The United States Of Accents: California English

We explore what a typical Californian sounds like and why it’s so very difficult to define a ‘typical Californian.’
Golden gate bridge at sunset representing Californian English.

California, if you didn’t know, is a very big state. It has the largest population of any state in the United States, and it’s the third biggest based on geographic size. And yet, if you asked someone what a Californian accent sounds like, there’s a good chance they’ll answer with something that sounds a bit like the voice in Moon Zappa’s “Valley Girl.”

You’ve probably heard Valley girl, which is the stereotyped speech of upper-middle class teenage women who live on the outskirts of Los Angeles. The Valley girl speaker is often represented as an airhead, which has been used for comedic effect in movies like Legally Blonde, in which a rich young woman from SoCal is admitted to Harvard University and struggles to fit in because she’s “more ditzy” than the other students. This movie did subvert some of the expectations of someone who sounds like that, but reinforced some others.

This is just one of a few Californian archetypes. There’s also the surfer, the hippie, the Silicon Valley bro and more. But as mentioned, California is huge. To really get at Californian English, you have to look past the caricatures.

The Slow Beginnings Of California English

For a long time, the West Coast was seen as a monolith of language. The western states were added to the United States later than the eastern ones, so the linguistic communities of California et al. got off to a late start. In 1941, one linguist declared California spoke no differently than New York.

When linguists William Labov, Sharon Ash and Charles Boberg created The Atlas of North American English to document the major dialects of the United States in 2005, the East Coast (where Labov studied) was packed with dialect communities like Boston, New York City and Philadelphia. On the other side of the map, the entirety of the western United States was grouped together with a single label. Linguists who studied California around the time of World War II just couldn’t find any substantive speaking differences between anyone west of Texas.

North American Dialect Map — Californian Accent

The map of dialects in the United States. As defined in 2006, the East Coast is dense with linguistic varieties, while the West is one big green blob.Where did these westerners come from, anyway? Let’s step further back in time. California got its first big influx of English speakers thanks to the California Gold Rush in the middle of the 19th century. People from all over the United States came to California, and they brought their developing dialects with them. All of these new voices contributed to a new way of speaking, but it took a few generations for this hodgepodge of accents to develop into a single western voice. Given a few more generations, the homogeneity started breaking apart.

Hella Dialects Form In The State

Before getting specifically into what defines California English, it should be noted how many different accents exist across California. For the past few years, Stanford University has been host to the Voices of California project, which documents various dialects throughout the state. The work is ongoing, but they’ve already found many differences between, say, a Northern and a Southern Californian.

Geographic location isn’t the only cause of these differences. Due to a large Mexican-American population, many Californians speak a dialect of Chicano English. There’s also a large black population that uses African American Vernacular English. These speakers don’t fall under California English because they’re established linguistic communities. But because they don’t exist in vacuums, all of these accents regularly influence each other.

Who are the speakers of California English, then? It would be nice to just say “Californians,” but not all Californians sound alike. It refers only to white people, which make up less than 40 percent of the state’s population. And because California is no longer a linguistic monolith, California English is really used as the umbrella term for a range of accents throughout the state. “California English” could more aptly be named “Average White Upper-Middle Class Bay Area Resident English,” but that would be too long.

The Sound Of California

If you watch the news broadcast above, you’ll see that Californians seem shocked — shocked! — at the suggestion that they have an accent. Their accent is indeed similar to General American, meaning it sounds to American ears like it isn’t an accent at all. Everyone has an accent, however.

As with most accents, the vowels are what really set Californians apart. The news broadcast makes reference to the fact that the Southern accent has had an effect on California because of western migration in the 20th century. Notably, there’s the cot-caught merger, which means both “cot” and “caught” sound the same, with an unrounded “ah.”

A big factor that distinguishes California English is the California vowel shift, which is being led by young people. When vowels shift, it means a person is positioning their tongue in their mouth differently when pronouncing a specific vowel. And when one vowel starts to shift, usually others start to as well. The vowel in “dude” moves forward in the mouth, leading to the famous Californian “duuuuuude.” The vowel in “hut” moves forward to sound like “het,” the vowel in “back” moves to sound like “bock” and the vowel in “lit” moves to sound more like “let” (the last one leading to the pin-pen merger). The chain reaction of vowel shifting creates a distinctive Cali sound.

The California vowel shift is part of a larger pattern among the youths in North America. Similar things are happening in Canada, the South and the northern cities near the Great Lakes. This has led to Californian and Canadian sounding awfully similar, which is kind of weird. The wide usage of these shifting vowels suggests that it will spread throughout the country over time.

The Linguistic Capital Of America

While learning about vowels is great, California English is really all about the slang. This is where young people’s linguistic innovation really shines.

If you’re below a certain age, you’ve probably heard Californian English words like “hella” (meaning “many”) and “yee” (an expression of excitement derived from “yes”). For most of the late 20th century, the slang in California was relegated to hippies and surfers, but now, new terms are achieving a wider influence in American culture. Using “hella” will likely still mark you as a west coaster, but all the youths use originally Californian phrases like “that’s sketchy,” “you’re rocking those sunglasses” and “I’m gonna bail.”

A prime example of California’s immense influence on English is the quotative “like,” which started over on the west coast. For example, when someone tells a story and introduces quotes this way: “He was like, ‘How are you?’ And I’m like, ‘Good, you?’” Many people hate this construction, but linguists say it’s going to be used by pretty much everyone in the country eventually. It literally changed the way people tell stories about themselves.

California has a lot going for it in the spread of linguistic variants. It has a big music scene and it’s the home of Hollywood, meaning much of the pop culture Americans consume comes from there. So while it’s a relatively young state, it has certainly matured. The rich language of the area, aided by its intermingling of many different cultures, is perhaps the most influential in the country.

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