California English

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California English
Region California
Native speakers
(this article does not contain any information regarding the number of speakers)
Language codes
ISO 639-3
Glottolog None
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters.

California English (or Californian English) is a variety of Western American English, mostly documented in Southern California and the San Francisco Bay area of Northern California.[1][2] California is home to a highly diverse population, which is reflected in the historical and continuing formation of California English, whose uniquely developing features were only first noted by linguists in the 1980s.[1] Since that time, unique California speech has been mostly associated in U.S. popular culture with adolescent and young-adult speakers of coastal California; the possibility that it is, in fact, an age-specific variety of English has been proposed though not yet confirmed.[3]


English was first spoken on a wide scale in the area now known as California following the influx of English-speakers from the United States, Canada, and Europe during the California Gold Rush. The English-speaking population grew rapidly with further settlement, which included large populations from the Northeast, South and the Midwest. The dialects brought by these pioneers were the basis for the development of the modern language: a mixture of settlers from the Midwest and the Border South produced the rural dialect of Northern California, whereas settlers from the Lower Midwest and the South, (especially Missouri and Texas), produced the rural dialect of Southern California.

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. When a collapse in commodity prices followed World War I, many bankrupted Midwestern farmers migrated to California from Nebraska, Ohio, Illinois, Minnesota, and Iowa contributing to a new homogenized speech in urban sprawl, where teachers banned "ain't", 'awl' in favor of oyuhll (oil),[4] and "ahll" in favor of ayuhll (I'll) in grammar schools. Subsequently, incoming groups with differing speech, such as the speakers of Highland Southern during the 1930s, have been absorbed within a generation. The Dust bowl migration re-introduced a purer Southwestern accent to the West Coast in the 1920s and 30s before the migration ended in World War II.[citation needed]

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.[5] 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 more people moved into the state, all these groups, ranging from a diverse variety of backgrounds, began to pick up different elements of spoken language from each other.[6]


The typical California English pure vowels, based here on nine Southern California speakers,[7] are similar to General American English, though /ɪ/ and /ɛ/ are considerably lower, and /u/ and /ʊ/ are slightly fronter.
Differences in Californian versus General American vowels
California General American Example words
/ɒ/ (LOT set) [ä~ɑ] (About this sound listen) [ä~ɑ] bother, lot, top
/ɒ/ (CLOTH set) [ɒ(ː)] (About this sound listen) or [ɑ~ɒ] (About this sound listen) cloth, loss, off
/ɔː/ all, bought, saw
/ɛ/ [ɛ~æ] (About this sound listen) [ɛ] (About this sound listen) dress, said, breath
/ɪ/ [ɪ~ɛ] (About this sound listen) [ɪ] (About this sound listen) hit, skim, tip
/ʊ/ [ʊ~ʊ̈] [ʊ] (About this sound listen) book, put, should
/u/ [u~ʉ] (About this sound listen) [u] (About this sound listen) food, glue, new

Several phonological processes have been identified as being particular to California English, though they are no means universal within, nor limited to, the California area.

