wish to communicate to one another. Furthermore, we use this language in a wide range of situations and for many different purposes.

Our vocabulary, our syntax, and every other aspect of our usage vary with the person or persons we are addressing, with the purpose of our utterance, with the situation, and indeed with the entire context.

We must match the level of our language to the context in which we use it.  

- Kenneth G. Wilson.  The Columbia Guide to Standard American English . 1993.

Standard American English, also known as General American, is the type of speech taught in schools and used among professional news sources in the United States . This “dialect” is considered by most Americans to be the most correct form of English in the United States . It lacks regional, ethnic, social, etc. identifiers and thus can be understood by people everywhere. It is a “neutral” mode of speech. Standard American English allows for a clear and informative delivery that is easy for an audience to understand. Although debate exists, most experts identify S.A.E. as being the most similar to speech patterns found in the Midwestern United States.

2004 News Manager Survey


Transcription

Interview with Professor Cupp



Russ: What are some of the goals a broadcaster would have when giving a presentation?

Professor Cupp: Well, basically the, uh, the primary goal of course is to communicate the, the information effectively. And what you're working to do, um, as a broadcaster is to try to find a way to sound conversational and get the information across in a compelling way that gets people to keep listening to you.

Russ: Are there any specific techniques that you give students?

Professor Cupp: Well there are a variety of techniques, but all the techniques are designed to achieve one specific goal or another one. And then it's a matter of putting them all together and getting people to sound normal. In many cases, uh, people have issues related to the way their voices sound. They need to change the way they open their mouths. They need to articulate, uh, more clearly. They may need to change the way that they shape some vowels in order to not, um, have their voice colored by a, uh, regional accent or another, uh one regional accent or another.

Um, so, um if you were from the South you might say right bright night, "It's a right bright night, isn't it?" You would need to say right bright night, uh, for broadcast purposes, unless you were working in, say, North Carolina . Uh, so we teach people essentially how to speak in such a way that their voice is going to be pleasant to hear, it's going to communicate effectively, uh, and, uh, it's going to sound natural and conversational.

Shepard Smith (Fox News)



Virginia : An SUV running out of control in Roanoke and into the basement of a home. Nobody hurt here. The cause under investigation. Police say they do know the SUV jumped a five foot wall, hit the side of another house, and crossed two yards before finally stopping.

Massachusetts : The U.S. Coast Guard rescuing a 74 year old man. Vincent Gillings rode out the Nor'easter earlier this week. He was sailing from Nova Scotia to Gloucester , Mass. when the storm caught him. He says he was knocked overboard by the huge waves at one point but was saved by his safety harness. Gillings treated for hypothermia and released.


Analysis

In America , Standard American English is the prestige dialect. It is the proper way to speak, in comparison with Southern American English or African American Vernacular English. It can be compared to Français Standard , which is the official version of French, as opposed to Québécois, the French dialect found in Québec. In Great Britain Received Pronunciation is required when speaking with the queen, while accents such as Cockney, employed by lower class Londoners, and dialects like Pitmatic, found in the northern city of Durham , are used by different segments of the populace on a day to day basis. The same applies in China where Mandarin is favored over regional languages like Daur.

Although S.A.E. is considered by many linguistic experts to be the most correct pattern of speech, there is controversy as to if it is right and other American dialects are wrong. First of all, who has the right to declare the way a group of people speaks incorrect? If you are an outsider linguistically is it you who speaks the “wrong way”, even if you speak in accordance with formal education? How do you decide what is right and wrong grammatically and linguistically? How do you define “proper”? Who gets to decide? Pinker spends nearly an entire chapter discussing these questions. He is of the opinion that one can be both grammatically correct and incorrect at the same time. This is because whether you speak correctly or not depends on whom you ask. You learned prescriptive rules, the established rules of grammar, from your English teacher. However you most likely follow descriptive rules, the grammatical patterns the general public uses, on a regular basis. If you employ “ain't” into your vocabulary, you have committed a dastardly deed if you play by prescriptive rules, but descriptively you may very well be correct if ain't is an accepted term in your culture's lexicon.

Pinker blames language critics, style writers, and other grammar aficionados, whom he dubs “Language Mavens”, for the correct/incorrect grammar debate. He states that most linguistic rules are simply made up and enforced by people who feel they have the power or responsibility to do so. “Maven, shmaven! Kibbitzers and nudniks is more like it.”, (Pinker, 385) is Pinker's response to the idea that such people can change language at their whim. Most of the quirky laws of grammar that exist today date back to the 18th century and exist solely because someone thought things should stay the way they are. Pinker makes himself very clear on page 414, where he plainly states, “Using terms like ‘bad grammar' for ‘nonstandard' is both insulting and scientifically inaccurate.”

