Stanford University linguistics graduate students Marisa Casillas, left, Janneke Van Hofwegen and Ed King go over field recordings they collected from residents of Redding. They are analyzing the state's regional accents for the Voices of California Project.

Stanford project looks at differences, origins of California accents

Published: Sunday, Nov. 18, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 3A
Last Modified: Sunday, Nov. 18, 2012 - 3:09 pm

Dude, you probably know where L.A. is: down the 101.

Where are you most likely to hear this? Linguists will point to technical clues – the long "u" and use of "the" – yet the rest of us might also guess correctly: Southern California.

Voices from other corners of California, however, are not this easy to place. Experts have studied accents in urban and coastal areas of Southern and Northern California (yes, there is one here, from common words like "hella" to what linguists call our tendency to perform a "nasal split" on certain vowels), but until recently they largely have overlooked a swath of the state's population.

This fall, as part of an effort to remedy that, researchers from Stanford University traveled to the Central Valley to gather spoken language from men and women who live in Bakersfield. It was the third excursion they've made as part of the Voices of California Project, which includes faculty and graduate students from the linguistics and anthropology departments focused on understanding how English is developing and changing in the state and documenting it for future generations. Along the way they hope to challenge some common perceptions.

"People want to point at other people and say who is educated and who is not," said Janneke Van Hofwegen, a graduate student in linguistics who is one of the researchers. "We all have accents. None is better than others. We hope to shatter the social power dynamics and hierarchies" that are associated with accents.

In the first two trips, researchers fanned out across Merced and Redding, interviewing people in community centers, coffee shops, senior centers, schools and homes. They found young and old, ranchers, musicians and homemakers.

A team of researchers brought back more than 100 interviews from each location to Stanford. The interviews are transcribed and run through a computer program that helps analyze and measure small pieces of sound, giving researchers a detailed look at the use of vowels and consonants.

From there, they hope to learn more about diversity and Dust Bowl migration patterns in the Valley.

"I do think there is a different use of language in the Central Valley," said Ed King, a graduate student researcher. "People there sound like they're more from the southern U.S., Mississippi, Arkansas. I don't hear that influence so much on the coast."

Results are preliminary, but researchers say they are hearing accents distinctly different from coastal areas, with elements from the Midwest and the South. In one, for example, older white men use a "hissy sound" for "s" that sounds more like "sh." They aren't sure yet if women pronounce it in the same way, or if ranchers in the middle of the state sound different from people who live in town.

They are also hearing sentence structures less common on the coast – from the double negative ("I don't have no apples") to the "positive anymore" (as in "I shop at Safeway anymore.")

The accents hold clues to history, and also to identity. The researchers gave subjects a list of words to pronounce, and spent time with them, asking about family roots and gathering personal stories. They talked about raising kids and growing up in the Valley.

In addition, they asked interview subjects where they would divide the state, which revealed how they see themselves in relation to the rest of California. While coastal Californians tend to see north and south as the great dividers, Central Valley residents appear to see themselves as part of regions that don't include the coast.

In other words, "California doesn't start and end in Los Angeles," said researcher Roey Gafter. "There is huge diversity in the state. ... People use (the word) California as shorthand for the California coast."

As they dig further into language patterns, the researchers also notice how these influence social dynamics. Some people think their accent makes them seem less educated, while others are proud of the way they sound. And then there are those who insist – like their counterparts on the coast – that they have no accent.

"People will say, 'We don't have an accent,' " said King, who once believed that about himself, growing up in Chicago.

He later noticed that his fellow linguistics students in California looked at him funny when he pronounced certain words or vowels.

"But from my perspective," he added, "people in California do have an accent."

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Read more articles by Katherine Seligman

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