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Ey, watcha! The linguistics of the East LA accent

In Boyle Heights, just east of downtown Los Angeles, you see the history of the city unfold before your eyes.
In Boyle Heights, just east of downtown Los Angeles, you see the history of the city unfold before your eyes.

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For those of us lifelong Angelenos, where we live doesn't just distinguish the types of foods we, but also how we talk.

In a recent article for the Los Angeles Times, reporter Hector Becerra details the East L.A. accent, a Chicano English he said he, as a Mexican-American, took for granted until a phone conversation sparked his interest.

"A couple years ago I got a call from someone who had an Irish-sounding last name," Becerra told KPCC's Patt Morrison on Friday. "He had what I thought was a Mexican-American accent, a kind of multi-generational one — not an immigrant one, and it turns out he’s grown up in Boyle Heights."

What caught his attention was the accent's spread across races and cultures; an expression of identity in neighborhoods where the way of speech reigns, including Boyle Heights, East L.A., Lincoln Heights, El Sereno and City Terrace.

"If I grew up in Boston, I would probably have a Boston accent, even though there's no genetic reason for why I should. If you grew up around the culture, that environment, it's sort of natural that you’re going to pick up the way people speak around you," he said.

According to the Times, linguists propose that Chicano English stems from an indigenous group in Mexico, Nahuatl. Higher vowel sounds mark the ends of words and "ch" sounds are replaced with "sh." L.A. becomes "all-ay," and the word "barely" often substitutes for "just," for example: "I barely got out of the shower."

Becerra interviewed Japanese-American and German-English residents who picked up the accent, and found that they use it with pride. Carmen Fought, linguistics professor at Pitzer College, said the East L.A. accent has avoided homogenizing with other Los Angeles communities because it's a form of expression.

"Dialects and ways of speaking are about our identity. They're joy, they're the way we express our connection to the people in our community," she said.

With the accent comes a stereotype; Becerra said many associate the East L.A. accent with Hispanic gang members, cholos. But he went on to say that they often speak in an exaggerated style.

"Some people that speak with an accent, they use a lot of slang," he said. "But not everybody does that; for some people it's just sort of a sound system that sounds vaguely Mexican in its rhythms and tones, even though the speaker might not actually speak Spanish."

Becerra said that the accent is most prevalent in East L.A. because the region is a "Mecca of Mexican Culture," but similar versions can be detected in San Fernando Valley and other parts of the Southwest.


Have you noticed the East L.A. accent? Do you speak Chicano English? What is it about our city that makes the sounds of its citizens so unique?


Hector Becerra, metro reporter, Los Angeles Times

Carmen Fought, professor of lingusitics at Pitzer College