SAN FRANCISCO (KRON) – There’s a Southern accent, a Boston accent and a Jersey accent, but is there a California accent? That may be the wrong question to ask, says one linguist.
“Everyone has an accent is the standard answer every linguist will give,” said Teresa Christine Pratt, a linguistics professor at San Francisco State University.
Nonetheless, there are certain speech patterns that are more California-specific than others. One, for example, is uptalk, which Pratt describes as “ending a phrase with a higher tone.”
Others include so-called “creaky voice,” which is “often associated with the Kardashians or Britney Spears,” and the frequent use of the word “like” as a filler word.
Pratt said that often when we think of accents, we associate them with a character or stereotype in our heads (what she calls a “language ideology”). For example, the aforementioned speech patterns are associated with the fabled “Valley Girl” from Southern California’s San Fernando Valley.
“The particular ways young people pronounce vowels in California is connected to the idea of the Valley Girl, though it’s young people all over the state,” Pratt said. “Everyone is changing [vowels] across the board, but because we have this Valley Girl image, it gets mapped on to her.”
Is there a San Francisco accent?
In 1984, native San Franciscan Carl Nolte wrote a column in the San Francisco Chronicle insisting on the existence of a native San Francisco accent. Features include:
- Running together the names of cities: Sanfrancisco, Sannazay (for San Jose), Thecity
- Never calling it Frisco or San Fran
- Pronouncing coffee “CAWfee”
Some of these vocal patterns are collectively called “Mission Brogue” and it has features similar to East Coast accents like those native to New York or Boston. According to Pratt, when we hear an accent of this kind, “the distinct thing we are all reacting to” is the use of the letter “R.”
“When you hear someone say ‘stor’ instead of ‘store,’ what you’re hearing is the R,” she said. “When people are imitating a New York or a Boston accent, they play with the R.”
These accents are particularly associated with Irish immigrants to the United States and their descendants. From the Gold Rush until the mid-20th century, San Francisco’s south of Market and Mission neighborhoods were largely populated by Irish Catholics who often came by way of East Coast cities.
Other features, such as running together names of familiar places, are common to many different styles of speaking.
“It’s what you do when you speak casually,” she said. “At a formal occasion, you’d be more attentive to pronouncing words individually.”
The origin of ‘hella’
Few words are more associated with the Bay Area than “hella.”
UC Berkeley linguist Geoff Nunberg postulates “hella” originated in Oakland’s Black community. Pratt said that that’d make sense because “linguistic creativity starts among Black speakers and often is co-opted” later by the white community.
“I tend to defer to people who grew up here,” she said. “I moved here 10 years ago and only now feel comfortable using it.”