The Indestructible Sound of Pasadena

In the past few days, my comments on the rise of non-rhoticity in northeastern Los Angeles have garnered a lot of attention. I’ve been variously interviewed, questioned, and hounded for samples. How unfortunate that, in the heat of the moment, I elected to post an article on the feature of California English about which I had gathered the least evidence!

When I did my study, my main focus was the critical differences between the accents of Los Angeles and Pasadena. I’m from Pasadena and have a mild form of the native accent myself. The Pasadena accent is obscure in America, but infamous locally. People I interviewed for the study described it as sounding “ugly,” “mumbly,” and “judgmental,” and I wanted to finally bring some attention to this unique way of speaking.

Unlike Los Angeles, the founders of Pasadena consisted mostly of upper-middle-class people from Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, and Illinois, particularly the Chicagoland Area [1]. This being 1These people would have evinced a very early form of the Northern Cities Vowel Shift, but the speech of later Pasadenans quickly evolved in its own direction. Listed here are the main features of Pasadena English, from most to least common:

1. Backing and opening of “ow” sounds.

In most of the United States, the diphthong in words like “about,” “house,” and “town” is pronounced [æʊ]. In Pasadena, however, native speakers realize this as [æɔ]. Among my samples, the older older speakers did this less, but still did it to a certain degree. Interestingly, this mirrors a diphthong shift in, of all places, Australia. This feature is by far the most widespread in terms of population and area: reaching from La Crescenta to San Gabriel, this isogloss can be considered the border of the Pasadena accent area.

2. Opening of the phoneme [ɪɫ]

This is the most famous feature of Pasadenan English, and the only feature in common with the Northern Cities Shift. In this case, the phoneme [ɪɫ] is pushed back into the mouth until it becomes [ɛɫ]. Hence “milk” becomes “melk,” “pillow” becomes “pellow,” et cetera. Based on the relative spread of this phoneme across different age groups, it appears that this feature was actually much more widespread, reaching as far afield as Burbank, Monterey Park, and Glendora. And perhaps because it is so recognizable, this feature is uncommon among more educated or upper-class speakers. The area in which this feature is present extends from Glendale to San Gabriel.

3. Trap-Bath Split

This is the rarest feature of all. Of the fifty-two samples taken across Southern California, none possessed this distinctive split. Fortunately, others have made note of it and one great Pasadenan is famous for it:

A trap-bath split is a feature in which the normally short a in bath, path, pass, and other words becomes bahth, pahth, and pahss. It is normally heard in Southern England, South Australia, and northern New England. Since completing the survey, I have heard a few people speak this way. A lot of locals say “rah-ther,” but very few speakers say “pahth.” Sadly this looks to be in decline.

So what has kept this accent going for so long, nay, getting stronger? There is no short answer, but it must be noted that Pasadena is very economically self-sufficient.  A great number of the people who live there also work there, and Pasadenans are very proud not to be a suburb of their much bigger neighbour. Furthermore, there are many people who live there their entire lives. My grandpa and I both grew up in northern Pasadena; that isn’t something you often hear in America, and yet I am hardly alone in that respect. Whatever the case, Pasadenan English is alive and well, and shows no sign of disappearing.


5 comments on “The Indestructible Sound of Pasadena

  1. Evan says:

    Thanks. I’m a Westsider, originally from Long Beach, and I have to admit that I’ve never taken note of this Pasadena accent before. And yes, I’d like to hear some examples of the non-rhotic hipster accent!

    • Sam Huddy says:

      The fact of the matter is I did that study for a History of English class last spring and it took an incredible amount of time to do, all my free time in fact. I’m a full-time student with a lot going on, and my time isn’t what it used to be. Obviously there are things out there, like the trap-bath split above, that I didn’t encounter, but the challenge with NELA is that it’s very new, so it has no media presence yet.I encourage anyone with the inclination to go out and find a sample for themselves, but right now I’m sorry I haven’t got it.

  2. David Raether says:

    I am not a Pasadena native, but lived there for 20+ years, and definitely noticed the “melk” pronounciation of “milk.” I actually have noticed myself using that too. This is fascinating.

  3. m.m. says:

    given your use of “indestructable”, i take it you dont think pasadena will succumb to the accent leveling in the area (like the california shift) and remain an accent island?

    a very similar situation occured in cincinatti, where the local accent was different than the surrounding midlands one for decades (it was related to the NYC accent), but now younger speakers are showing consistent consolidation to the surrounding accent, replacing the old local speech.

    • Sam Huddy says:

      The title is a play on “The Indestructible Beat of Soweto,” a 1980s compilation that introduced the wider world to South African pop music.

      As for the dialect itself, it has resisted regional leveling as long as Pasadena has existed, so there’s no reason to suggest an end to it. I do know a few people who have a combination of the Pasadena Shift and the California shift. It sounds very strange.

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