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California English

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


California English is a dialect of the English language spoken in the U.S. state of California. The most populous of the United States, California is home to a highly diverse populace, which is reflected in the historical and continuing development of California English. As is the case of English spoken in any particular state, not all features are used by all speakers in the state, and not all features are restricted in use only to the state. However, there are some linguistic features which can be identified as either originally or predominantly Californian, or both.


English became spoken in the area now known as California on a wide scale beginning with a considerable influx of English-speaking European Americans during the California Gold Rush and after rapid growth from internal migration (from all parts of the United States, but particularly New England in earlier periods and later on, the Midwest) through the end of the 19th century and first half of the 20th century. The heavy internal migration from regions in the United States east of California laid the early groundwork for the varieties of English spoken in California today.

Prior to World War I, the variety of speech types reflected the differing origins of these early inhabitants. At the time a distinctly southwestern drawl could be heard in Southern California, although the San Francisco area sounded more Midwestern.[citation needed] When a collapse in commodity prices followed World War I, many bankrupted Midwestern farmers migrated to California, bringing speech characteristic of Nebraska, Ohio, Illinois, and Iowa; and this speech type has dominated to this day. Subsequently, incoming groups with differing speech, such as the speakers of Highland Southern during the 1930s, have been absorbed within a generation.

California's status as a relatively young state is significant in that it has not had centuries for regional patterns to emerge and grow (compared to, say, some East Coast or Southern dialects). Linguists who studied English as spoken in California before and in the period immediately after World War II tended to find few if any distinct patterns unique to the region [1]. However, several decades later, with a more settled population and continued immigration from all over the globe, a noteworthy set of emerging characteristics of California English had begun to attract notice by linguists of the late 20th century and on.


As a variety of American English, California English is similar to most other forms of American speech in being a rhotic accent, which is historically a significant marker in differentiating different English varieties. The following chart represents the relative positions of the stressed monophthongs of the accent, based on nine speakers from southern California.[2] Notable is the absence of /ɔ/, which has merged with /ɑ/ through the cot-caught merger, and the relatively open quality of /ɪ/ due to the California vowel shift discussed below.

There are several phonological processes which have been identified as being particular to California English. However, these shifts are by no means universal in Californian speech, and any single Californian's speech may only have some or none of the changes identified below. The shifts might also be found in the speech of people from areas outside of California.

  • Front vowels are raised before velar nasal [ŋ], so that the near-open front unrounded vowel /æ/ and the near-close near-front unrounded vowel /ɪ/ are raised to a close-mid front unrounded vowel [e] and a close front unrounded vowel [i] before [ŋ]. This change makes for minimal pairs such as king and keen, both having the same vowel [i], differing from king [kɪŋ] in other varieties of English. Similarly, a word like rang will often have the same vowel as rain in California English, not the same vowel as ran as in other varieties.
  • The vowels in words such as Mary, marry, merry are merged to the open-mid front unrounded vowel [ɛ]
  • Most speakers do not distinguish between the open-mid back rounded vowel [ɔ] and open back unrounded vowel [ɑ], characteristic of the cot-caught merger. A notable exception may be found within the city limits of San Francisco, whose native inhabitants' speech somewhat reflects a historical East-Coast heritage which has probably influenced the maintenance of the distinction between words such as caught and cot.
  • According to phoneticians studying California English, traditionally diphthongal vowels such as [oʊ] as in boat and [eɪ], as in bait, have acquired qualities much closer to monophthongs in some speakers of California English. However, the continuing presence of slight offglides (if less salient than those of, say, British Received Pronunciation) and convention in IPA transcription for English account for continuing use of [oʊ] and [eɪ].
  • The pin-pen merger is complete in Bakersfield, and speakers in Sacramento either perceive or produce the pairs /ɛn/ and /ɪn/ close to each other[3].

One topic that has begun to receive much attention among scholars in recent years has been the emergence of a vowel shift unique to California. Much like other vowel shifts occurring in North America such as the Southern Vowel Shift, Northern Cities Vowel Shift, and the Canadian Shift the California Vowel Shift is noted for a systematic chain shift of several vowels.

The California vowel shift, based on a diagram at Penelope Eckert's webpage.
The California vowel shift, based on a diagram at Penelope Eckert's webpage.

This image on the right illustrates the California vowel shift. The vowel space of the image is a cross-section (as if looking at the interior of a mouth from a side profile perspective); it is a rough approximation of the space in a human mouth where the tongue is located in articulating certain vowel sounds (the left is the front of the mouth closer to the teeth, the right side of the chart being the back of the mouth). As with other vowel shifts, several vowels may be seen moving in a chain shift around the mouth. As one vowel encroaches upon the space of another, the adjacent vowel in turn experiences a movement in order to maximize phonemic differentiation.

