California English

Your Linguistic Profile:

75% General American English
15% Upper Midwestern
10% Yankee
0% Dixie
0% Midwestern
What Kind of American English Do You Speak?

This table shows my own breakdown of American English (hat tip to Spencer Speaks). I thought this survey was fun; but I doubt it has much real value.

This notes that my speech is 75% “General American English.” I think this term is referring to California English. When I personally hear other Americans speaking, I am very alert to their regional accents. This stems, perhaps, from my interest in and experience with foreign languages. When I hear a person who “doesn’t really have an accent,” in other words, speaks this General American English, it is because they are speaking California English. This is what my mom speaks–and she is from California. My Dad also speaks “without an accent” even though he is originally from rural central Utah. But he has a lot of education, including a doctorate degree, which I believe ameliorates and eliminates the small-town Utah speech of his own parents and brothers from his speech.

It is a curious phenomenon that California English should be termed “General American English” in a survey like this, in other words, that people think of “General American English,” i.e. Standard American English, when they hear California English (although they might not realize that what they are hearing is California English). The reason this is curious is because California is so new, so how could the English spoken there be representative of “General American English”? I would argue that it is because of the Entertainment Industry. With many (most?) movies and TV shows coming out of Hollywood and California, together with the large population of the state itself, the variety of English that was once just another regional variety, i.e. California or Western American English, has become the standard since the middle of the twentieth century. Before that, I would guess that New York English or Northeastern American English was equated with “General American English.”

Or am I smoking crack here in thinking that what is generally considered “General American English” is really California English? (Just a note: the same phenomenon has happened in Germany where regional dialects were even more pronounced than in the USA. There, Hochdeutsch (“high German”) actually is supposed to refer to the dialects of Southern Germany, i.e., in the “high” altitudes. It is very different than the Hannover German which is now referred to as “high German” in the sense of educated and/or accent-less German. Even though popular usage (mis)labels such German “high German,” this is a misnomer. It is more accurately called Radiodeutsch, or “radio German,” under the same logic as above: that the entertainment industry has streamlined to some extent the language so that one variety–in Germany it is the German spoken around the Hannover area–is now considered standard or educated German and other dialects are considered “accents.”)

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20 Responses to California English

  1. J. Stapleyt says:

    80% General American English
    10% Upper Midwestern
    5% Dixie
    5% Midwestern
    0% Yankee

    I think you are right that media is the determinant. There is also the focus on Mid-Atlantic speach in the fine arts.

  2. Anonymous says:

    This quiz-thing is solely vocabulary-based. I believe the “standard” accent for radio and TV is midwestern.

    Ben S.

  3. Ben is absolutely correct. The problem with the quiz is that is it vocabulary-based. Californian’s vocab is more “general American” because the state is such a melting pot of the other regions of the country.

    And Californians totally have accents. I do. We’re lazier with our vowels.

    Generally people who don’t have “noticable” accents are educated persons who speak more-or-less with the “standard” midwestern accent. Or in other words the equivalent to BBC English in England or Radiodeautsch in Germany.

  4. Steve H says:

    You say that you recognize your Mother’s speech as being without an accent. I recognize people from Arizona as having no accent. My wife, believe it or not, recognizes people from Utah as having no accent. The reality is that no one has no accent. I know, that’s a double-negative and the way you read it probably has something to do with the variety of English you speak, but people like Michael Bakhtin and others in lingusitc theory posit that unified language is always only theoretical. What that means is that “standard” english doesn’t even really exist as a constant phenomenon. What’s more important, it would represent, at best, a more politically and socially advantageous variety of English with it’s own accent, vocabulary, and nuanced meanings. So, the long and short of it is that everyone has some accent, and you are probably more condiitoned to hear those with accents close to your own as having no accent. The same could most likely be said about voacbulary. You probably don’t think of anything you say as particularly dixie–unless you happen to be wuoting the Dukes of Hazzard or singing Alabama songs under your breath.

  5. john f. says:

    William, Ben S., I understand the flaws in the study but still thought this concept was interesting. I see where Ben S. is coming from but wonder about the validity of the continued assertion that Standard American English is still considered Midwestern English. Because of the entertainment industry, it seems that the California variety of English is now more standard than the Midwestern variety.

    Of course you can still find the individual Californians, particularly uneducated or lazy ones, with idiosyncracies in their speech. Many have lazy vowels, as William points out, others swallow their Ts or make them into a glottal stop when between vowels. But to a large degree, imagine comparing the random Missourian or Kansan to the random Californian. I would think that the former have more of an “accent” when compared to “Standard American English” than the latter.

  6. Steve H says:

    50% General American English
    25% Yankee
    15% Dixie
    10% Upper Midwestern
    0% Midwestern

    OK, I know I just posted a long comment, but I just did the survey, and found something interesting. I had two repsonses to almost every question. Also, I knew which one I would say in what situation, and I had a sense of which I was supposed to want to say, which says some interesting things about how I grew up in Pennsylvania, moved to Arizona, went to college and learned that everythign I learned to say when I was very young was not as correct as what I learned in grammar textbooks, but that there are still certain people I wouldn’t ever speak to in “standard” english, even though I happen to be an English professor, because to those people I’m not an English Professor. When I’m in PA, it’s a cellar and a buggy. When I’m in Laie with other professors, it’s a shopping cart and a basement.

  7. Or there are those of us Californians who are neither lazy nor uneducated but simply do not affect a “standard American English” accent.
    ;-)

    In terms of the entertainment industry, the actors, TV journalists, etc. who are part of the LA scene aren’t necessarily Californian. Indeed, once they achieve a certain measure of success, they have acting coaches who will make sure they speak with the correct accent [if they haven't already achieved one via their own efforts and/or stage training].

