Northern Californian English: Hella Different?

May 31, 2014 by

As discussed in earlier posts, Northern California, and especially the Greater Bay Area, is demographically, culturally, economically, and politically distinct from the southern part of the state. Are there differences in the speech of Northern and Southern Californians as well? Accents and dialects take time to form, but while English has been spoken in the eastern part of the United States for several centuries, yielding vastly different regional accents, it came to California quite recently. English-speaking settlement began in the early years of the nineteenth century, but it’s reasonable to say that stable communities did not form until considerably later. According to linguist David De Camp, even as late as 1940, speech of Californians was indistinguishable from that of the East Coast residents. If anything, there was – and to some extent still is – more differences among the different racial, ethnic, or social groups, such as African-Americans, Hispanics, Whites, gays, rich and poor, and so on. Moreover, while some linguistic features cut the state into North and South, other peculiarities split California into coastal and inland areas.

One well-known difference between the speech of Southern and Northern Californians concerns highway nomenclature (note that Californians are peculiar in using the term freeway where most other Americans would say highway). Southern Californians refer to their freeways using the definite article the: “the 405 North” or “the 605 (Freeway)”, and so on. Northern Californians do not use the; hence, when driving up from Los Angeles to San Francisco, one gets on the 101 (pronounced ‘the one-oh-one’), but gets off of simply 101. By the way, Northern Californians typically refer to freeway exits by name rather than by number. Another major road connecting Northern and Southern California is actually named differently in the two parts of the state: in Northern California, State Route 1 is called “Highway 1” or simply “One”, whereas in Southern California, it is called the Pacific Coast Highway or simply “PCH”. Pardon, the PCH…

The distribution of these contrasting nomenclatures is irregular and complicated and, according to the Wikipedia article, “indicates the extent of integration with the Greater Los Angeles economic sphere of influence”. Along Highway 101, the shift occurs at the Santa Ynez Mountains; residents of Santa Barbara County speak of “the 101”, but those of northern San Luis Obispo County omit the. Along Interstate 5, this border is less clear. Residents of Bakersfield, over the San Gabriel Mountains from Los Angeles, speak of “the Five” and “the 99”, but not residents of Fresno. Towns in the Mojave Desert tend to use the at least as far as Las Vegas,  indicating the city’s notable historic ties to the Los Angeles area. Residents of San Diego, the Imperial Valley, and Phoenix, Arizona follow Southern California usage as well.

Another lexical – and to some extent, even grammatical – peculiarity of Northern Californian English, hinted at in the title of this post, is the use of the novel intensifying quantifier hella (and its more euphemistic version, hecka). It is most frequently found in the discourse of young speakers in the San Francisco Bay Area, as discussed by Rachelle Waksler of the San Francisco State University. This word is unusual in several respects. First, it can used as an adverb similar in meaning to ‘very much’, ‘so’ or ‘really’. In this syntactic function it can modify either an adjective or a verb, as in My dad was hella mad and I hella didn’t know what he said for so long. But unlike other intensifying adverbs such as very or really, hella can also quantify nouns. In this function it is unusual too: most quantifiers in English are limited to certain groups of nouns such as mass nouns (e.g. much sand but not many sand), count nouns (e.g. many boys, several boys but not much boys), or even just singular nouns (e.g. each boy, every boy but not each boys or every boys). Unlike those other quantifiers, the new intensifying hella does not care about the mass/count or singular/plural distinctions. It can appear with a mass noun, a count plural or singular noun, as in the following examples:

I bought hella cat food last week and it’s all gone now!

Dude, there were hella freaks at the Civic Center last night.

There’s been hella crackdown on pharmacists.

In this, hella is similar to the standard English a lot of. But even a lot of cannot appear in front of another quantifier (nor can any other quantifiers in standard English). But hella can, as in You have hella too many CDs that you don’t even listen to! Semantically, hella seems to express the speaker’s opinion that the amount or degree in question is larger/higher than some contextually determined expectation, similarly to such expressions as whopping, as in a whopping hundred megabytes.

pin_pen_mergerDifferences between Northern and Southern California are not purely lexical, as some involve pronunciation of certain sounds, especially vowels. Some pronunciation differences between the two parts of the state can be explained by earlier settlement patterns. For example, the Bakersfield area in Southern California, settled heavily by migrants from Oklahoma and Arkansas in the 1930s, is known for its pin-pen merger (that is, pronouncing pen the same as pin), which is typical of the Southeastern quadrant of the United States.


cot-caught_mergerConversely, in the San Francisco area the cot-caught merger (that is, pronouncing cot the same as caught) is still incomplete. In most of the Western half of the U.S. the two words are pronounced the same, probably as a result of a southward spread of an earlier Canadian pronunciation peculiarity. In San Francisco, however, older speakers tend to retain the pronunciation difference.




