Voices of California

In today’s Stanford Report, a report (“Stanford linguists seek to identify the elusive California accent”, by Ed King, a Ph.D. student in linguistics at Stanford):

With the Voices of California project, Stanford linguistics professors and students aim to discover and document the diversity of California English.

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.

The participants are beginning to present results of the project, but this is only the third year of the project (Merced and Redding in previous years, Bakersfield coming up next month) and there’s a lot of California to study.

Here are Penny Eckert and grad student Kate Greenberg at work wrangling data:

7 Responses to “Voices of California”

  1. Wilson Gray Says:

    Perhaps Mr. Conlon needs to visit the Northeast, as well as the Southeast. I’ve heard the pronunciation of _California_ – by Californians! – mocked, in Cambridge, MA. The Cantabrigians felt that something like “cali-PHONE-yuh” was the proper pronunciation. A friend from Pacific Palisades told of being laughed at by her Somerville, MA, housemates, because of her inability to pronounce /ɛ/ as [ɛ] before a nasal.

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    From David Johnson on Google+, this SNL skit about California accents.

    There are plenty of representations of stereotypical “California” accents (usually of young women from SoCal), but that isn’t linguistics (though the stereotypes are a field of study in their own right).

    In this case, there are a fair number of systematic studies of (aspects of) the stereotyped varieties.

  3. Jenny Says:

    I am not that good at hearing accents, but I have lived my whole life in Southern California and I can definitely hear an accent here. It isn’t present in all of the state, either. I don’t hear it in the Central Valley or the Bay Area. The band Sublime has it, and I can hear it there very clearly. My friend who grew up in the San Fernando Valley (where Valley Girls come from) said she can hear six different LA basin accents.

    The SNL skit didn’t really sound like our accent to me, except for the bit about the 405. We always call it “the 405,” not “405.” And we do talk about traffic.

  4. W Says:

    A similar project is going on in Australia, called AusTalk: https://austalk.edu.au/

  5. Brief mention: Accent perceptions « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] In folk dialectology — the dialectology of ordinary people (not professionals) — some people are perceived as “having an accent”, while others don’t. Many times, but far from always, the people reporting on these phenomena believe they are accentless; accents are something other people have. (Typical folk reflections on these matters, in a California context, are noted here.) […]

  6. arnold zwicky Says:

    December 9: Ellen Seebacher adds this public radio coverage of the project: “Stanford Researchers Try to Define the California Accent” (reporter Charla Bear, in the KQED California Report for the weekend of Nov. 23-25).

  7. Do Californians have an accent? « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] the language of adolescents, and director of the Stanford Voices of California project, described here) and Geoff Nunberg (semanticist, public intellectual commenting broadly in the media on issues […]

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