    There are obvious exceptions — and certainly California’s influence via the entertainment industry has lead to the spread of dude-speak and up-talk to other regions.

  8. john f. says:

    Steve H., you make some really good points. I also knew the reasons behind most of the questions, and what the answers to most of them would signify. Still, I answered them honestly based on what feels most comfortable to me.

    I grew up in Dallas and so many people act amazed that I have no trace of a Texas accent or diction at all. But since my parents were speaking Standard American English, I was shielded somehow entirely from that regional dialect, even though many of my friends and their parents spoke with it, as well as my elementary, junior high, and high school teachers.

    William, good point about actors and such receiving coaching on proper American English. I am still skeptical, however, about the assertion that Midwestern English and not California English is General American English. Does this mean that many (most?) Californians are speaking Midwestern English while people in the Midwest are speaking in their drawls and dialects?

  9. Ronan says:

    50% general american
    25% yankee

    That’s the results a Brit got (me). But on some of the questions I wouldn’t have chosen any.

    We call accentless English “Received Pronunciation” (RP) or “BBC English”. I think that’s how I speak. Rebecca has a slight Midlands accent.

  10. J. Stapley says:

    Uh, Ronan, unless you do math a little differently across the Atlantic, 25% and 50% add up to 75%.

  11. Mabel Maybe says:

    If you dialect map the United States, you’ll see that the East Coast, where people historically migrated in from, has much smaller dialect regions, and the dialect areas are larger in the west, which drew from people from several dialect areas, and other languages, in the great land grab, homestead act.

    The differences between California speech and Oregon speech are more subtle than the differences between Boston and New York. Californians are not lazy with vowels–they speak a dialect with a fewer vowels. In other parts of the country, “caught” and “cot” are not homonyms.

    I grew up in L.A. and went to school with industry people. California actors do train to recover lost vowels and speak the prestige dialect, which is what people speak in university towns, and it’s not the Midwestern accent.

  12. john f. says:

    Ronan, when living in England, I was also aware of people’s accents. I think you are right that you have less of a Midlands accent than Rebecca, but I still notice somewhate of a Midlands accent in you too.

    Just Joanna, when I speak of California English having become what Standard American English (although I would doubt that when people hear such Standard or General American English they would realize that it is actually California English) this is not to deny that California has its own regionalisms. The dropped vowels are one of them, as are the glottal stop Ts. So it is true that such idiosyncracies are not figuring into my equation of California English and Standard American English. Perhaps education is really the key, since the educated Californians is less likely to evidence those distracting regionalisms than is the uneducated. The same could be said of all regions. The question, perhaps, revolves around what forms the base regional speech pattern for Standard American English, and not which regional dialect itself is Standard American English. So the argument could remain that California English now provides the base, rather than Midwestern English or any other regional American dialect.

  13. Anonymous says:

    John:

    Yes, that is exactly what the question is. What forms the base?

    According to Wikipedia [not an authoritative source, but one that was easy to find]:

    “Most traditional sources cite General American English (occasionally referred to as Standard Midwestern) as the unofficial standard accent and dialect of American English. However, many linguists claim California English has become the de facto standard since the 1960s or 1970s due to its central role in the American entertainment industry; others argue that the entertainment industry, despite being in California, uses Midwestern. Certain features which are frequent in speakers of California English, particularly the cot-caught merger, are not often considered as part of the standard.” 

    Posted by William Morris

  14. Anonymous says:

    And here’s the link to the Wikipedia article on California English  

    Posted by William Morris

  15. Anonymous says:

    Wow, I hadn’t read that Wikipedia article, but it looks like I was essentially arguing the same thing with regards to California English solely based on anecdotal evidence from my own experience. 

    Posted by john fowles

  16. Anonymous says:

    I am far too lazy to look this up, but some years ago I read an article in one of the news weeklies about this very topic and it identified the English spoken in the Great Basin region as being “standard” American English. Utah, of course, lies right smack in the middle of the Great Basin. Now that I have lived outside of Utah for a decade, I strongly disagree.

    I think standard American English is more of a socio-economic phenomenon than a regional one. 

    Posted by Chris Williams

  17. Anonymous says:

    65% General American English
    15% Upper Midwestern
    10% Dixie
    5% Midwestern
    5% Yankee

    Hm…not very educated am I?  

    Posted by lyle stamps

  18. Anonymous says:

    I can almost hear your cockney accent when you say that. 

    Posted by john fowles

  19. Anonymous says:

    70% General American English
    10% Upper Midwestern
    10% Yankee
    5% Dixie
    0% Midwestern

    I grew up in Orange County, CA, during the late 1970s through 1990s. My perception as an adolescent was that kids at my high school (Newport Harbor) spoke differently than people who attended schools in cities adjacent to mine (i.e. NHHS in Newport Beach vs. Edison High in Huntington Beach vs. Estancia High in Santa Ana). Within Orange County alone I have witnessed what I perceive to be different dialects based upon socio-economic differences between communities. I would like to change this “perception” into knowledge one way or the other via further studies in linguistics, American English dialects and even idiolects (especially of celebrities) perhaps caused by “isolation” attendant upon increasing usage of/involvement in internet chats, video games and other technologies divorced from real-time conversations with actual human beings. This discussion brings to mind the question of not just how Hollywood and “the media” affect how people talk but how different peoples’ languages and dialects cause the to see the world in different ways. What does language and dialect have to do with perception of reality? Does one’s perception of reality change when one speaks different languages and dialects of languages? How do shifts in one’s perception of reality instigated by language changes relate to shifts in one’s perception of reality caused by utilizing written as opposed to spoken languages? 

    Posted by Michelle R

  20. [...] online American English quizzes, not dissimilar to the one I blogged about nearly two years ago here in which the quiz concluded that I spoke “General American English” which I further [...]

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