With the largest population of any state in America, there are a lot of Californians around. Odds are, you’ve probably ran into a Californian or two even if you’ve never traveled to The Golden State (California’s official nickname).
Do you remember what they sounded like? If you don’t, that’s okay!
Most people, even if they’ve met someone from California, still portray (describe someone a certain way) them as sounding like a Valley Girl or Surfer Dude. Screenwriters from the 80s and 90s overused these dialects in countless movies and TV shows.
A variety of other California dialects also made their way onto our screens through the years. Without a doubt, these characters gave viewers a false sense of what a real California accent sounds like. Take this hilarious SNL skit for example.
To understand the California accent, we need to look past the portrayals. It’s important to dig deeper and recognize that California is huge, has a population of nearly 40 million as of 2020, and is the most ethnically diverse state in the US.
Sorry to bring things into reality, but most people in California don’t sound like the entertaining characters on TV. So let’s investigate! Here is our analysis of the California Accent vs California English.
Early Origins of California English
To start, let’s look into some of the history of the West Coast in America.
The United States didn’t add Western states like California, Oregon, or Washington until the mid to late 19th century. In fact, California didn’t officially become a state until 1850—74 years after the beginning of the U.S.
Large populations of English speakers didn’t arrive on the West Coast until events like the California Gold Rush of 1849. Until then, Spanish was the most widely spoken language. But by 1870, English took over as the most popular.
Because of the late migration and the variety of accents and dialects, Californians didn’t have a unified accent until well after World War II. It took a few generations for all the accents to merge into a common speaking style.
But that doesn’t mean the California accent magically appeared. Even until the 2000s, linguists grouped most states West of Texas into a single accent. There simply wasn’t a big enough difference between the speaking styles of California, Arizona, Oregon, Colorado, etc.
Pinpointing California English: Dialects Rule California
If linguists can’t even pinpoint an accent, then how are we expected to define it? That’s the key point of this analysis. The California accent is actually so subtle that most people don’t recognize it at first. It didn’t even emerge until the 1980s.
But before we point out the single distinguishing factor, it’s important to again highlight the ethnic diversity of the state. For many people, when they hear the term California accent, it associates with white people. But only 37% of the state is white.
California has a very large Latin American population (mostly Mexican American) and many people from those communities speak with a Chicano accent. Also, the state is home to a large black population with many who speak in African American Vernacular English.
In addition, California is home to large communities of Asian Americans (specifically Korean, Japanese, and Chinese) who may speak in distinctive accents with their own regional dialects.
Last, recent studies have shown that there is even a difference in dialect between Northern and Southern California. There is also a difference between urban, coastal Californians and those that live in inland, rural areas of the state.
Labeling all the dialects as a California accent wouldn’t make sense. Instead, linguists put them in a category called California English which encompasses (to include) all of the accents and dialects in the state.
So What’s A California Accent Then?
Even now, most Americans would say that Californians have a General American accent. The easiest way to describe General American is: anyone would know that the speaker is from America but wouldn’t be able to place the person as from a specific region.
But linguists are now putting many Californians in their own category because of one factor: the California vowel shift.
A vowel shift means people move their tongue differently when pronouncing vowels. And when one vowel shifts it has a domino effect (one event change starts to affect others) on the others.
The California vowel shift moves vowels forward when spoken. So a word like “right” sounds like “raught,” “time” sounds like “Tom,” or “cot” and “caught” have no difference in sound.
You’ll hear these shifts mainly with younger Californians, and they make up the sound we now know as the California accent. Naturally, it led to many videos on YouTube and TikTok featuring the California accent challenge.
However, this vowel shift is becoming widespread with many linguists citing shifts in Canada, the American South, and cities in Michigan. Also, other cultural dialects have taken in the shift.
Cambridge University did a very extensive study on this shift.
The vowel shift is the only distinguishing factor of a California accent. But if an ESL speaker wants to understand California English, then they need to understand (or at least know a little…) California slang.
The beauty of knowing some California slang is that many of the terms also work or translate into other regions of the country. That’s because the film and TV industry is mainly based in Los Angeles. Many of these terms appeared on the favorite TV shows and movies of Americans and made their way into the vernacular of other regions.
Hella – Originally a Northern California/Bay Area slang word, it made it way down the coast.
It’s a shortened version of the phrase “hell of a lot of” and means “really” or “very”
- The new Leonardo DiCaprio movie is hella good!
Rocking – It means to wear something.
- I’m rocking my new sunglasses today.
Gnarly – It’s a surfer term that means something extreme or shocking. It could be amazing or awful.
- Oh wow, that trash smell is gnarly.
- We found some gnarly waves today!
Stoked – It’s another way of saying excited. It’s a reference to stoking a fire to make it hotter.
- My new jacked just came in the mail today. I’m stoked!
Bro/Brah/Bruh – Shortened term for “brother.” Mostly it means friend, but it can also be used to confront or call someone out.
- Hey bro, what’s going on?
- Yo bro! You need to leave right now!
Bomb – Instead of an explosive device, this term means something is great or interesting. Think of it as an alternative for “cool.”
- These tacos are bomb!
Heavy – Refers to something emotional or depressing.
- Did you hear about John’s brother? That’s heavy…
Rad – Another version of awesome or great.
- That new song is rad!
Sick – Yet another version of awesome or great.
- That play was sick!
Sketchy – Something that’s dishonest or suspicious
- That house over there looks a little sketchy.
Bail – To leave
- This party is boring. Let’s bail
If you’re remotely familiar with American pop culture, you’ve probably heard a few of those terms. However, the most widely used California English term is a variation on the word “like.” Linguists call it a quotative like.
A quotative like is when someone introduces a quote with the word “like” while telling a story. For example, someone could say:
We were at school and she was all like, “I’m not going out with you this weekend!” So I was like, “Well why not?”
Whether you like or dislike that sentence structure, it’s in American vernacular and it’s here to stay.
“The + Highway”
And the final California slang example could be very important for an ESL speaker if you ever travel to the state. It involves the way Californians give driving directions, so pay attention if you don’t want to get lost in the state.
When Californians, especially Southern Californians, refer to a freeway or highway, they put the word “the” in front of the number instead of saying interstate, loop, freeway or highway. So, in Los Angeles, Interstate 10 or 405 would be “the 10” or “the 405.”
I used to live in Los Angeles, so here is an actual example of how I would tell someone to get to my old apartment from Downtown.
Hop on the 110 and exit on the 10 West, and then drive like 15 minutes and exit on Robertson.
Because so much pop culture originates in California, much of the language has spread to other regions of America. So don’t be surprised if you hear many of these words or even a California accent in another part of the country.
California is very diverse, and its effects on the language are always evolving. Monitor your TV set for the next big slang word to sweep the nation and insert itself into the American vernacular.
As always, for all things English grammar, pronunciation, or vocabulary, visit the Magoosh speaking blog!