The 1982 movie “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” introduced the world to surfer dude Jeff Spicoli and his laidback lingo. Every time Spicoli appears, he treats the audience to some aaawesomes and duudes.
For people outside of the state, it might seem as if Californians speak like surfer dudes or valley girls -- like, ohmigod. California girls and guys themselves, on the other hand, insist they have no accent at all. Who's right? As it turns out, linguistic researchers aren't even sure: Most existing large-scale linguistic research projects skip the nation's most populous state, as if no one spoke English west of the Mississippi.
“California is very new. Boston, New York, the Northeastern accents are really set in stone because the population has been speaking English [for a long time]. And in California, it is still in the making,” explains Penny Eckhert, a professor of linguistics at Stanford University. (Eckhert herself hails from New Jersey, but speaks without the telltale accent.)
Eckert and a team of researchers descended upon the non-costal towns of Redding and Merced in the Central Valley to interview residents and indentify California accents and dialect. After the researchers gathered interviews with as many residents as they can, they apply it to a speech corpus to analyze spoken language.
Californians may like to brag about having no accent, but Eckert says that isn’t true: “Everybody has an accent. An accent is just a way of pronouncing a language and people notice ones that tend to be associated with a particular place.” (Actually, you can watch Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig and Fred Armisen prove the existence of the California accent -- by mocking it -- in this "Saturday Night Live" sketch.)
She found that many Californians share common traits with people in the Midwest or the South, showing that Dust Bowl migration influenced dialect.
“A pattern that is well-known in the parts of the Midwest and Pennsylvania and Ohio is called the positive anymore, (such as) 'I shop there anymore,'” she says, explaining most people use anymore in a negative construction, such as “I don’t shop there anymore.”
“We found that all over California and did not expect it.”
She also learned that many Californians use a nasally "a," found often in the Midwest. Once when she was interviewing a student at a Palo Alto high school, he complained the school was too homogenous, noting there weren’t a lot of “blocks.” After a moment, she realized he said "blacks."
Some Californians share commonalities with Southerners, notably the switch between was and were. Many Southerners say, “We was at the store” instead of, “We were at the store," and Californians also sometimes swapped was and were. She also observed that Californians blended pen/pin, with speakers saying both words the same, much like people in the South.
“The diversity of California is something that does not get seen as a distance,” Eckert says.
In September, the team gathered data in Bakersfield. While a new location for fieldwork hasn’t been identified yet, Eckert plans on studying as many cities as possible.
You can learn more about the project at Stanford's Voices of California project page.