In addition to the above information, there is no one definition of S.A.E. It is more of an accent than a dialect. There are definitely vocabulary, morphemic, and memetic differences among American dialects, but grammatically they are much more similar. Discrepancies exist, but you can be from just about anywhere in the U.S. and understand just about anyone else anywhere in the country. This fact is a phenomenon throughout the world in countries similar in size to America . Another knock on S.A.E. is that it doesn't exist in the real world. It is kept alive by schools, grammar books, the media, and language coaches. People don't speak S.A.E. naturally. It must be learned in a school of from a book. Some people, particularly those interested in fields where one speaks in public, like broadcasting or acting, go to accent coaches, speech therapists, etc. to lose or acquire a certain accent or to learn how to speak properly. This id done based upon phonetic principles found within the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). Without situations such as this, there would have been no plot for the film My Fair Lady . It is often said that S.A.E. is based upon the accent found throughout the Midwestern U.S., particularly central Illinois , Iowa , and Nebraska . This is not entirely true however. People in this region in general do have the plainest, unaccented form of English found in America . They still have an accent though, which means that S.A.E. cannot be drawn directly from their speech patterns.

With that said, you're probably wondering why S.A.E. is important. As shown in Professor Noblitt's Dimensions of Language Variation , language changes in many ways. It changes along with the geographic, social, or historic setting it is found in. Two dialects of the same language can differ greatly. It can differ diglossically, meaning what is considered standard can change. Language is dependant upon the passage of time. The list goes on. S.A.E. is important because there needs to be a standard on which all language in America can be based, particularly when the way you sound matters. You may be an excellent surgeon, but if you sound like you jest came back from fishin' you won't have as many customers if you sounded like a news anchor. If you are giving a storm warning on the radio it is important that people can understand you without exerting great effort so that they can realize the situation is urgent and that they should take action to find a safe place. If you and yours friends are talking over dinner, the way you speak doesn't matter. In certain situations there is no right or wrong grammar, but sometimes it is important to have a standard.

How you talk speaks volumes about you. Everyone has memes specific to them and their community. In today's information age society, the question must be raised as to how the media affect absorption of memes. I, a white, middle class, suburban male, can learn how to talk like a rapper by simply watching TV. The media has had an effect on memes in America and around the world. Skateboarding, a Californian invention, is popular among French youth. An even greater question is if the media will have an effect on how their audiences speak. Will the fact that S.A.E. is employed by broadcasters cause people to lighten their accents? Probably not, since S.A.E. has been incorporated for years and accents and dialects still abound in America . People now do undergo much more media exposure than in the past, but this will probably not change anything. The use of S.A.E. in the media lets information get across in a manner that can be understood and respected by all who hear it.


Sources:

Noblitt, James S. Dimensions of Language Variation .

Noblitt, James S. The Nature of Text .

Pinker, Steven. The Language Instinct . New York , NY : HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 1994.

Professor David Cupp, Personal Interview, UNC Chapel Hill

Definition of “General American”: http://www.bartleby.com/61/72/G0077200.html

The Columbia Guide to Standard English: http://www.bartleby.com/68/

Article on General American: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/General_American

Dialects of the English Language: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_dialects_of_the_English_language

Languages and Dialects of Countries Worldwide: http://www.ethnologue.com/country_index.asp

Varieties of English: http://www.ic.arizona.edu/~lsp/index.html

http://www.onestopenglish.com/News/Magazine/Archive/standard.htm

Do You Speak American?: PBS Program About American Language, Including S.A.E.: http://www.pbs.org/speak/

UNC Foreign Language Resource Center : Information About Languages Worldwide: http://www.unc.edu/FLRC/


About the Author

I was born July 31, 1986 in Hinsdale Hospital in Hinsdale, Illinois, and lived with my parents, Paul and Cindy, and eventually my younger brother, Eric, in Wheaton, Illinois until January of 1991. I moved to Raleigh, North Carolina, and graduated from Broughon High School. While at Broughton I studied French through the AP level and Latin through level III. My junior year I went on a two-week exchange trip to Compi?gne, Picardie, France with a group from school. While there I lived with a French family. During the day the American students would go to school with their French counterparts, while we lived at our families' homes at night. Our group went on many excursions: Paris, Normandy, and surrounding departments. The students we stayed with stayed with us in the U.S. the following year. While in France I learned how to use an international phone card. This was not too dificult for me because I consider myself competent regarding information technology. I am interested in technology because it enhances our lives directly, i.e. typing vs. hand writing, and because it enhaces our interests. I am a guitar player, and I enjoy learning about and employing various devices that enable me to produce a better sound or to simplify the recording process. I also enjoy other  forms of expression, such as drawing, although I am not as talented in this area as I am in music. This is mainly because the majority of the time I spend expressing myself is in
music. However I wish to expand my abilities and interests. I want to become a better communicator, and I thought that I could do so if I better understood the nature of communication and how it shapes us as people. I desire to become proficient in French, and learn other languages too. I have learned that how well one communicates has a great impact on how successful one can be. I look forward to this class and to discovering the design of language and how it makes us learn and shapes our identities.