Two phonemes, /ɪ/ and /æ/, have allophones that are fairly widely spread apart from each other: before /ŋ/, /ɪ/ is raised to [i] and, as mentioned above, may even be identified with the phoneme /i/. In other contexts, /ɪ/ has a fairly open pronunciation, as indicated in the vowel chart above. /æ/ is raised and diphthongized to [eə] or [ɪə] before nasal consonants (a shift reminiscent of, but more restricted than, non-phonemic æ-tensing in the Inland North); before /ŋ/ it may be identified with the phoneme /e/. Elsewhere /æ/ is lowered in the direction of [a]. The other parts of the chain shift are apparently context-free: /ʊ/ is moving towards [ʌ], /ʌ/ towards [ɛ], /ɛ/ toward [æ], /ɑ/ toward [ɔ], and the starting points of /uʊ/ and /oʊ/ toward /i/ and /e/ respectively.

Unlike some of the other vowel shifts, however, the California Vowel Shift is generally considered to be in earlier stages of development as compared to the more widespread Northern and Southern Vowel Shifts, although the new vowel characteristics of the California Vowel Shift are increasingly found among younger speakers. As with many vowel shifts, these significant changes occurring in the spoken language are rarely noticed by average speakers; imitation of peers and other sociolinguistic phenomena play a large part in determining the extent of the vowel shift in a particular speaker. For example, while some characteristics such as the close central rounded vowel [ʉ] or close back unrounded vowel [ɯ] for [u] are widespread in Californian speech, the same high degree of fronting for [oʊ] is common only within certain social groups. No matter the individual degree a speaker displays, the emergence of the California Vowel Shift and its spread among younger speakers point to a future form of California English which will have undoubtedly diverged significantly from other varieties.

Lexical characteristics

The popular image of a typical California speaker often conjures up images of the so-called Valley Girls popularized by the 1982 hit song by Frank Zappa and Moon Unit Zappa or "surfer-dude" speech made famous by movies such as Fast Times at Ridgemont High. While many phrases found in these extreme versions of California English of the 1980s may now be considered passé, certain words such as awesome and dude have remained popular in California and have spread to a national, even international, level. The use of the word like for numerous grammatical functions or as conversational "filler" has also remained popular in California English and is now found in many other varieties of English. A word that is used by many Northern California teenagers and younger adults is "hella" (from "hell of a lot of", alternatively, "hecka") to mean "many," "much," or "very".[citation needed] It can be used with countable and non-countable nouns. For example: "I haven't seen you for hella long"; or "There were hella people there"; or "That guitarist is hella good." The term is rarely used by those residing in Southern California; however, the term has gained more usage in that area, particularly with the release of the song "Hella Good" by SoCal band No Doubt.[citation needed]

California, like other Southwestern states, has borrowed many words from Spanish, especially for place-geographical names, food, and other cultural items reflecting the heritage of Latino Californians. High concentrations of various ethnic groups throughout the state have contributed to general familiarity with words describing (especially cultural) phenomena. For example, a high concentration of Asian Americans from various cultural backgrounds, especially in urban and suburban metropolitan areas in California, has led to the adoption of words like hapa (itself originally a Hawaiian borrowing of English "half"[4]). A person who was hapa was either part European/Islander or part Asian/Islander. Today it refers to a person of mixed racial heritage—especially, but not limited to, half-Asian/half-European-Americans in common California usage) and FOB ("fresh off the boat", often a newly arrived Asian immigrant). Not surprisingly, the popularity of cultural food items such as Vietnamese phở and Taiwanese boba in many areas has led to the general adoption of such words amongst many speakers.

Freeway nomenclature

Since the 1950s and 1960s, California culture (and thus its variety of English) has been significantly affected by "car culture" — that is, dependence on private automobile transportation and the effects thereof.

One difference between California and most of the rest of the U.S. has been the way residents refer to highways, or freeways. The term freeway itself is not used in many areas outside California; for instance, in New England, the term highway is universally used. Where most Americans may refer to "I-80" for the east-west Interstate Highway leading from San Francisco to the suburbs of New York, or "I-15" for the north-south artery linking San Diego through Salt Lake City to the Canadian border, Southern Californians will typically say "the 80", "the 15", etc. Northern Californians will typically say "80", "101" to refer to freeways (some long-time San Francisco Bay Area residents still refer to such highways by name and not number designation: "the Bayshore", for 101, or "the Nimitz" for I-880, which was named for Admiral Chester Nimitz, a prominent World War II hero with strong local ties), Similarly in Southern California, people often refer to freeways not by name, but as the route number, such as "the 405" or "the 605" but when the name is used, it is often shortened and "the" is also added to differentiate it from streets with the same name. A typical example would be "Take the Ventura west, get off at Sepulveda, and make a left to get to Ventura", meaning drive west along Highway 101 (Ventura freeway), exit at the Sepulveda Blvd offramp, make a left turn and continue until you reach Ventura Blvd. Similarly, California State Route 1, which runs down the coast, is called "Highway 1" or simply "one" in Northern California, but "PCH" (for Pacific Coast Highway) in Southern California, sometimes pronounced as "peach" but much more often as "the PCH". The sequential numbering of freeway exits, common in most parts of the United States, has only recently been applied in California. Thus, most people still refer to exits by name rather than number (e.g., "take the San Mateo exit" rather than "take exit 15.")

In a related vein, when referring to the Bay Area Rapid Transit, or "BART" system located in the San Francisco Bay Area, Northern Californians will typically refer to "BART" (e.g., "I'm taking BART this afternoon," whereas Southern Californians add "the" (e.g., "can you take the BART to get there?").

