How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

California's 'melting pot accent': How a state shaped by migrants speaks

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Immigrants wave flags during naturalization ceremonies on July 26, 2007 in Pomona, California. The state's cultural diversity has an influence on how its residents speak English.

Valley girls and surfer dudes aside, the way Californians speak is influenced by the state's rich cultural fabric, as KPCC and KQED audience members have been telling us. 

Take Two had an interesting segment on the California accent, with Stanford linguist and researcher Penelope Eckert dissecting different examples. They ranged from the clipped English of second-generation Japanese American nisei to the native English of one young, non-Latino white man whose speech was nonetheless influenced by Latinos around him.

On the digital side, KPCC has been working with San Francisco's KQED and The California Report to collect samples of California accents, with some insightful results. 

In recorded comments, people with all manner of accents have talked about stereotypes and how they don't think Californians really have accents, as might be expected. But some have also invoked the way in which migration — foreign and domestic — has shaped the way Californians speak English. 

Antonio Campos, a fifth-generation Mexican American who said his family's roots in California predate the Mexican-American War, talked about how those roots still creep into their daily conversations:

We still use Spanish words a lot of times to describe English phrases. Like instead of "booger," we say mocos: (Instead of) "Oh, your face is full of snot," we'll say "You're all mocoso," but in a very anglicized way. As far as the California accent, it's probably a mix of all different kinds of people who have come here — from Asia, from Latin America, from around the world. 

A woman named Tina from Lakewood, who described herself as the daughter of Mexican immigrants, had a different twist on this influence:

I suppose for most of my life I have been subconsciously aware of the Californian accent I possess. But at the same time, what has been very peculiar to me about comments about the way my accent sounds is how typically California Mexican-American it sounds...I do think that this sort of informs our understanding of the diversity of speech and language in Southern California. 

Bryan Rodriguez of Watsonville talked about the influence of migration not just from abroad, but from other parts of the country:

I think it sounds like people who maybe immigrated here from other countries, one or two generations past the first immigrant generation, and maybe some people who came here, migrated here, from other states like Oklahoma or Missouri.

I know my mother's family came here from Oklahoma during the '30s and early 1900s, and my father's family came here from Mexico in the '50s. So I think you can get just about any kind of accent in California.

Norma Garcia of San Francisco, who described herself as multicultural,  perhaps said it best:

I think the California accent is a conglomeration of a lot of influences. There is no one sound. It's really a melting pot accent. Because I'm multicultural, I would say that my accent can vary depending on the group I'm with, and that is part of being multicultural.

Not everyone brought up the diversity factor, but it's interesting to listen to the accents of those who speak in terms of Valley-isms or, even better, about how Californians don't have accents at all.

One woman from the San Gabriel Valley, who described Southern California speech as "quite straight," spoke with a subtle Asian-influenced cadence heard among some denizens of the SGV. Another woman, a native English speaker raised in the border community of San Ysidro, was one who said Californians didn't really have accents. But she spoke with a slight singsong, not unlike the kind of lilt typically heard in Mexico.

What's your California accent, and what do you think influenced it? Share it here.

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