  • California (Vowel) Shift: Most noticeably, typical California English is characterized by a lowering chain shift of the front vowel sounds in words like bit, bet, and sometimes bat; additionally, certain innovative speakers of California English, particularly in Northern California and the San Fernando Valley (stereotyped as "Valleyspeak"),[citation needed] show fronting of the back vowel sounds in words like butt, boat, bush, and boot.[8]
    • Context-specific vowel changes: Many California English speakers exhibit the following vowel characteristics, nearly identical to a shift also occurring in Canadian English:
      • /ɛ/ (as in bet, wretch, head, etc.) has a fairly open pronunciation (for example, with car wreck and kettle drum in California English sounding to a General American speaker more like car wrack and cattle drum), as indicated in the vowel chart here.
      • /ɪ/ (as in bit, itch, quick, etc.) has a fairly open pronunciation (for example, with pick and Missy sounding more like peck and messy), as indicated in the vowel chart here.
      • /æ/ (as in bat, rag, quack, etc.) is slightly more open pronunciation than in General American (something like the open front a sound in Spanish or Italian); however, before /n/ or /m/ (as in ran or ram), /æ/ is raised and diphthongized to [eə] or [ɪə] before nasal consonants, a widespread shift throughout most American English.
    • Context-free vowel changes: These changes are much newer and not typical of mainstream California speakers, but are often associated with youthful California stereotypes. They are usually more observable in younger Northern Californian[8][verification needed] and "Valleyspeak" accents. Imitation of peers and other sociolinguistic phenomena play a large part in determining the extent of this part of the vowel shift in a particular speaker.[citation needed]
      • /ʊ/ may be fronted towards [ʌ] (so that, for example, book and should could sound more like buck and cud)
      • /ʌ/ may be fronted beyond [ɜ] (mud, glove, what, etc. may sound more like how Southern U.S. speakers pronounce them)
      • /u/ may be fronted beyond [ʉ] (rude and true are almost approaching reed and tree, but with rounded lips)
      • /oʊ/ may be fronted beyond [ə] (cone and stoke are almost approaching cane and steak, but with rounded lips).[9]
The more innovative variant of the California Shift occurring in Northern California, according to Penelope Eckert's research;[8] also associated with Valleyspeak.
  • Front vowels are raised before /ŋ/: The sounds of the traditional "short a" /æ/ (as in bat) and "short i" /ɪ/ (as in bit) are raised to the sounds of the "long a" [e] (as in bait) and "long ee" [i] (as in beat), respectively, when occurring before the ng sound /ŋ/; in other words, rang may have the same vowel as "rain" and king the same vowel as keen.[citation needed] However, this pronunciation is not spread evenly and the more common American pronunciation of [kʰɪŋ] (where "king" has the same vowel sound as "kin") still exists in many areas of California.
  • Mary–marry–merry merger: Words like Mary, marry, and merry are all pronounced identically, due to the merger of all three vowel sounds, before r, towards [ɛ] (the "short e" in bet, head, mesh, etc.).[citation needed] This merging is common throughout most of North America.
  • Cot–caught merger: Most California speakers do not distinguish between /ɔ/ and /ɑ/ (the vowel sounds in caught versus cot), characteristic of the cot–caught merger.[citation needed] The merged vowel is typically a centralized ä.[10] A notable exception may be found within the transitional region of the San Francisco Bay Area,[11] many of whose inhabitants' speech somewhat reflects influence of new arrivals from the Northeast.[citation needed]
  • Pin–pen merger in some areas: This merger is complete only in and around Kern County and northern Los Angeles County; speakers in Sacramento either perceive or produce the pairs /ɛn/ and /ɪn/ close to each other.[11]
  • Rhoticity: Like most American English, California English speakers have a rhotic accent (an accent that pronounces every instance of the historical r sound, unlike in most of England, where the r sounds are often "dropped" after vowel sounds).

It is often assumed that the Central Valley's holdout of Southwestern speech (such as the pin/pen merger) was strengthened by people from western Oklahoma who emigrated during the Dust Bowl. But no documentation of change of the dialect before and after the arrival of the "Okies" is submitted. Rather, rural Southern California was already populated long before, by descendants of settlers who came to California in the Southwest from different regions of the Southeast,[12] fully explaining the speech patterns of rural Southern California as native and entrenched.

Lexical characteristics[edit]

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 from the 1980s may now be considered passé, certain words such as awesome, totally, fer sure, harsh, gnarly, 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" (e.g. in place of thinking sounds "uh" and "um") has also remained popular in California English and is now found in many other varieties of English.

A common example of a Northern Californian[13] colloquialism is hella (from "hell of a (lot of)", euphemistic alternative, hecka) to mean "many", "much", "so" or "very".[14] It can be used with both count and mass nouns. For example: "I haven't seen you in hella long"; "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, and "Hella" by the band Skull Stomp, who come from Northern California.[15]

California, like other Southwestern states, has borrowed many words from Spanish, especially for place names, food, and other cultural items, reflecting the heritage of the Californios. 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"[16]). 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 among many speakers.

In 1958, essayist Clifton Fadiman pointed out that Northern California is the only place besides England where the word chesterfield is used as a synonym for sofa or couch,[17] however this terminology is also used in Canadian English.


Freeway signs along northbound US 101 at the interchange of Highway 110 in Los Angeles. The leftmost sign for US 101 north lists it name, the Hollywood Freeway, as well as its destination, Ventura.
Freeway signs along northbound US 101 at the interchange of Interstate 80 in San Francisco. The leftmost sign for US 101 north only lists its destination, the Golden Gate Bridge.