Place names

Another common Northern California expression is the way in which Northern California residents refer to San Francisco, either by using its full name, its initials SF, or simply The City, if they live in nearby smaller suburbs, like San Mateo, or smaller cities, like Oakland or Sacramento. (The term San Fran is almost never used by residents, except in jest, much as "The Big Apple" is not typically used by native New Yorkers. However, although no less an authority than newspaper columnist Herb Caen once castigated the use of the term "Frisco", he later recanted, and the use of that term seems to be making a comeback[5].) Still, the term Frisco remains to be viewed by many San Franciscans as being vaguely derogatory. When used, it is typically employed with a sense of knowing irony. Northern California and Southern California are sometime abbreviated to "Norcal" or "Socal", respectively, although the former is used more often by outsiders than native Californians[citation needed]. Some Southern Californians will refer to Northern California as "Nocal," to emphasize perceived feelings of Southern California's superiority.

Northern Californians refer to Sacramento, the state capital, as "Sac", "Sacto", and various other nicknames. Residents of the San Fernando Valley (the section of Los Angeles to the north of the Santa Monica mountains), often use the phrase "over the hill" to refer to Los Angeles, where the San Fernando Valley itself is generally called "the Valley". Similarly, Bay Area and Sacramento residents refer to going "up the hill" in to the neighboring mountains to Lake Tahoe or Reno, Nevada and "over the hill" for crossing the Santa Cruz Mountains.

A common complaint from residents of Southern California's Orange County is the reference to the area as "the OC" instead of just as "OC" proper. Attributed to the Fox television show The O.C., the inclusion of "the" in the county's title is mainly perceived to by those from outside of the county rather than natives. Still, the influence of the show on local youth culture also seems to have made the phrasing more acceptable among residents of the area.

California sociolects and Chicano English

As a very diverse state (there is no ethnic majority in California), several significant sociolects associated with particular cultural or ethnic groups are found within California. Current and historical Mexican immigration to California has resulted in a unique form of English spoken by Chicanos in the state, with Chicano English receiving the most attention in linguistic research into sociolects in California English. Chicano English is a native variety of English marked by a historical and current Spanish substratum (whether or not the speakers in question speak Spanish). Researchers have paid particular attention to the use of "barely," representing "had just recently" which may or may not be in analogy with Spanish apenas [1]. Recently, research has shown California speakers of Chicano English have been participating in some aspects of the California Vowel Shift typically found in the speech of younger whites and Asian Americans (amongst other groups), but some of the characteristics of the shift are altered for speakers of Chicano English. [1] Some hold that some Chicano English influences may be found in the speech of non-Chicano English speakers in California, such as the presence of "yes" and "no" as tag questions (traditionally not found in most varieties of English) or the /ɪŋ/ /iŋ/ process mentioned above [1], but such will probably not be settled without further research into the area. It should also be noted that Chicano English is by no means spoken by all Chicanos in California and the features noted as Chicano English form more of a continuum amongst speakers (some may have more Chicano English features than others) than a monolithic entity spoken the same by everyone. More work also remains to be done on various other English sociolects as spoken in California.

See also

  • North American Regional Phonology
  • Boontling
  • Chain shift
  • Chicano English
  • Hyphy
  • Skateboarding slang
  • Sociolect
  • Sociolinguistics
  • Spanglish
  • Valspeak
  • Vowel Shift


  1. ^ a b c d Walt Wolfram and Ben Ward, editors (2006). American Voices: How Dialects Differ from Coast to Coast. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 140, 234-236. ISBN 978-1-4051-2108-8. 
  2. ^ Ladefoged, Peter (1999). "American English." In Handbook of the International Phonetic Association, 41–44, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-63751-1.
  3. ^ Labov, William, Sharon Ash, and Charles Boberg (2006). The Atlas of North American English. Berlin: Mouton-de Gruyter, 68. ISBN 3-11-016746-8. 
  4. ^ Mary Kawena Pukui, Samuel H. Elbert & Esther T. Mookini, The Pocket Hawaiian Dictionary (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1983)
  5. ^ "Frisco, that once-verboten term for the city by the bay, is making a comeback among the young and hip. Herb Caen is spinning at warp speed.", San Francisco Chronicle, October 14, 2003.

Further reading

  • Vowels and Consonants: An Introduction to the Sounds of Languages. Peter Ladefoged, 2003. Blackwell Publishing.
  • Language in Society: An Introduction to Sociolinguistics. Suzanne Romaine, 2000. Oxford University Press.
  • How We Talk: American Regional English Today. Allan Metcalf, 2000. Houghton Mifflin.

External links

  • Do you speak American? PBS
  • Penelope Eckert, Vowel Shifts
  • Phonological Atlas of North America
  • A hella new specifier Paper by Rachelle Waksler discussing usage of hella
  • [ Urban Dictionary entry on "hella"
  • Word Up: Social Meanings of Slang in California Youth Culture by Mary Bucholtz Ph.D., UC Santa Barbara department of Linguistics Includes discussion of "hella"
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