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.

14 comments on “Is Los Angeles Becoming Non-Rhotic?

  1. Jason Reid says:

    Do you have any clips of this alleged non-rhotic Angeleno accent? I’d very much like to hear it.

    • Sam Huddy says:

      I certainly could get some and post them in a follow-up, but I’d have to record them myself; due to the newness of this accent there is a (to my knowledge) total lack of notable speakers.

      But keep posted!

      • Oz says:

        As I live in that exact neighborhood, go places where this demographic frequents (assuming you mean college aged, as “younger waitresses” is not really a demographic), and have never heard this at all, I too would like some definitive example.

  2. […] 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 […]

  3. Raffi says:

    There is a distinct accent that has formed at Armenian High Schools across Los Angeles as well. It’s not their parents accent, not an Armenian accent, it seems influenced a bit by valley and by latino accents… it’s worth a study as well.

    • Sam Huddy says:

      That might be the California Vowel Shift. It’s similar to Canadian English and there’s a whole website dedicated to it.

      In reality, it’s something I only hear very rarely. I’ve heard it called a “gaycent,” since it seems to be a stereotypical accent of gay men in the media. I don’t know why.

      • m.m. says:

        Theres a paper by Robert J. Podesva: The California Vowel Shift and Gay Identity, where he suggests gay men might participate in the shift as a means of conveying things like ‘fun’ or ‘laid back’, which if true, people could easily associate their usage as general gay style speech, and not specifically tie it to western vowel shifted speech.

      • liŋgwɪst says:

        Glad to have come across your site!

        Have to say I’ve lived and spent much time in the Silver Lake/Echo Park/Eagle Rock/Mt. Washington/DTLA/etc. areas and never heard any nonrhotic accents–would love to geek out with some recordings.

        And to be just ever-so-slightly nitpicky, it’s virtually impossible that you only rarely hear the California Vowel Shift. 🙂 Having lived all over urban California it’s happening all around (and Penelope Eckert has confirmed it’s not simply restricted to Northern California, which is simply where she resides and works).

        However, as with any vowel shift it’s a continuum whereby many of its participants are less progressive along the lines of the change led by the trailblazing progressive speakers whose vowel realizations are the furthest along. Regardless, even for those of us who don’t quite yet have, say, [ˈbæɾɚ] for “better” (and for whom that would still sound pretty “out there”) we’re often perhaps at least part of the way (and of course the nature of such shifts is that they increasingly become “the new normal” to the degree that while we may very occasionally notice extreme shifters’ speech, we don’t realize our own gradually shifted vowel realizations. This process has been well documented in other shifts such as the Northern Cities Vowel Shift, for example).

        Keep up the good work and the insightful listening! 🙂

      • mfh says:

        raffi is totally right onto something. there is definitely an armenian-american accent forming out of the 70s/80s/90s diaspora, kids of immigrants, found in LA county (not sure if exclusive to LA county) and very very common. it manifests differently in boys and girls too. but they’re all kids who grew up learning english as their first language perhaps simultaneously with armenian spoken at home or hearing very accented english from their parents and within the community, plus yeah some valley and chicano inflected accents (girls more valley). i’ve even heard the accent in non-armenian girls who grew up in glendale in the 80s/90s through today and gone as far to ask them if they were armenian based on their accent. super recognizable. i don’t know what it is, but it’s definitely unique from the California Vowel Shift (though there might be some elements in common).

  4. Neo-Hessian says:

    Interesting that there’d be a British influenced accent coming out of Northeast L.A. One would expect it to come out of Santa Monica, the most British influenced (and most Anglo) part of the L.A. area. One sometimes hears Santa Monica area native residents using British slang terms not commonly found in California English but I’ve never heard of non-Brits around there sounding British.

    Northeast L.A. has very few UK expats, so there isn’t much direct exposure.

  5. […] Is Los Angeles Becoming Non-Rhotic? « The Writer Sam Huddy Young, white middle-class LA eastsiders are starting to talk like they’re from Boston. […]

  6. jb234md says:

    This clearly isn’t taking account for the number of New England transplants in Los Angeles and their influence in the community.

  7. Jesus Hermosillo says:

    Any updates on this? Fascinating subject.

    • Sam Aronow says:

      Unfortunately in this arena, I’ve since gone to film school, worked two years in Hollywood, and moved to Israel, so hopefully someone else out there is carrying the torch for Southern California’s regional dialects.

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