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.


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.