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.

Videopunk, or, The Zen of KLCS

Not long ago, I wrote an article singing the praises of the Public Broadcasting Service. Today is the day to shed some light on PBS’s darker side. I speak, of course, of KLCS.

My first acting job was for KLCS. When I was three months old, my mom tried to get me acting work, but it wasn’t happening. Luckily, my dad was transport commissioner, so I got to be in a documentary about the rebuilding of the Southland’s public transit infrastructure. My mom and I were the token white people on the blue line.

KLCS is the official television station of the Los Angeles Unified School District, and as such most of its programming was exactly like Look Around You, except that instead of 1978 it was 1993. Its creepy dullness and retrograde production values hypnotized many young children who grew up to become videopunk artists– aficionados of the VHS aesthetic. It’s something understood by everyone who spent their childhood savouring the first tear into the gold wrapping paper of a fresh Matsushita JVC cassette.

A typical day’s programming would start off with some ancient educational films, seemingly all of them about the history of mathematics. But that was before dawn; what most people first saw was a blue screen with a list of programs and the current time. There would always be music in the background: usually Sting or Maxi Priest, which they could get away with because the programming was “for educational purposes only.” The music was always loud enough recognize, but not loud enough to enjoy.

Suddenly, you’d be treated to live video footage from the Los Angeles School Board. In effect this meant three hours of parents complaining about the quality of their kids’ education and being shouted down by a very bored-looking old black lady. Noon is where things got freaky, starting with animated tags so terrifying they put the old Talkback Thames logo to shame:

Don’t get me wrong, all TV production company logos in the ’80s were creepy. The difference here is that the shows themselves were like that too. First was a quietly radical talk show called Tony Brown’s Journal. Look it up on YouTube lest my comment section get too ridiculous.

After that was a surreal yet technical kids’ mystery show called Ghostwriter that had a surprising number of prestigious guest stars. Like many shows of that time, everybody I knew thought they were the only person who watched it, but it’s found a new life on the internet.

Finally the day concluded with some even more surreal documentaries on the LAUSD itself. It’s possible that they were all the same film because they always included the following things:

  • A scene of kids in Watts dancing to New Jack Swing in a school auditorium.
  • A shot of the train passing through LA’s South Side.
  • The narrator raving pessimistically in monotone.
  • “Candid” on-the-street interviews of people staring blankly at the camera and speaking in a similar monotone.

Clearly, the LAUSD had made these videos, but it was impossible to tell why. They were extremely critical, and there was no intended audience or even a detectable reason to make them.

Personally, I think it was genius. I think it somebody woke up one day in the late ’80s and said. “Kids these days have long, boring lives ahead of them. I’m going to make them crazy. Someday they’ll thank me.”

This has been a rare moment of uncritical ’90s nostalgia.