Is Los Angeles Becoming Non-Rhotic?

Rhotic and Non-Rhotic accents in the United States

They missed a spot. And I don’t mean Cajun Country.

If you speak to one of the younger waitresses at Phillipe’s downtown, or perhaps ride the Metro Gold Line on weekday afternoons, you’re likely to hear something pretty strange: teenagers speaking a variety of English that is decidedly non-rhotic.

This has been the case for at least five years, but when I did my linguistics survey of Southern California in the spring of 2012, it had been so long since I heard it that I started to think I’d imagined it. Not so.

Because this accent is most prevalent in northeastern neighbourhoods like Highland Park and Eagle Rock, it is sometimes called a “hipster accent.” Others have referred to it as “Cockney.” But where does it come from? The first possibility is that this is the result of British media, which has more exposure in the United States than ever before. But if this were the case, other features of British English would be part of the dialect, which they aren’t. However, just the dropping of r’s has a profound effect on how Angeleno speeech is perceived. Compare “gnarrrly” to “gnahly,” and you begin to understand why some locals accord this new accent a certain level of otherness.

The second possibility is something called reactionary broadness, wherein local inhabitants of an area subconsciously exaggerate their native accents to distinguish themselves from recent transplants. However, this would require non-rhoticity to be an old feature of Los Angeles English, which it never has been.

The third is that this is a hypercorrection of the long retroflex r’s evinced by stereotypical “valley girls” and “surfer dudes,” stereotypes that have morphed from the mere spoiled brats of Amy Heckerling’s films to the uncultured and ignorant. Below is a clip of Irish comedian Dylan Moran explaining why “stupid Americans sound more stupid than other stupid people.” He then imitates what sounds to me like a Los Angeles accent.

Granted, Few accents of American English have changed as rapidly and dramatically as Angeleno. If the demographics of the early American settlers are anything to go by, this area originally sounded quite southern. By the time of movies and radio, Los Angeles speech was very close to General American, which can still be heard in some older, rural, or Jewish speakers. The arrival of the cot-caught merger appears to have occurred sometime in the 1940s.

When I told my professor about this accent, she suggested a link with African American Vernacular English, unaware that local AAVE is rhotic and the East Side is only 2% black. And despite the new accent’s association with the East Side, the only non-rhotic samples I collected were from Altadena and Sherman Oaks. All of the speakers I’ve found are middle-class white people (including hispanics and Jews), from middle-class white areas, with rhotic parents. All are under the age of 30. This may soon be the new sound of Los Angeles, but how long it will take for our media’s image to adjust to that is a mystery.

Wither Two and a Half Men?

Okay, this will require some explaining.

Two and a Half Men was until recently the most popular comedy on American television, which is amazing because it’s truly, truly awful. It’s so terrible that it’s never even appeared on British television before 2009, and even then it was only on cable. Considering Heroes was shown on BBC2 to the very end, that’s quite an accomplishment.

Originally, the show was about a divorcée (Jon Cryer) who with his son moves in with his creepy commercial-jingle-writing date-rapist brother Charlie Sheen. I should add this is a show for families. For the longest time, the show was based around unimaginably convoluted dirty jokes, not double-entendres but single ones. Now that Charlie Sheen is gone, Ashton Kutcher is there and he’s just…there. The show has managed to suck dozens of otherwise talented people into it’s orbit; I’m sad to say it’s the most recent thing I know Martin Mull to have performed in.

I should say that Two and a Half Men is not the worst show on television; amazingly there are hackier shows like Whitney but those tend not to last very long. This show has been on for nine years. It’s also not terribly broad humour, from what I’ve seen of it there’s astonishingly little visual element to the jokes, or there weren’t. Presently there are no jokes, just people fighting with a laugh track put in. The awfulness is not inspired, it isn’t something you could enjoy ironically because there’s nothing there. That something like that is so popular defies understanding until you realize it’s on CBS, and thus most of the people “watching” are in fact elderly people who have fallen asleep. It is one of the least-watched shows online.

I say all this because for a show to be so highly rated and yet completely reviled is unprecedented, so there’s no telling what legacy Two and a Half Men will have. My cousin recently posted that as a “nineties kid” her generation was the generation of Family Matters, as if that was a good thing. Of course Family Matters was a kids’ show that was cleverly not marketed as one, and we know kids will watch anything. Furthermore, Family Matters was essentially of its time, whereas Two and a Half Men is embarrassingly disconnected from its own (it looks like a failed one-off from 1998).

So what does Two and a Half Men have to offer the bored college students of 2020? It has no concept, no jokes, the creators are accordingly cynical and breathtakingly misogynistic, it doesn’t reflect the era in which it was made outside of a general skankiness, and there’s nothing unintentionally funny about it. It holds no social currency, it doesn’t really have “fans” in the way far lower rated shows do. There’s nothing to see there. In all likelihood it will be completely forgotten, like most of these. But I secretly hope it will serve as a cautionary tale:

Kids, don’t let your parents fall asleep with the TV on.