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Uptalk is everywhere, says linguist Carmen Fought

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Listen to Dr. Eckert's  interview on NPR about N. California speech

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California English

Getting Real in the Golden State
Dude, where’s my language? Penelope Eckert and Norma Mendoza-Denton discuss the diverse and still developing linguistic features of speech in California. (The research cited in this article was first published in 2002.)

When people think of California English, they often recall the stereotypes like those made famous by Frank and Moon Unit Zappa in their song “Valley Girl,” circa 1982. “Like, totally! Gag me with a spoon!” intoned Moon Unit, instantly cementing a stereotype of California English as being primarily the province of Valley Girls and Surfer Dudes.

But California is not just the land of beaches and blonds. While Hollywood images crowd our consciousness, the real California, with a population of nearly 34 million, is only 46.7% white (most of whom are not blond and don’t live anywhere near the beach). For generations, California has been home to a large Latino population that today accounts for 32.4% of the state’s total numbers. It has also been home to a large Chinese-American and Japanese-American population and in recent years, with the influx of immigrants from other parts of Asia, the state now boasts a large and diverse Asian-American population (11.2%).

Most of the sizeable African-American  population (16.4%) in California speaks a form of African-American Vernacular English, with few traces of surfer dude or valley girl.

No style is made from scratch

Each of these groups speaks in a distinctive style providing a rich set of linguistic resources for all inhabitants of the state. Ways of speaking are the outcome of stylistic activities that people engage in collaboratively as they carve out a distinctive place for themselves in the social landscape. In fact, linguistic style is inseparable from clothing style, hair style, and lifestyle. No style is made from scratch, but is built on the creative use of elements from other styles, and California’s rich diversity makes the state a goldmine of stylistic activity.

In 1941, linguist David De Camp proclaimed that California English was no different from the English of the East Coast. But, over the decades since the 1940s, a distinctive accent has developed among much of the population of the state. Some of the features of this accent were highlighted in Moon Unit’s parody of California speech.

It is important to remember that California is a new state. It takes time and a community to develop common ways of speaking, and English speakers have not been settled in California long enough to develop the kind of dialect depth that is apparent in the East Coast and the Midwest. In a study of three generations of families living in the Sunset neighborhood of San Francisco, linguist Birch Moonwomon discovered that what was a fairly diffuse dialect at the beginning of the twentieth century became quite homogenous by the end of the 1990s. While the oldest speakers born in the Sunset district pronounced their vowels in a variety of ways, their grandchildren pronounced them in a more uniform way.

What features constitute the stereotypic accent?

So what are these features that constitute the stereotypic California accent? A group of linguists led by Leanne Hinton at the University of California at Berkeley studied the accents of a range of speakers in Northern California. In the speech of white people in California, as in many parts of the west, the vowels of hock and hawk, cot and caught, are pronounced the same—so awesome rhymes with possum. Also notable is the movement of the vowels in boot and boat (called back vowels because they are pronounced in the back of the mouth). These vowels all have a tendency to move forward in the mouth, so that the vowel in dude or spoon (as in gag mewith a…) sounds a little like the word you, or the vowel in pure or cute. Also, boat and loan often sound like bewt and lewn—or eeeeuuw.

Finally, the vowel in but  and cut  is also moving forward so that these words sound more like bet and ket. These are all part of the commonly imitated California surfer speech. But there are also a few vowel shifts that go by almost unnoticed: the vowel of black often sounds more like the vowel in block, the vowel of bet is moving into the place of bat, and the vowel of bit is moving into the place of bet.Some linguists refer to these coordinated changes as chain shifts—one can think of them as a game of “musical chairs” played by the vowels in the mouth. It is different configurations of these games of “musical chairs,” as it were, in progress in different parts of the country that create regional accents. The chain shift occurring in California, although relatively early in its progress, will have a lasting effect on the system, eventually resulting in significant differences from other dialects.

Of course, the prototypical California white speech variety is not just a matter of vowels. A single feature like this does not make a style, marking someone as a Californian. Rather it is the coordination of both linguistic and paralinguistic features in time, organized according to topic and differentially highlighted according to audience that characterizes the speech of any dialect. The extreme versions of the pronunciations that are described above are primarily found among young white Californians.

jayk goff, bear mountain snowboarder

Innovative developments in the stereotypical California linguistic system may be so new as to be restricted to certain speech settings, with the most extreme pronunciations evident only in peer-group youth interactions. It is precisely these interactions that are the crux of stylistic development, and that is why linguists in California are spending considerable energy studying young people. One of the innovative developments in white English of Californians is the use of the discourse marker “I’m like,” or “she’s like” to introduce quoted speech, as in “I’m like, ‘where have you been?’” This quotative is particularly useful because it does not require the quote to be of actual speech (as “she said” would, for instance). A shrug, a sigh, or any of a number of other expressive sounds as well as speech can follow it. Lately in California, “I’m all” or “she’s all” has also become a contender for this function. We know that the quotative “be all” is not common in the speech of young New Yorkers, for example, while “be like” is. This allows us to infer that “be all” might be a newer development and that it may also be native to, or at least most advanced in, California.

