The United States Of Accents: Pacific Northwest English

In this installment, we’re exploring the elusive but definitely real Pacific Northwest accent.
Pacific Northwest English represented by an evening photograph of the Seattle skyline.

Imagine a Pacific Northwestern accent. Are you struggling? You wouldn’t be alone in that. The Pacific Northwest doesn’t really have a stereotypical accent that everyone knows. If someone asked you to do a Seattle accent, you might struggle. Even Pacific Northwesterners have trouble accepting that they have an accent (even though yes, everyone has an accent).

Despite all this, people in the northwestern United States really do have an accent, and it’s starting to become more distinct. So let’s explore how the accent has developed, and what it sounds like today.

The Splintering Of The Western Accents

When linguists first did a study of accent groups around the country in the mid-20th century, the western states were all grouped together. While the east, especially the northeast, was subdivided into several small sections, everything west of Kansas was put under the same accent name: “The West.”

There is a historical reason for why the West would actually have fewer accents than the East. The West is just the newest part of the country. Sure, Washington and Oregon were settled by Americans over a hundred years ago, but that’s a very small amount of time compared to the earliest colonies. Generally, the longer a region is settled, the more accents it will contain (though some linguists argue that local accents are dying out because of geographic mobility). So the West didn’t have time to develop a complex arrangement of accents.

Over the past few decades, however, that’s changed. The most famous accent in the West is likely Californian, and now even that’s split into northern and southern, which means the West is no longer the homogenous mass it once was. So while it’s not eminently recognizable, the Pacific Northwest has started developing its own speaking patterns. Who’s leading the change? Accents tend to develop around cities with large populations of young people, meaning places like Seattle and Portland are heading up the linguistic change. Thus, Pacific Northwest English is being formed naturally, and it’s slowly spreading throughout the whole region.

What Does Pacific Northwest English Sound Like?

All accents in the United States exist relative to General American, which is the name given to the American accent that has “neutral” characteristics. No region of the country actually speaks General American — often, it’s defined as “sounding American but like no part of the United States in particular” — and it’s really only used by newscasters or other people trying to mask their natural accents. Identifying an accent is usually about pinpointing how it deviates from General American. Does the person not pronounce “r”s like in Boston or New York? Do they pronounce “pin” and “pen” the same like in the South?  The “thickness” of an accent can usually be measured by how different it sounds from General American.  

Pacific Northwest English sounds pretty close to General American. Of the differences that do exist, almost all of them involve vowel pronunciation. Pacific Northwesterners observe the cot-caught merger, meaning they pronounce words like “don” and “dawn” the same, while other parts of the country separate them. Also, they pronounce the letter “e” in words like “egg” and “beg” more like an “ay,” so the words would sound like aygg and bayg. Some parts of the northwest also have the pin-pen merger, so “pin” and “pen” would both sound like “pin.”

None of the features of Pacific Northwest English are specific to the region. Various vowel differences are influenced by their neighbors in Canada and California, as well as the influx of people from other parts of the country to Seattle and Portland. That’s not to say the Pacific Northwest sounds like any other place; a unique mix of these speech features makes this accent distinctive. And as linguists look more into the accents of the area, they’re discovering more distinctions that are painting a fuller picture of the region.

What’s The Slang?

If you really want to figure out if someone’s from the Pacific Northwest, you might want to defer to the slang they use. One of the most common original words from the region is “spendy,” meaning expensive. “Potlatch,” or a very large feast, comes from the indigenous people of the northwest and seems to be the root of “potluck.” The word “duff” refers to the decaying vegetative matter on a forest floor, though that might not come up in regular conversation. Pacific Northwesterners never go to the “beach;” instead, they head to “the coast.” And while “hella” may be mostly associated with northern California, it’s moved its way up to Oregon and Washington as well.

Overall, a Pacific Northwesterner is hard to pinpoint based on accent alone. Still, you can probably figure it out given enough time and attention. If all else fails, you can probably just tell from their refusal to use umbrellas when it’s raining, their socks and sandals or their weird sense of Starbucks pride.

Pick up an accent in a new language.
Try Babbel