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Is there such a thing as a Southern California accent?

File: Canary Island palms tower above the city as the sun sets on the popular 20th century symbols of Southern California on Oct. 19, 2006 in Los Angeles.
File: Canary Island palms tower above the city as the sun sets on the popular 20th century symbols of Southern California on Oct. 19, 2006 in Los Angeles.
David McNew/Getty Images

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As part of our new initiative "SoCal. So Curious," we opened up the newsroom to you, our listeners, and asked: What do you want to know?

At the top of the list of curiosities? The Southern California accent.

Listener Bruce Kinley wanted to know: What makes it unique? 

And in case you need a reminder, here are some on screen examples of the California accent:

We searched far and wide to find the answer to this question and ... Well, Professor Penelope Eckert explained it best:

"I don't know if there's such a thing as a Southern California accent. I actually doubt it. I think that it's possible that what we think of as a California accent may be actually stronger in the south."

Eckert is a professor of linguistics at Stanford University and hands down, the expert on the Golden State accent. Yes, there's an expert for this.

That California sound she's talking about is really what most of us think of as Valley Girl-speak:

"What seems to have triggered a lot of the changes in California and throughout the west is a merger between the vowels cot (c-o-t) and caught (c-a-u-g-h-t)."

Basically, she says that in different parts of the country 'cot' and 'caught' are pronounced in such a way that you can actually distinguish them.

Not so in California.

It's part of what Prof. Eckert calls the "The California Shift" and, really, it's about how we rotate our vowels:

"Bit sounds more like bet. And bet sounds a little more like bat. And bat sounds more like bought."

So you take that, then add in the elongating or breaking up of vowel sounds, also known as diphthongizing, which goes a little something like this:

Moovies, so the vowel "oo" becoming "ew". And then we have the vowel in boat going to things like 'bowt' so people say things like "she gows" rather than, "she goes."

And there you have it! The recipe for a stereotypical California accent. This mix, however, calls to mind a very specific type of resident …

So, when people talk about the California accent they're acting as if California were ... Basically a white state. The shift that I describe, this sort of California vowel shift, is really associated with Anglo speech.

But wait a minute – Southern California is made up of so many different people and cultures. That's bound to influence our accent, right? 

Enter Norma Mendoza-Denton, a professor of anthropology at UCLA and associate dean of the graduate division. When Norma spoke to us, she was working on a study to prove a unique Southern California accent might actually exist.

Most researchers would agree that up until now, the public research shows that there's a sort of overarching California dialect and that possibly Southern California is just a part of that. But I think that, increasingly our pilot data suggests that we may be looking at a different accent, but that's still to be determined. We're very excited about finding it.

So, how did Norma go about searching for the SoCal accent? By dispatching 300 graduate students to the LA area and arming them with a map. 

Different neighborhoods of Los Angeles have a little bit of a different ratio of mixing with different varieties that are present. So, depending on the ethnic composition of your neighborhood and its class distribution and all kinds of different social factors, you're going to have a different variety of Los Angeles English.

Back to our listener Bruce, who asked the question, "What makes the Southern California accent unique?"

The answer is .... Not quite clear -- yet.

Mendoza-Denton is working to prove that there is an accent specific to our region, but it might take another year or so.

When that happens Bruce, we promise to get back to you!

Submit your questions about Southern California – anything that piques your curiosity. Community members vote on the questions they want to be answered. Then, KPCC reporters and producers will help track down the answers – with your help. 


To listen to the full segment, click the blue play button above.