Writer and amateur linguist Sam Huddy published a blog post this morning that caught our eye. Entitled “Is Los Angeles Becoming Non-Rhotic?” the post delves into what Sam suspects are the early days of a new accent blossoming in NELA, especially among young people. We did a quick Q&A with Sam to learn more about our city’s changing speaking patterns…
When did you first start noticing the NELA accent?
I went to high school at Don Bosco Tech in the mid-2000s, and our main rival was Cathedral High School in Downtown LA. I used to go down there a lot in my free time, and I’d often run into the Cathedral kids on the Gold Line. And hearing their accent was very startling. I knew Angeleños and Pasadenans sounded different, but I’d never heard anything like this. For a while I lived in San Francisco, so when I did my study in the spring, I’d begun to think I’d imagined it all along. But I was wrong. Not only were a lot of the people I interviewed aware of it, for the first time I was encountering people talking like that who weren’t wearing Cathedral uniforms! Somebody in Echo Park called it a “hipster accent.” Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get samples of those people. They were either working or on the move.
What’s your background in linguistics?
I’ve always been interested in accents. I’ve read books about the history of the English language and sometimes I’ve acted in student films, so I’ve always been fascinated by those little differences and how to get them just right. Last semester at Pasadena City College I did a survey of accents in Southern California. It was far from comprehensive, but a lot of the region has gone unstudied. I went all over the place; it was really fun and the results were very interesting. I only got one non-rhotic sample in that study, but I made a note that there were more.
You describe the potential accent as “non-rhotic”. What does that mean?
A non-rhotic accent is one in which speakers don’t pronounce the “r” sound at the end of a syllable. Most speakers put the “r” back in if the next word starts with a vowel, i.e. “Staht the cah” but “my car is in the shop.” You can hear non-rhotic accents around the East Coast, Wales, most of England, and most countries that were part of the British Empire.
What would be some sample words whose pronunciation in “NELA Hipster” would differ from the standard California pronunciation?
The thing is that non-rhoticity is still not terribly strong; I have a friend now who speaks this way strongly and she only drops her coda r’s about 50% of the time. But people are more likely to drop it if it comes after certain sounds, like the unstressed schwa in better, the o in door, and the a in hare. My friend rhymes carefree with Jeffrey.
Is there an obvious continuing evolution to this accent? In other words, what’s possibly next?
As far as I can tell, there aren’t any other linguistic features that make these speakers unique.
Is there a standard California accent?
The “standard” California accent is essentially the same as Nevada, Oregon, or Arizona. People pronounce the letter u way up in the front of their mouths, and the vowel in law is the same as in spa. But there are a few pockets that are different: Pasadena, where I’m from, has a bunch of oddities, and San Francisco sounds more like Philly or Baltimore than the rest of the state. The “valley girl” speech is very sing-song-y, it’s more a matter of inflection than pronunciation, though the stereotypes you hear in movies like Fast Times at Ridgemont High or Clueless do hit that letter r really hard. In linguistics that’s called a long retroflex alveolar approximant.