Lands of the Setting Sun: One Step Beyond

Furl the Gib

I paced through Córdoba station uneasily. There were no high-speed trains where we were going. Only a slow, winding railway taking us through the Cordillera Antequerana to the southernmost part of Spain. Our journey took us off the electric rail system, past military bases and endless forests to arrive 20 minutes late at San Róque, which looked frighteningly like Orange County. From there we took a cab all the way to our hotel in La Línea de Concepción. We were going to Gibraltar.

Gibraltar is one of the Pillars of Hercules, two mountains on either side of the strait separating the Mediterranean from the Atlantic, and as such, it’s been much fought over. The site of eighteen historical battles, it was finally captured by the British in Queen Anne’s War 309 years ago and it’s been theirs ever since. On the African side of the strait is the Spanish outpost of Ceuta, most famous in the 1970s for a surly border guard who wouldn’t let hippies into Morocco. But that’s a story for someone else to tell.

I wanted to go to Gibraltar because it was on our way, because it was going to be completely different from Spain, and because it afforded me the opportunity to cross an international border by foot, which never happens. The two-mile walk to the border was astonishingly ugly, the road along the beach dusty and unkempt, although the buildings were covered by flocks of giant shearwaters. Between Spain and Gibraltar is a no man’s land a hundred meters across. Naturally, this is where people park. When I passed through the border checkpoint, I excitedly held out my passport, but the guard didn’t even look up. It’s that kind of attitude that’s fostered Euroscepticism is Britain. From the checkpoint we walked across an airstrip, over a drawbridge and through a tunnel, and we were in the heart of Gibraltar.Yo-Ho-Yo-Ho...

For a place that’s so hard to get to, Gibraltar was totally packed, and packed with Britons. Suddenly everybody was paler, fatter, and the women were all wearing makeup. After being in Spain for so long, this was like home. Gibraltar is very proud of its pirate motif; the Gibraltarian pound coin has a skull on it! It’s the skull of a Neanderthal uncovered on the rock, but still! My mom and I had fish and chips– comfortably eating lunch outdoors for the first time in nearly a month. But we had business to attend to on top of the rock.

After procuring a Gibraltarian flag from a souvenir shop, we made the trek to the lift. Nobody shopped here, this is where people lived. The Gibraltarians truly became a people when the area came under threat from the Germans in the Second World War. The caves inside the Rock served as Allied headquarters for the invasion of North Africa, and when the war ended, there was a nation here. Most of the people we saw were from England, but the locals were immediately identifiable by their borderline-unintelligible Rosie Perez-by-way-of-South-London accents.

We weren’t expecting to see many monkeys. I mean, why would they show up for people? But monkeys are not like other wild animals; the moment we got off the lift, there was a monkey and her baby, looking through a poor man’s bag.

Yay Monkeys!

The place was full of monkeys just sitting around, not minding us at all. They were climbing all over the old bunkers, grooming each other, having sex and generally lazing about. After a while, it was time to go, and I had to pull my mom away. She was nearly crying.


The walk back was tortuous; we couldn’t catch a bus to save our lives. By the time we arrived in No Man’s Land, the two miles back to the hotel seemed impossible so we took a cab. My mom was exhausted, but I was composed enough to eat dinner in the hotel. However, I still didn’t have clean clothes, and it looked like I wouldn’t for the remainder of the trip.

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.