August 6, 2012
Stanford linguists seek to identify the elusive California accent
With the Voices of California project, Stanford linguistics professors and students aim to discover and document the diversity of California English.
By Ed King
Professor Penelope Eckert and graduate student Katherine Geenberg discuss data collected in the Voices of California project. (Photo: Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service)
Brandon Conlan of Redding, Calif., doesn't think he has an accent. A trip to Florida a few years ago confirmed his opinion. Friends there said he had the standard "TV accent," which to them meant that he didn't have a distinguishable way of speaking.
Conlan and his friends aren't alone. Because there aren't many stereotypes of California speech compared to the distinctive way of speaking associated with East Coast cities like Boston or New York, a lot of Californians are happy with their lack of accent.
Penelope Eckert, a professor of linguistics at Stanford, was intrigued by the disconnect between California's diverse populations and Californians' views of their own speech as homogenous and indistinguishable. Eckert and her graduate students launched a multi-year research endeavor called "Voices of California" to fully investigate how English is spoken in different parts of the state.
Hundreds of interviews with California residents from Merced and Shasta counties have revealed the influence of the Dust Bowl migration from Oklahoma, and have highlighted differences between coastal California and the Central Valley.
"It's really important to portray California as it is," said Eckert. "People have this view of California based on Hollywood, and California really is a very diverse state."
Despite being the most populous state in the United States, California is largely unrepresented in large studies of American dialects. Regarding maps from previous dialect studies, Eckert said, "It looked as if nobody spoke English west of the Mississippi."
Stanford linguists eventually decided that they had a unique opportunity to document what California English sounds like. "A bunch of us," said Eckert, referring to the three professors and about a dozen graduate researchers in the group, "realized one day that if we don't do it, no one will."
Central Valley focus
Eckert's team has been documenting the breadth of California dialects for the last two years. Each September, a team of 10 to 15 Stanford linguists heads off to record how Californians speak. In previous years, the group has visited Merced and Redding; this year they are focusing on Bakersfield.
The team spends about 10 days in each city interviewing residents who grew up in the area. They talk about themselves, their lives and their communities. The researchers record these free-flowing conversations, along with a list of words designed to elicit specific pronunciations.
The list includes, for example:
Wash, because some people pronounce it "warsh."
Greasy, because some people pronounce it "greezy."
Pin and pen, because some people pronounce them the same.
"We were trying to come up with ideas about what the major regional differences are in the state," said Katherine Geenberg, a doctoral candidate in linguistics who has worked on the project since its inception. "The California imagination is popularly defined by two preeminent coastal cities, so we thought moving inland might be a good idea."
Besides examining what makes California English different from the rest of the country, the Voices of California project also looks at the diversity of language use within the state. The project's current focus on the Central Valley began, in part, as a way to find out about California beyond the stereotypes of Hollywood celebrities and surfer dudes.
The researchers focus not only on differences in slang (known as lexical variation), but also on pronunciation (phonology) and ways of wording sentences (syntax). Lexical differences are often the ones that people are quickest to notice.
"Most people have an idea of slang differences between NorCal and SoCal," said Geenberg, who cited "the 101" as a Southern California way to refer to the freeway and "hella" as an especially Northern expression.
Differences in phonology and syntax are often harder to define.
Annette D'Onofrio, another doctoral candidate in linguistics, has collected interviews for the project in Merced and Redding. Most of the residents she's interviewed say they can't think of any way in which their accents are different from other places. "Almost everybody I ask, 'Are there specific differences?' there's this long pause on the tape and they say, 'Uh, I don't think so,'" said D'Onofrio.
Parts of the dialect differences likely come from patterns of migration into California. People living in the Central Valley may have more Southern-sounding speech than people who live on the coast, largely because of farmers who moved to the Central Valley from Oklahoma during the Great Depression.
"If you look at Redding, the importance of the Dust Bowl migration is huge," said Eckert. "A lot of the Okies landed up in that area, so there's a huge influence of Southern dialects."
The Southern influence is especially evident in pronunciation and syntax. One striking Southern feature found in Redding is the use of "was" where English traditionally uses "were" (for example, "You was going" instead of "You were going").
Another is a phenomenon called "positive anymore," where the word "anymore," historically used only in negative sentences ("I don't shop online anymore"), is used in a positive sentence ("I shop online anymore").
D'Onofrio interviewed a Merced man who talked about being an Okie. "I asked him if there are any slang terms that are special to Merced and he said, 'All the kids around here say "what's up" anymore.'"
Speech reflects sense of place, attitudes
Researchers are quick to point out, however, that people speak differently not only because of where their ancestors came from but also because of their attitudes. How speakers relate to people around them, and to the rest of the state and country, plays an important role in the way they express these attitudes in speech.
"People might think of it being a Northern California/Southern California distinction, because Southern California is Los Angeles, is opulence, is celebrity, is liberalism," said Geenberg. "But I think, on the ground, the differences are about personal politics."
One way in which personal politics affects speech is in how tied people feel to their community. Especially in the Central Valley, where the economy is depressed, young people must decide whether to stay in their communities or move somewhere else to try to find work.
"There are people that orient toward where they're from, and want to be a part of that," said D'Onofrio. "And then there are people who just don't want to be perceived as being from that place, and of course that affects your language."
Beyond academic research, members of the project hope to decrease some of the stigma surrounding certain accents and the attitude that using non-standard language is bad.
"When we were getting ready to go to Redding, there was an article about us in the local paper, and the response was really interesting," said Eckert. "People had this idea that we were going there to hear their bad grammar. Hopefully we can get people to think a little differently about language and language diversity."
Team members are beginning to present conference papers on their studies of the Central Valley, but the Voices of California researchers say they are just getting started. Most of the interviews still need to be closely analyzed, and there are many more regions of California to catalog.
"I see this going on for a very long time," said Eckert. "There are areas of California that we really haven't explored. Everywhere we go gets us interested in somewhere else."
Ed King is a doctoral candidate in linguistics at Stanford. For more news about the humanities at Stanford, visit the Human Experience.