With its diverse population, California’s communities bring together adolescents from a wide variety of backgrounds, and their styles play off of each other. Hostility may cause people to differentiate their styles, while curiosity or admiration may cause people to pick up elements from other styles. So the real story of California dialects is a story of influx and contact, evident demographically in migration patterns and evident linguistically in the flux of styles and their accompanying features.

One important group in California is the Mexican-American population or Chicanos. Some Chicanos exhibit a distinctive variety of English, which we will call California Chicano English. This variety is the result of speakers socializing in networks in which other Mexican-Americans participate, innovating and reinforcing a historically distinctive speech variety. Much of California was ceded from Mexico to the United States in 1848, so the indigenous and Mexican populations have had the longest continuous linguistic history in the state. Pervasive Spanish/English bilingualism among Mexican-Americans has had a tremendous impact upon Chicano English. Spanish has influenced the development of Spanish-like vowels among native speakers of English. In Northern California, the vowel in the second syllable of nothing, for instance, has come to sound more like ee among subgroups of Chicano English speakers, differentiating them from other minority groups where nothing sounds more like not’n. In this case, Spanish is drawn on as a distinctive stylistic resource. This does not mean, however, that all innovations in Chicano English necessarily derive from Spanish. Sometimes innovations develop independently and in the opposite direction from what one would expect if one were to assume Spanish influence. One of the most salient innovations in Los Angeles is the lowering of the vowel in the first syllable of elevator so that it rhymes with the first syllable of alligator—not Spanish-sounding at all. Carmen Fought has shown that in LA, young Mexican-Americans participate in other changes that are characteristic of whites as well—such as the fronting of boat and the backing of black mentioned earlier. However, they do so in distinctively patterned ways that mark communities and subcommunities, social networks and personal histories.

Why do some groups have ethnic linguistic varieties and others do not?

The turbulent history of migration and ethnic relations in California is another lens through which we must view past and current developments in California English. If dialects reflect the history and meaningful activity of subpopulations within the body politic, why is it that some groups have ethnic linguistic varieties (such as Chicanos) and others do not? With a historically large population of Japanese-Americans and close proximity to the Pacific Rim, why do we find very little contemporary evidence of an ethnic variety of English among Japanese-Americans in California?

Research by Melissa Iwai and Norma Mendoza-Denton into generational differences among Japanese-Americans indicates that the oldest generation of Japanese American native speakers of English, the nisei, do exhibit a distinct patterning of vocalic and consonantal phenomena, while the yonsei, or fourth generation (now in their 20s and 30s) are indistinguishable from their white counterparts. Detailed interviews with nisei residents revealed that, when they were detained in internment camps in California and Arizona during World War II, torn from their families and subjected to ostracism, they felt it was a distinct disadvantage to sound Japanese-American or be distinguished as being Japanese in any way.  Furthermore, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s policy of dispersal in resettlement prevented the reconstitution of the original communities; fatally rupturing established social networks and preventing the entrenchment of their nascent variety of English. In this example of the death of a California dialect we can see how stereotypes and discrimination about people and their language (what linguists call language ideology) can have dramatic effects on a community’s linguistic development. For Japanese-Americans, assimilating to the speech of the white majority of the time was a linguistic consequence of the catastrophic events in their community.

California English is a reflection of politics, history and intersecting communities…

California English is a reflection of the politics, history and various intersecting communities in the state. Sixty years after DeCamp’s original investigation, we can confidently say that Californians have developed distinctive ways of speaking. As the real California continues to show an even greater degree of linguistic and ethnic contact, we hope that stereotypical images of California English will be changed to include some of the linguistic realities that we have described above.

Penelope Eckert is a Professor of Linguistics at Stanford University where she works on language change among teenagers. Norma Mendoza-Denton is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Arizona who works on speech style and language and identity.

Reprinted courtesy, Language Magazine

Suggested Reading/Additional Resources

Penelope Eckert is a Professor of Linguistics at Stanford University where she works on language change among teenagers.

Norma Mendoza-Denton is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Arizona who works on speech style and language and identity.

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