What Do You Think a California Accent Sounds Like?

You’ve probably heard an impression of a stereotypical California accent or dialect at least once on TV or in the movies. The surfer’s slow drawl, the Valley girl’s declarative sentence spoken like a question….

But c’mon, Californians don’t really have an accent or a dialect.

Do they?

A team of Stanford researchers is working to find out. They’ve started recording interviews with native Californians to help determine the state’s vernacular for a project called Voices of California.

KQED’s Charla Bear recently talked about the project with Penny Eckert, a Stanford professor of linguistics and anthropology, for a story on The California Report.

“We realized that nobody really knows anything to speak of about the dialects of the West, and people can say just about anything they want,” she says. “And some people were saying just about anything they wanted. I mean, we’re all familiar with Moon Unit Zappa’s imitation of valley girls, right?”

Eckert says like, obviously, it’s pretty far out to stereotype all Californians as having a San Fernando Valley girl accent. But there aren’t many examples of what “authentic” California speech is.

Is "surfer" a California dialect? Photo by Nathan Rupert/Flickr
Is "surfer" a California dialect? Photo by Nathan Rupert/Flickr

Some Californians agree that it’s difficult to describe the state’s dialects.

“I teach foreign exchange students in California,” wrote Cari Blackmore Noble on the NPR Facebook page, one of more than 200 people who commented on the story. “Lots of the kids have traveled to other states, and all [of them] say I have a Californian accent. I tried to get them to pin it down for me, but they couldn’t really explain it.”

“Keep in mind that all of California is a mix of cultures, so if you’re down with people of different cultures, it is not uncommon for people to pick up on the slang and sometimes the accent of other people,” noted Patricia Boynton.

Other commenters had a very specific definition of California vernacular.

“A proper California accent is as smooth as butter, naturally sonorous, and as rich and deep as a butter cream mocha cake from Just Desserts,” wrote Ethan Cranke. “Dignified and divine, i.e. the only accent accepted into heaven.”

Still, several pointed to the stereotypes presented in pop culture as examples of the accent. We’ve shared some of their comments, divided the comments into categories and included videos as illustrations below.

What do you think the California accent sounds like? KQED is partnering with KPCC in Los Angeles to get your thoughts on the subject. You can call us at 866-588-8883 and give us your best impression of the Californian accent. If you’re a SoundCloud member, you can click here to record your answer from your computer. KPCC, KQED, and The California Report may feature your voice on our air or website.

THE EAST BAY

“Hella sloooww naaimean?” Kendra Lee Adams, who calls herself an Oakland transplant via New York.

THE VALLEY GIRL

“Oh my God! Like California TOtally doesn’t have an accent. What-EV-er!,” Allen Bagwell, Oakland.

THE LOS ANGELINO

“As for SoCal….have you seen the skit “The Californians” on SNL?” Julie Dietrich, Mammoth Lakes.

THE SURFER

“DUDE!” William Scott Hutton, Venice.

Are you a SoundCloud member? Click record below and give us your best impression of a California accent. Also be sure to say and spell your name and say the California town where you live or grew up, as well as your phone number. Then click submit. Phone numbers will not be broadcast on air or online.

Related

  • sra5447

    The Californians clip is awful, but maybe that’s because I’m a Bay Area Native. The first Clip about Oakland is spot on!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=698268731 Terri Hunter-Davis

    Long ago I took a linguistics class taught by Deborah Tannen (years before “You Just Don’t Understand”). She explained — and we three Californians in the class demonstrated — our tendency to muffle medial consonants and syllables. Think of Herb Caen’s self-reference as the Sackamenna (Sacramento) Kid. Then within that paradigm, San Franciscans’ speech is more nasal than elsewhere in the state.

    • Carmen the Electrician

      Yes! My favorite is my own hometown, Sanozay (San Jose).

      • http://www.facebook.com/jim.bisted Jim Bisted

        In my righteous indignation, I told my wife I most certainly did not say it like that. Come to find out, I most certainly do!

    • Birdfish

      I had a long conversation with a multi-generation native San Franciscan back in the 70′s who told me the old timers version is ‘Sampensisco’ , at least it was out on Army street.

  • txvoodoo

    To me, they say “sense” instead of “since”, and similar vowel substitutions. It irks me, but what do I know? I’m from Philadelphia!

    • lajenni

      No offense, but the Philly accent is like nails on a blackboard to me. All that “L” swallowing…”Phiwwy,” “Dowwers,” (dollars)….Ugh.