Another set of pronunciation idiosyncrasies is often associated with Southern California, or more precisely with the speech of white, rich, (pre-)adolescent girls known as “Valley Girl Talk” (where the “valley” in question is the San Fernando Valley in northwestern Los Angeles). However, as Stanford linguist Penny Eckert has shown, many of these pronunciation features – and some additional ones – are found in the speech of some Northern Californians as well, so she dubbed it “Northern California Vowel Shift” (though perhaps a better term would be “Coastal California Vowel Shift”), by analogy with the Great Vowel Shift, which happened in Renaissance England, as well as several other ongoing regional changes such as the London Vowel Shift, the Australian/New Zealand Vowel Shift, the Northern Cities (Great Lakes) Shift, the American Southern Shift, and the Canadian Shift. As do these other vowel shifts, Northern California Vowel Shift involves systematic, coordinated changes in the pronunciation of vowels in certain lexical sets—one can think of them as a game of “musical chairs” played by the vowels in the mouth. These changes are schematized in the diagram on the left.*

First, unusually for such vowel shifts, two vowel phonemes, /ɪ/ as in pit and /æ/ as in pat undergo the so-called nasal split: their pronunciation differs depending on whether the following sound is a nasal. Before /ŋ/, /ɪ/ is pronounced with a higher position of the tongue, so that for example the vowel in king is pronounced the same as in keen, rather than as in kin, as in all other varieties of English. In other contexts, /ɪ/ has a fairly open pronunciation, so that did sounds more like dead; this is in effect the opposite of the pin-pen merger. A similar bifurcation characterizes the vowel /æ/ as well: before nasal consonants (n, m, ng) it becomes a diphthong, and the first part of the diphthong is shifting towards /iy/, so that stand sounds more like stee-and. Before other consonants, it shifts in the other direction, making hat sound like hot elsewhere in the U.S.. However, as has been shown by Prof. Eckert, not all of these changes necessarily happen together: according to her, most Anglo speakers in Northern California (those who exhibit the shift at all) show a split between /æ/ before nasals, which fronts and raises, and /æ/ elsewhere, which lowers and backs. Chicano speakers, however, show lowering and backing of /æ/ before non-nasals, but far less of a nasal split, and many show no split at all.

As is the case with other vowel shifts, such as the Great Vowel Shift or the Northern Cities Shift, the various changes subsumed under the heading of Northern California Vowel Shift are interconnected: as one vowel encroaches upon the space of another, the adjacent vowel in turn experiences a movement in order to maximize phonemic differentiation. For example, the short-u vowel in look is shifting towards /ʌ/, as in luck (this is exactly the opposite of the pronunciation characterizing most Northern England dialects/accents). To keep the two sets of words distinct in pronunciation, the vowel /ʌ/ shifts towards /ɛ/, so but sounds like bet. But now the ʌ-pronounced-as-ɛ must be distinguished from the original /ɛ/. As a result, the /ɛ/ shifts toward /æ/, so that bet is pronounced like bat. And what of the original /æ/? As mentioned above, it acquires the long-a quality as in father. In addition, the pronunciation of the vowels /u/, as in boot, and /ow/, as in boat, has shifted forward, accompanied by the unrounding of the lips; a similar process happens in the Southern Vowel Shift, as well as in the Midwest and other areas of the Western U.S. Thus, boot sounds more like bi-oot and boat – like be-oat.

Unlike the more widespread and well-established Northern Cities and Southern Shifts, the Northern California Shift is still in its infancy stage, and is therefore not found in the speech of all Northern Californians, and certainly not to the same extent. As is typical for historical, dialectal pronunciation changes, the Northern California Shift probably started as a sociolectal marker, most common among younger, female speakers of a certain social class (think of the snooty girls of Legally Blonde). In the case of certain components of the Northern California Shift, their conscious association by Northern Californians with the frivolous speech of Valley Girls, “surfer dudes”, and other Southern California types (and sometimes even with “gay talk”) may actually slow down the spread of this shift in Northern California. Another problem with describing these changes is that they are rarely noticed by average speakers. Luckily, advances in speech technology, such as the availability of high-quality recordings and computerized spectrographic analysis, allows researchers to document even subtle distinctions in pronunciation, not easily detected by the ear. Being able to record long stretches of natural conversations also allows researchers like Prof. Eckert to avoid the problem of denial; people whose speech is being studied are often blissfully unaware of the peculiarities of their pronunciation, and sometimes explicitly deny that they pronounce certain words in a certain way. If asked to pronounce a certain word, moreover, they often veer away from their own natural pronunciation and instead give what they think is the correct pronunciation.**



* This diagram is meant to represent the so-called vowel space, that is the positions of the tongue in articulating the various vowels. The left side of the diagram represents the front of the mouth closer to the teeth, the right side of the chart being the back of the mouth. The top of the diagram represents the high position of the tongue (and the lower jaw), and the bottom of the diagram – the low position.


** This is true not only of pronunciation peculiarities and not only in English. For example, one study showed that many Russian speakers who used the so-called “second genitive” u-forms (e.g. butylka konjaku ‘a bottle of cognac’) in natural speech, vehemently denied using them when interviewed.


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