With the Voices of California project, Stanford linguistics professors and students aim to discover and document the diversity of California English.
By Ed King
The Humanities at Stanford
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 s 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. Regarding maps from previous dialect studies, Eckert said, "It looked as if nobody spoke English west of the Mississippi."
Stanford linguists eventually decided that they had a unique opportunity to document what California English sounds like. "A bunch of us," said Eckert, referring to the three professors and about a dozen graduate researchers in the group, "realized one day that if we don’t do it, no one will."
Central Valley focus
Eckert’s team has been documenting the breadth of California dialects for the last two years. Each September, a team of 10 to 15 Stanford linguists heads off to record how Californians speak. In previous years, the group has visited Merced and Redding; this year they are focusing on Bakersfield.
The team spends about 10 days in each city ing residents who grew up in the area. They talk about themselves, their lives and their communities. The researchers record these free-flowing conversations, along with a list of words designed to elicit specific pronunciations.
The list includes, for example:
Wash, because some people pronounce it "warsh."
Greasy, because some people pronounce it "greezy."
Pin and pen, because some people pronounce them the same.
"We were trying to come up with ideas about what the major regional differences are in the state," said Katherine Geenberg, a doctoral candidate in linguistics who has worked on the project since its inception. "The California imagination is popularly defined by two preeminent coastal cities, so we thought moving inland might be a good idea."
Besides examining what makes California English different from the rest of the country, the Voices of California project also looks at the diversity of language use within the state. The project’s current focus on the Central Valley began, in part, as a way to find out about California beyond the stereotypes of Hollywood celebrities and surfer dudes.
The researchers focus not only on differences in slang (known as lexical variation), but also on pronunciation (phonology) and ways of wording sentences (syntax). Lexical differences are often the ones that people are quickest to notice.
"Most people have an idea of slang differences between NorCal and SoCal," said Geenberg, who cited "the 101" as a Southern California way to refer to the freeway and "hella" as an especially Northern expression.