Features of Standard American English

The notion of a “standard” dialect

Standard American English (SAE) is perhaps best defined not by the features that it has, but the features that it lacks.  You could say that it’s not marked by any regional characteristics (or at least perceived that way).

The notion of a standard dialect is quite fuzzy, and opinions vary as to what constitutes SAE.

The French solved this problem by creating the Académie française, which is a body of scholars that acts as a supreme court in settling questions concerning the French language.  Russian is regulated by a similar body called the Academy of Sciences, and Spanish is overseen by the Real Academia Española.  English, however, does not have a language academy.  In fact, style guides such as the AP Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style are perhaps the closest English comes to having a regulatory body.  Be that as it may, a case can be made for an American standard.  In this article, SAE shall be defined as all phonological and morphological forms that are not associated with a particular region.

SEE ALSO: Preparing to Study in the United States

Maps showing the the dialects of American English reveal a very diverse situation in the regions east of the Mississippi.  In contrast, the Western United States appears to have very little diversity.  Comparing Oregon English with California English, one might have trouble finding any significant differences between them.

This has been attributed to the mixing of peoples from different parts of the Eastern United States during the period of expansion into the West, thereby neutralizing any oddities.  It is therefore safe to say that most western dialects can’t really be associated with a particular region and would therefore be perceived as SAE.  The same is often said of certain Midwestern and Mid-Atlantic dialects.  The idea is that when you hear people speaking SAE, it’s hard to tell where they’re from.

It’s all in the vowels

vowelsConsonants are more resistant to change than vowels.  Since the first English settlers arrived in North America, the consonants haven’t changed all that much.  Vowels, however, have changed a lot.  If asked to imitate a southern accent, most people would probably go for the vowels.  The same goes for accents of the Northeastern United States (although there are a few exceptions to this).  It is safe to say that with the exception of /r/, SAE can be defined in terms of vowels.  Consider the following examples:

Short front vowels that have been diphthongized are associated with the South, and therefore absent in SAE; /æ/ becomes [æjə]; /ɛ/ becomes [ɛjə]; and /ɪ/ becomes [ɪjə].  Cat is therefore [kæjət] in Southern American English and [kæt] in Standard American English.  This phenomenon is not found in the Northeast, Midwest, Mid-Atlantic or the Western United States.

The diphthong /aɪ/ is monophthongized in Southern American English.  The word tire therefore sounds more like tar.  Standard American English preserves the diphthong.

The dropping of /r/ in syllable-final position is associated with the Northeast.  In SAE, /r/ is preserved in this position.

Regarding SAE morphology, the second person plural you all serves as a good example.  Y’all is very much associated with the South.  Yous (plural of you) is associated with the Northeast.  Only you all can’t really be associated with a particular region, which is why it is the standard form.


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