Californians sometimes refer to the lanes of a multi-lane divided highway by number, "The Number 1 Lane" (also referred to as "The Fast Lane") is the lane farthest to the left (not counting the carpool lane), with the lane numbers going up sequentially to the right until the far right lane,[18] which is usually referred to as "The Slow Lane". In areas where three and occasionally two lane freeways are more common, the lanes are simply the "fast lane", "middle lane" and "slow lane".

In the Los Angeles Metropolitan area, San Bernardino and San Diego, freeways are often referred to either by name or by route number (perhaps with a direction suffix), but with the addition of the definite article "the", such as "the 405 North" or "the 605 (Freeway)". This usage has been parodied in the recurring Saturday Night Live sketch "The Californians".[19] In contrast, typical Northern California usage omits the definite article.[20][21][22] When the Southern California freeway system was built in the 1940s and early 1950s, local common usage was primarily the freeway name preceded by the definite article, such as "the Hollywood Freeway".[23] It took several decades for Southern California locals to start to commonly refer to the freeways with the numerical designations, but usage of the definite article persisted. For example, it evolved to "the 605 Freeway" and then shortened to "the 605".[23] This did not occur in Northern California, where usage of the route numbers was more common.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Gordon, Matthew J. (2004). "The West and Midwest: phonology." Kortmann, Bernd, Kate Burridge, Rajend Mesthrie, Edgar W. Schneider and Clive Upton (eds). A Handbook of Varieties of English. Volume 1: Phonology, Volume 2: Morphology and Syntax. Berlin / New York: Mouton de Gruyter. p. 347.
  2. ^ Bucholtz, Mary; et all (December 2007). "Hella Nor Cal or Totally So Cal? : The Perceptual Dialectology of California". Journal of English Linguistics 35 (4): 325–352. doi:10.1177/0075424207307780. Retrieved 2010-11-04. 
  3. ^ Ward (2003:41): "fronted features in the young speakers seems to indicate a nascent chain shift in progress, [however] the lack of a true generational age range in the study precludes too strong of a conclusion. Alternatively Hinton et al. also suggest that possibility that the age-specific pattern could also be a function of age-grading, where the faddish speech style of California adolescents is adopted for its prestige value, only to be abandoned as adolescence wanes."
  4. ^ Upton Sinclair, Oil! (1927).
  5. ^ 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. 
  6. ^ "Do you speak American? - California English". PBS. Retrieved October 28, 2013. 
  7. ^ Ladefoged, Peter (1999). "American English". In Handbook of the International Phonetic Association, 41–44, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-63751-1.
  8. ^ a b c Eckert, Penelope. "Vowel Shifts in Northern California and the Detroit Suburbs". Stanford University. Accessed 2015.
  9. ^ "Professor Penelope Eckert's webpage". Retrieved 2011-12-30. 
  10. ^ Ward (2003:43)
  11. ^ a b Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006:68)
  12. ^ Laurence Fletcher Talbott, Phd., California in the War for Southern Independence, et al.
  13. ^ "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]
  14. ^ "Jorge Hankamer WebFest". Retrieved 2011-12-30. 
  15. ^ "Lyrics | Skull Stomp - Hella". SongMeanings. 2008-11-02. Retrieved 2011-12-30. 
  16. ^ Mary Kawena Pukui, Samuel H. Elbert & Esther T. Mookini, The Pocket Hawaiian Dictionary (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1983)
  17. ^ Fadiman, Clifton Any Number Can Play 1958
  18. ^ "Choosing a Lane". California Driver Handbook (PDF). California Department of Motor Vehicles. 2010. p. 33. 
  19. ^ Rose, Joseph (April 16, 2012). "Saturday Night Live's 'The Californians': Traffic's one big soap opera (video)". The Oregonian (Portland, Oregon). Retrieved December 3, 2013. 
  20. ^ Simon, Mark (2000-06-30). "'The' Madness Must Stop Right Now". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved 2012-11-19. 
  21. ^ Simon, Mark (2000-07-04). "Local Lingo Keeps 'The' Off Road". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved 2012-11-19. 
  22. ^ Simon, Mark (2000-07-29). "S.F. Wants Power, Not The Noise: The 'The'". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved 2012-11-19. 
  23. ^ a b Geyer, Grant (Summer 2001). "'The' Freeway in Southern California". American Speech 76 (2): 221–224. doi:10.1215/00031283-76-2-221. 

Further reading[edit]

  • 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[edit]