      • txvoodoo

        No offense, but those are things I’ve never heard in Philly. Perhaps you know a Philadelphia with a speech impediment?

        Now, we *can* talk about water/wodder….

    • Carmen the Electrician

      Hmmm…We also say “uhven” instead of “ohven”. Both pretty darn low on the egregiousness scale, I’d say.

  • Evelyn Karnate

    The first rule of accents (especially regional ones) is that only other people have them.

  • seraph

    When I first moved here I thought Californians all sounded kind of girly and didn’t enunciate their words as clearly as i was used to (I lived in midwest and east coast prior) Having been here a while now – I no longer notice it.

  • Justin_Slaughter

    Nice job picking the two biggest kooks at the beach to take a picture and represent surfers, bra!

  • http://twitter.com/tehdely Mike

    Native San Francisco speech, with which I’ve become accustomed the more I’ve hung out on the west side of the city, is a delight. It’s dying. I’m not a native and I’ll never speak it.

    Features:

    Relaxed æ: “Relax” becomes “relahx”.
    Relaxed ɑ -> ɔ: “Mom” becomes “mawm”
    Dipthongized ɪ: “Kid” becomes “kyid”

    And other changes, depending on how much of someone’s family grew up in the Mission.

    Typically coupled with a very hard-edged blue collar appearance, this accent immediately disarms and charms the listener.

  • Mike

    I’m a NoCal native, married a SoCal gal 50 years ago. Lived in both places. The SNL sketch is largely based on the SoCal use of freeway tags (the 5, the 405) to establish place, and i don’t find it very funny.

    Other than the “Valley Girl” speech pattern, I’ve never seen a clearly defined “California” accent. California was originally Spanish…actually, Mexican…and added various American dialects. Oklahoma was big in the 30′s, and people from all over the US migrated to work in the shipyards in the 40′s. It’s truly been a melting pot.

    The California accent is similar to the “Mid Atlantic” accent…a 40-year-old blend of speech patterns.

  • Birdfish

    I never thought much about my accent until someone read me a passage from an Erica Jong novel long ago (sorry don’t recall which one) where the heroine is overseas, homesick, trying to phone home to California, she is upset and crying and the California operator is able to calm her with the use of a single word: Sure. The heroine says something like: in that single word and the way she said it I could hear the surf on the beach, it sounded like home.

    That was the gist anyway, point being we say sure in our unique California way a million times a day, as well as a million other words, and never think twice about it, but in every word and it’s pronunciation there is a tiny story or a picture for those who are listening.
    Oh yeah, sure. BTW my sure sounds like: Shrrr

  • Cillygoose

    Ive lived in cali 50 yrs n I love the Californians piece. its perfect, i imagine, to nonlocals.

  • http://www.facebook.com/KeithHusseinTurner Keith Hussein Turner

    WAPAHH

    • Newp

      I see nothing wrong here.

  • m0000

    I’m a non-native Angeleno (via the midwest/east coast). In southern CA natives, I hear the drawling “valley girl” style vowels, but at the same time there’s a sort of nasally tone and twang (really hard R’s).

  • tb

    as a CA native from the bay area who lived in SoCal for awhile I can totally appreciate the clip from SNL – when I first got there I didn’t know what the heck people were saying – it was all abbreviations and freeway numbers and all about the best driving directions.

  • Tedd

    I’m from northern California, and living in southern California! Missing the North! Grew up in San Joaquin Valley rural area. Joined the Marines. It was then that people would ask me about my twang or drawl, and ask if I was from the South or East. I said no!! Never even been their. I think my mother had a heavy twang, but she was raised in Los Angeles.

  • TK

    Some clips seem over the top. It might also have to do with how the person is expressing what they say. If you just say a word like Boat, you get Boat… If you express it in a sentence you may get Bo-at.

  • http://www.facebook.com/thekarenbradford Karen Bradford

    I was riding a bus in Reykjavik, Iceland when I heard a distinctively California accent. I snapped around and barked, “WHERE ARE YOU FROM?!” The poor guy looked at me and answered, “Long Beach.” I had been traveling alone for five weeks in Scandinavia and Russia and had met only a handful of Americans, so his accent was very welcome to my ears.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=718600192 Tim Bates

    I’ve met folks born and raised in San Francisco of Irish/Italian descent. When these folks spoke. You would swear you were in Brooklyn. Anthony Burgess in “A Mouthful of air. Discusses how dialects develop, regionally, and also culturally. I find this living example of a cultural mix which is quite common on the East Coast to develop essentially the same dialect on the west coast 3 generations into living out west.

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor