California English: Wikis


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California English (or Californian, Californian English) is a dialect of the English language spoken in the U.S. state of California. The most populous state of the United States, California is home to a highly diverse populace, which is reflected in the historical and continuing development of California English.



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.

Before 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, Minnesota, 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.

California English vowel chart.svg

Several phonological processes 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 /ŋ/, so that /æ/ and /ɪ/ are raised to [e] and [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 [ɛ].
  • Most speakers do not distinguish between /ɔ/ and /ɑ/, characteristic of the cot-caught merger. A notable exception may be found within the San Francisco Bay Area, 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, such as Penelope Eckert, traditionally diphthongal vowels such as /oʊ/ as in boat and /eɪ/, as in bait, have acquired qualities much closer to monophthongs in some speakers.
  • 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 Shift, Northern Cities Shift, and the Canadian Shift, the California Vowel Shift is noted for a systematic chain shift of several vowels.

The Northern 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 /u/ and /oʊ/ are diphthongs whose nuclei are moving toward [i] and [e] respectively.[4]

Unlike some of the other vowel shifts, however, the California Shift is generally considered to be in earlier stages of development as compared to the more widespread Northern Cities and Southern Shifts, although the new vowel characteristics of the California 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.

Older native Californians tend to pronounce the suffixes -ive (motive) and -age (message) as eve and eej, respectively.[citation needed]

In the southern Central Valley (Kern, Tulare, and Kings Counties), where a large number of people from Oklahoma emigrated during the Dust Bowl, many white Californians speak with an Oklahoma-like accent that is quite distinct from the English spoken in coastal Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay region.

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 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, totally, fer sure, harsh 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 common example of a Northern California[5] colloquialism is hella (from "hell of a (lot of)", alternatively, hecka) to mean "many", "much", "so" or "very".[6] It can be used with both count and mass nouns. For example: "I haven't seen you in hella days"; "There were hella people there"; or "This guacamole is hella good." Pop culture references to "hella" are common, as in the song "Hella Good" by the band No Doubt, which hails from Southern California.

California, like other Southwestern states, has borrowed many words from Spanish, especially for place names, food, and other cultural items, reflecting the heritage of Mexican 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"[7]). 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;[citation needed] 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, Californians are less likely to use the "I" or "interstate" designation in naming freeways.[citation needed]

The numbering of freeway exits, common in most parts of the United States, has only recently been applied in California and initially appearing only in more populous areas. Thus, virtually all Californians refer to exits by signage name rather than by number, as in "Grand Avenue exit" rather than "Exit 21."

  • Northern California
Northern Californians will typically say "80" or "101" ("one-oh-one") to refer to freeways. Some long-time San Francisco Bay Area residents and many traffic report broadcasts still refer to such highways by name and not number designation: "Bayshore" for Highway 101, or "the Nimitz" for I-880, the portion of the Eastshore Freeway which was named for Admiral Chester Nimitz, a prominent World War II hero with strong local ties. State Route 1 is called "Highway 1" or simply "One" (i.e., "take One down the coast").
  • Southern California
In Greater Los Angeles, Orange County and San Diego, freeways are referred to either by name or by route number (perhaps with a direction suffix), but with the addition of the article "the", such as "the 405 North" or "the 605". This is in contrast to typical Northern California usage, which omits the article.[8][9][10]
There is no road named the "Los Angeles Freeway"; instead, each freeway which radiates from downtown L.A. is named for its nominal terminus in some other city, such as Santa Monica, Pomona or San Bernardino. News reports will occasionally refer to the Santa Monica and Santa Ana freeways as such; however, residents will very rarely refer to the 405 freeway as the San Diego Freeway (other than on street signs). The majority of natives stick to calling the freeways by their numerical names.[citation needed]
Conversely, the older state highways are generally called not by their numbers, but by their names, as used on signage and in postal addresses. For example, in southern California, State Route 1 is called the Pacific Coast Highway and is often referred to as "PCH" or "the PCH".
Southern Californians often refer to the lanes of a multi-lane divided highway by number, "The Number 1 Lane" (usually referred to as "The Fast Lane") is the lane farthest to the left, with the lane numbers going up sequentially to the right until the far right lane, which is usually referred to as "The Slow Lane."
  • Distribution
The distribution of these contrasting nomenclatures are irregular, and indicate the extent of integration with the Greater Los Angeles economic sphere of influence. Along Highway 101, the shift occurs at the Santa Ynez Mountains, so that residents of Santa Barbara County speak of "the 101", but residents of San Luis Obispo County call the same freeway "101". Along I-5, this border is less clear. Residents of Bakersfield, over the San Gabriel Mountains from Los Angeles, speak of "the Five" and "the 99", but this use is notably absent in Fresno. Towns in the Mojave Desert tend to use the "the" at least as far as Las Vegas, but not into Arizona; Las Vegas has notable historic ties to the Los Angeles area. Residents of San Diego and the Imperial Valley follow Southern California usage as well.

"Frisco" and "The O.C."

The term "Frisco" is almost never used by San Francisco residents, except in jest or with a sense of irony, much as "The Big Apple" is not typically used by native New Yorkers. However, though well-known newspaper columnist Herb Caen once harshly criticized the use of the term "Frisco", he later recanted, and the term continues to be used.[11] Still, the term "Frisco" continues to be viewed by many as either revealing ignorance, or as vaguely derogatory. Emperor Norton, a colorful 19th century inhabitant of San Francisco, once issued a proclamation about the City's nickname:

Whoever after due and proper warning shall be heard to utter the abominable word "Frisco", which has no linguistic or other warrant, shall be deemed guilty of a High Misdemeanor, and shall pay into the Imperial Treasury as penalty the sum of twenty-five dollars.[12]

In 1918 in his courtroom, a San Francisco judge rebuked a Los Angeles resident's use of the nickname "Frisco" by saying "No one refers to San Francisco by that title except people from Los Angeles."[13] Decades later, San Francisco columnist Herb Caen renewed the drive to keep "Frisco" out of San Francisco.[14]

A common complaint from residents of Southern California's Orange County is the reference to the area as "the O.C." instead of as "Orange County". Attributed to the Fox television show The O.C., the abbreviation of the county's name is mainly perceived to be used by those from outside of the area, rather than natives. In fact, use of the term around Orange County natives will often elicit a disgusted or annoyed response, similar to that of northern Californians when the word "Frisco" is used.[citation needed] This was parodied in the Fox TV series Arrested Development, which takes place in Orange County: when someone would refer to the county, they would call it "the O.C.", prompting someone else to respond, "Don't call it that."

Many residents of Orange County refer to their telephone area codes to describe where in Orange County they are from. "714" refers to people in Northern Orange County and the older suburban communities of Cypress, Los Alamitos, Seal Beach, Huntington Beach, Sunset Beach, Fountain Valley, and parts of Anaheim, while "949" refers to more affluent and recently developed communities in South Orange County such as Irvine, Lake Forest Foothill Ranch, Laguna Hills, Newport Beach, and the infamous Coto de Caza or "Coto". Sometimes people will even refer to their Zip Codes to communicate where they live, many times an indication of their income level.

Another linguistic term for Orange County is "behind The Orange Curtain". Unless utilized for satire, it is uncommon for residents (especially if they identify as politically conservative) to refer to their county in this manner as it is usually taken to be derogatory.[citation needed] Instead, it is typically used by individuals originating from Los Angeles County (especially West LA) who self-identify as politically liberal and wish to demonstrate this general political difference.

Place names

The abbreviations "NorCal" and "SoCal" are commonly used to refer to Northern California and Southern California, respectively. These abbreviations often carry no connotations, but they may be used derisively, often to emphasize cultural differences between the two portions of the state.

Northern California

A common expression amongst residents of the San Francisco Bay Area is to refer to the city of San Francisco itself as simply "The City". Some Mexican Spanish-speakers refer to it as "San Pancho" because Pancho is a nickname for the Spanish name Francisco. Similarly, the city of South San Francisco, technically not a part of the city and county of San Francisco, is sometimes referred to as "South City", especially within the San Francisco Examiner.

The metro region often referred to as the Bay Area includes San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Alameda, Marin, Contra Costa, Sonoma, Solano and Napa counties.

The San Francisco Bay Area is commonly referred to as "the Bay Area" or sometimes simply as "The Bay". The Bay Area is sub-divided into several regions:

  • "The City" or simply "SF" refers to San Francisco proper.
  • The "North Bay" encompasses Marin County, the southern half of Napa County and the southern half of Sonoma County, including the city of Santa Rosa. The northern portions of Sonoma and Napa counties are typically considered to be Wine Country, a separate region less characterized by suburbanization. Some cities in central areas of these counties are considered to be members of both communities.
  • The "South Bay" encompasses the cities of the Santa Clara Valley, including San Jose, and can refer to all of Santa Clara County, as far south as Gilroy. Mountain View, home of Google, is undeniably part of Silicon Valley, but northwestern parts seem to be more integrated with Palo Alto.
  • The "East Bay" extends inland from the eastern shores of the San Francisco Bay and includes Alameda and Contra Costa counties. East Bay cities include Oakland, Berkeley, Walnut Creek, Fremont, Hayward, and San Leandro. Cities on the Bay side of the East Bay Hills are sometimes referred to as the "Near East Bay", and historically, inland cities along the I-680 corridor have been referred to as the "Far East Bay". The definition of this term has been muddied in recent years as suburban sprawl from the Bay Area spilled into the Central Valley, adding a distinct third subregion to the East Bay.
  • "The Peninsula" refers to the San Francisco Peninsula south of the City of San Francisco, encompassing the cities in San Mateo County, including Daly City, San Mateo, Redwood City and Menlo Park, as well as Palo Alto (in Santa Clara County). It is virtually never referred to as the "West Bay". Palo Alto is considered "on the Peninsula", which despite being in Santa Clara County has long historical ties with the Peninsula (especially with Menlo Park); for example, Jane Lathrop Stanford kept a personal waiting room at the Menlo Park train station, despite the Stanford estate's proximity to Palo Alto.

Some Northern Californians refer to Sacramento, the state capital, as "Sac", "Sacto", "Sactown", "Sacra" (by the Chicano community), and various other nicknames.

Bay Area and Sacramento residents speak of going "up the hill" into the neighboring mountains to Lake Tahoe or Reno, Nevada, but "over the hill" for crossing the Santa Cruz Mountains, either to Santa Cruz or Half Moon Bay. In the Sacramento area, "the Valley" refers to the Central Valley. Additionally, residents of the Bay Area will sometimes refer to the area of the Santa Clara Valley and surrounding cities as "the Valley" or as the more famous term, "Silicon Valley". Residents of Santa Cruz use the phrase "over the hill" to refer to Silicon Valley, but for them "the Bay" refers to closer Monterey Bay, not San Francisco Bay.

Southern California

Southern California has many distinctive accents and dialects; these often reflect the geographic origins of the people who came there. Bakersfield English and the "Valley Girl" dialect of the San Fernando Valley have their roots in the Ozark English of Arkansas and Missouri, and first developed when many people from the Ozarks migrated to California in the 1930s. East Los Angeles and the Gateway Cities house a distinctive form of Chicano English. These dialects can exist in very small areas, such as the traditionally New Orleanian Yat in northern Pasadena.

In the city of Los Angeles, the terms "Westside" and "Eastside" are frequently used to refer to regions on either side of the city. The boundaries of these regions are not defined, and whether certain neighborhoods should be included in the Westside or the Eastside remains a heated topic of discussion[15]. Generally, the Westside includes neighborhoods with the area code 310, including Santa Monica, Westwood and Culver City. The Eastside includes neighborhoods east of the Los Angeles River such as Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles.

Neighborhoods south of downtown Los Angeles comprise "South L.A.", whose name was changed from "South Central" in 2003. South Central initially referred to South Central Avenue, which runs through the area and was a major location for jazz and nightlife in the fifties and sixties. Neighborhoods in South L.A. include Watts, Leimert Park, and Inglewood.

The San Fernando Valley, which lies north of the Santa Monica mountains, is often called simply "the Valley."

The Inland Empire, which encompasses cities in San Bernardino and Riverside counties, is commonly referred to as "the I.E." or "the 909" for its original telephone area code. Although the United States Census Bureau defines the Inland Empire region as all of San Bernardino and Riverside counties, these counties' high or low desert regions are frequently excluded from the colloquial definition, which refers instead to the more urbanized area around the cities of Riverside and San Bernardino.

In Los Angeles County, the "South Bay" refers to the area adjacent to southern Santa Monica Bay, encompassing communities between Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) and the Port of Los Angeles. This area includes the Beach Cities (Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach, Redondo Beach), El Segundo, the Palos Verdes Peninsula, Hawthorne, Lawndale and Torrance.

In San Diego County, "South Bay" refers to the area adjacent to the southern portion of San Diego Bay. Suburbs in the northern half of the county near-universally identify as simply North County, and suburbs immediately east of the city proper, though geographically still located in the western half of the county, identify similarly as East County.

California sociolects and Chicano English

As it is a very diverse state, 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, Hispanics, 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 /ɪŋ//in/ 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


  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. pp. 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. p. 68. ISBN 3-11-016746-8. 
  4. ^ Professor Penelope Eckert's webpage
  5. ^ "However, science isn't all that sets Northern California apart from the rest of the world," Sendek wrote. "The area is also notorious for the creation and widespread usage of the English slang 'hella,' which typically means 'very,' or can refer to a large quantity (e.g. 'there are hella stars out tonight')." [1]
  6. ^ Jorge Hankamer WebFest
  7. ^ Mary Kawena Pukui, Samuel H. Elbert & Esther T. Mookini, The Pocket Hawaiian Dictionary (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1983)
  8. ^ Simon, Mark (2000-06-30). "'The' Madness Must Stop Right Now". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved 2009-09-22. 
  9. ^ Simon, Mark (2000-07-04). "Local Lingo Keeps 'The' Off Road". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved 2009-09-22. 
  10. ^ Simon, Mark (2000-07-29). "S.F. Wants Power, Not The Noise: The 'The'". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved 2009-09-22. 
  11. ^ Sullivan, James (October 14, 2003), 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, 
  12. ^ Joel Gazis-Sax (1998). "He Bans the F-Word". Retrieved 2007-04-24. 
  13. ^ San Francisco Examiner, April 3, 1918. Don't Call It Frisco. Judge Mogan Rebukes Angeleno for Using Slang in His Petition for Divorce.
  14. ^ Sullivan, James (October 14, 2003). "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.". Datebook (San Francisco: San Francisco Chronicle): p. D-1. Retrieved June 12, 2008. 
  15. ^

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


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