Lands of the Setting Sun: ¡Yeísmo!

Long Way Back

You’ve got to love Ibn Battouta. A Moorish explorer, he made it all the way to the Philippines, served briefly as a minister in the Maldives, and fought in the Battle of Gibraltar, spent the overwhelming majority of his life abroad, and when he wrote it all down, he made sure to let the reader know he wasn’t having any fun. The man abhorred any culture with topless women. On the other hand, he is on the 5dh coin.

Ibn Battouta Airport was on the windward side of the point of Cape Spartel, in howling wind, and accessible only by a dirt road, though that may soon change. Tangier was neglected under the bad king Hassan II, but it’s experiencing a revival under his son Mohammed VI. It’s still a messy place, but it’s also the fastest growing city on the African continent. This king is popular enough to have his picture in every room in the country, and every kiosk at Ibn Battouta.

This isn't the actual photo. I didn't think to take one at the airport.

First thing I did was get my mom some tea. As soon attendant at the cafe poured it, I picked up the paper cup, rapidly scalding my hand, but keeping my composure long enough to return to the counter and get a second cup for insulation. What I liked most about TNG (besides being one of the few remaining airports where you walk onto the tarmac) was the airline employees. All Moroccan, all pretty girls, all wearing djellabas, the traditional hooded robe of the Moors. We’d seen people wearing them around; it was a bit like seeing a Native American in full shaman gear walking down 42nd Street, except that here it was normal. I stopped in a tiny souvenir shop looking for a flag and they had it: giant, thick and woolen, a real flag like those getting shredded by the wind outside. You could have used it as a blanket. I ponyed up my last 40dh and packed it into my suitcase with the others.

Our flight plan resulted in a two-hour layover at Madrid Barajas, which was creepily identical to Heathrow, built in a style consisting mainly of glass and chrome which my mom likened to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.

“Would you be interested in watching all of Terry Gilliam’s films?” I asked.

“No,” she said, “there’s an insanity risk.”

I grabbed as much food as humanly possible from Medas, mostly ham, and devoured it as quickly as possible before queueing for the connecting flight. “So what are the differences between Castillian and South American Spanish?”

Annoyed by Britons who seem to think anything south of the Potomac is “South America,” I turned around to see a girl of about 15 travelling with her brother. “New World Spanish lacks distinción. There’s no th-sound, though that’s also the case in some parts of Spain.”

“That’s right,” she said approvingly. For the next two hours on the plane, I would catch her staring at me several seats ahead, then pretending she wasn’t, trying not to grin.

But now we were in England, and we had two hours to get to our hotel near Heathrow, catch a bus to the Picadilly Line, thence to the Northern Line, and get off at Camden Town. From there, we made a beeline for Regent’s Park, briefly got lost in some mud, and arrived at the Regent’s Canal. We barely made it, and not only because my mom couldn’t stop laughing at “Cockfosters.” I’d simply forgotten how huge London is.

I’d first heard about this restaurant from David Mitchell’s Back Story. Feng Shang Princess is a fancy Chinese restaurant on a double-decker canal boat, and though Mitchell walked by it all the time, he had never gone in. I was worried it would just be a novelty restaurant but the food was terrific. We were particularly taken by the crispy chicken in mango curry sauce. My mom decided that even though her birthday was in April, this would be my present. A £60 dinner at a restaurant on a boat, from a book, in London.


I never ate the chorizo. It got seized at customs in Los Angeles. You’re not allowed to bring ham in here.

Lands of the Setting Sun: Native Tongues


I was disappointed with Barcelona, but things were already looking up when we got off the L3 at Sants Station. Finding our way from the subway platform to the main station was not easy in a city with few signs and a fierce attachment to an obscure language, but we we weren’t left wanting for long: a little old lady sidled up to us, noticed our suitcases and gave us directions to the platform. I was prepared not to listen to yet another person pointlessly railing in Catalan, but to my astonishment I understood what she was saying– she was speaking Spanish. I thanked her and raced to the main concourse.

AVE is Spain’s high-speed rail system; the line from Barcelona to Madrid is one of their newest, and it is the second-fastest train in the world (the fastest is the LGV-Est in France). One look at a map of AVE makes you wonder how a flat-broke country like Spain can continue to build high-speed rail while America can’t. The United States’ only HSR line is the Acela, which runs from Boston to Washington via New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore. However, it runs on shared track and doesn’t go above 200 kilometers per hour (the Barcelona-Madrid line manages 300). Eight high-speed rail systems are in the planning phases across America, but while California is coming close to breaking ground on exclusive track, the rest are based on marginal improvements like concrete ties and grade separation. In 2011, Republican governors in Ohio, Wisconsin, and Florida actually shut down projects in their states to spite President Obama.

But I digress. Sants Station is in a hideous building, though my mom was spared the indignity of having to see the outside. Instead we waited. Across from us sat a young, pretty girl with fluffy brown hair, freckles, and a trademark Catalan nose. As far as my mom and I could tell, Catalan women all have short noses. She wore a colourful outfit and pulled out a massive book– a George R.R. Martin book, maybe. Accidentally, I had dropped the bottlecap from my coke between my mom’s seat and mine, and the girl gave me a judgmental look as I struggled to fish it out.

“She gave me a look,” I said to my mom.

“Who cares?” she said. “She’s reading a dictionary.”

Our laughter spun out of control, gathering further looks of disdain.

We arrived in Atocha Station, a place that I’d first heard of under unfortunate circumstances in the eighth grade, when Al Qaeda detonated several bombs on commuter trains here to commemorate 2 1/2 years since 9/11. That day in Spanish class we learned the phrase “¡Al Qaeda no pasajaron!”


In the cold we stumbed to Atocha’s 19th-century concourse, a glorious brick edifice with a glass roof and a massive indoor tropical garden. It was 13:00 as I raced to the nearest café, then to the bathroom, then back to the café. I ordered for both of us in my normal Spanish accent and the waitress didn’t even blink. It was in Madrid that I discovered I have a Castillian accent.

I’ve taken five years of Spanish lessons from teachers variously speaking in Andalusian, Mexican, Chilean and Venezuelan accents, but here in Madrid strangers spoke openly to me as if I were a local. Of course, being thin and wearing a tie helped; Spaniards are possibly the dressiest people in the world.

Even in Spanish I’m a posh spaz, I thought. Compared to Barcelona, this was like being at home. Madrid was going to be fun.

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.