Thanksgiving weekend is a huge travel holiday, which means many of us will be hearing the accents of friends and family visiting from other parts of the country. You know, Bah-ston, New Yawk, Jaw-juh. But what about us? Is there such a thing as a California accent? A group of Stanford researchers is trying to figure that out. Reporter: Charla Bear
Think you know what a California accent sounds like? San Jose native Stefano Scalya does.
"The joke is that it's this neutral newscaster," Scalya says. "If you watch any of the guys on CNN, they sound like us. So, we're the non-accent."
Stanford researchers say the joke's on Scalya, since everyone has an accent.
So, what is it here?
Penny Eckert, a professor of linguistics and anthropology at Stanford University, says there's no way to tell how Californians truly pronounce words ... at least not yet. A few years ago, she helped launch a project called Voices of California to figure out the local vernacular.
The Wild West of Language
"We realized that nobody really knows anything to speak of about the dialects of the West, and people can say just about anything they want," she says. "And some people were saying just about anything they wanted. I mean, we're all familiar with Moon Unit Zappa's imitation of valley girls, right?"
Eckert says like, obviously, it's pretty far out to stereotype all Californians as having a San Fernando Valley girl accent. But there aren't many examples of what "authentic" California speech is.
So the Stanford team started recording lists of words and interviews with native Californians of all ages and races, as long as their communities have been here a few generations to establish a local dialect. They decided to kick off the project in the Central Valley.
"Of course, when people think about California, they always think about L.A. and San Francisco," Eckert says. "There's a big difference between coastal California and the rest of California.
Surfing the Central Valley
Jon Coley, who was born and raised in Bakersfield, says there's no doubt in his mind that people talk differently in his hometown than other places in California.
"I knew that answer before they even asked me that," he says.
Coley says he volunteered to give the researchers a tour of Bakersfield to help them see things they might otherwise miss, such as how much Oklahoma influence the city has because of the Dust Bowl migration.
To him, it doesn't make sense that his out-of-state friends think he talks like Spicoli from the movie "Fast Times at Ridgemont High."
"Beach people talk real funny to me," Coley says. "I don't even know how to swim, or I don't even live near water. So, I don't know how I could be a surfer."
Stanford graduate student Annette D'Onofrio is still studying Coley's speech but says, so far, he sounds more like a Southern boy than a surfer to her. Especially when she asked him to read a few key words.
"He would say the word pull or pool, but it sounded like pool," she says. "I couldn't tell which word he was saying. Same with gym and gem."
The researchers say mergers, words that have traditionally been pronounced differently but have lost their distinction, are common throughout the Central Valley.
Eckert says the valley is certainly not homogeneous, though. On its northern tip in Redding, the team found hints of the Pacific northwest.
Creating a California Accent
She says picking up a little bit of the northwest and mixing it with some of the south is part of how California is carving out its own accent. But speakers here might also be inventing something entirely new.
The Stanford team says Californians are changing the way certain vowel sounds are pronounced. Take the word "boot," for instance. Eckert says speakers here have turned the "oo" sound into a diphthong by adding the vowel sound in "bit" to the beginning. The result sounds more like "bi-oot."
She says these pronunciations are so innovative, they're worthy of their own title: "the California Vowel Shift." Linguists attribute the change to the Bay Area, L.A. and other coastal cities.
"If you try to think about what you think a surfer or a skater or a valley girl talks like, and do it, you can feel your mouth feels different," D'Onofrio says. "And I think that has to do a lot with the way that the vowels are shifting."
Yep, she said it. Stereotypes like in Saturday Night Live's sketch "The Californians" might be over the top, but they're not entirely off base.
Of course, the team has only done a few hundred interviews, not enough to know how widespread these dialects are yet. One thing they do know is that people will try to talk like those they want to bond with. So the accents we choose help us create our California communities.