A Southern California Accent? As If!

(File photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

What does a Californian sound like?

We all know the cliche — a mix of surfer dude, Valley girl and carefree spirit — encapsulated to perfection by Saturday Night Live.

Professor Penelope Eckert, a professor of linguistics at Stanford University (from our newsroom we'd take the 110 to the 5 to the 152 to the 101 to get there), is the hands-down expert on the Golden State accent. Yes, there's an expert for this.

"I don't know if there's such a thing as a Southern California accent," Eckert said. "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."

By south, she means SoCal. By SoCal she means mainly Los Angeles. And if L.A. is known for one particular dialect, it's 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)," she explained.

Basically, she said 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, which is part of what Eckert calls the "The California Shift," which has to do with how we rotate our vowels.

With this rotation, "bit" sounds more like "bet;" "bet" sounds a little more like "bat;" and "bat" rolls toward "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."

There's the recipe for a stereotypical California accent, but Eckert said it brings to mind a very specific type of resident: white people.

"The shift that I describe, this sort of California vowel shift, is really associated with Anglo speech," she said.

But Southern California is made up of so many different ethnicities and cultures, which is bound to influence our accent.

That's what Norma Mendoza-Denton is working on. She's a professor of anthropology at UCLA and associate dean of the graduate division looking to prove a unique Southern California accent actually exists.

"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," Mendoza-Denton said. "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."

To home in on the SoCal accent, Norma dispatched 300 graduate students around L.A. and equipped them with a map.

"Los Angeles English" may be determined by things like a neighborhood's ethnic composition and many other social factors, she explained.

So for now, what makes the Southern California accent unique is not totally clear — yet.

Editor's note: A version of this story was also on the radio. Listen to it here on KPCC's Take Two.