Dude, the California accent

Dude, the California accent

by Alison Maciejewski Cortez

Updated November 10, 2022

Now onto our next stop in the American accents map, we’re in sunny California!

California is the largest state in the USA by population and the third-largest by land area. It is also one of the most diverse states. No single ethnic group makes up the majority of the population. 

Residents of California have come from all over the world over the last 170 years. These demographics have affected the California accent. Many Californians don’t believe there is a California accent. 

In this article, we’ll talk about some stereotypes, linguistics and slang that make up the California accent.

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What is a California accent?

If you ask an American about accents in California, they probably will think of two stereotypical accents: the valley girl and the surfer. 

These accents are real and some Californians sound like this, but they are not as common as portrayed in the media. California is home to Hollywood, so a lot of movies, TV shows and music produced there depict a stereotypical California over reality.

The valley girl

Originally made famous by musician Frank Zappa in 1982, the valley girl accent has become synonymous with the California accent. Frank Zappa recorded his daughter, Moon Zappa, talking in her strange accent in the song “Valley Girl”. 

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A valley girl lives in the suburban San Fernando Valley, just north of Los Angeles. She is stereotypically middle class, loves shopping, speaks quickly and says things like: “Oh my god”, “Like, totally” and “Gag me with a spoon.”

The surfer

The archetypal character of the California surfer is embodied by Spicoli from the movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High

YouTube video

The surfer speaks slowly and says things like “right on”, “dude” and “for sure.” The surfer accent is often mocked as the California accent in comedy TV programs like Saturday Night Live.

Linguistic traits of the California accent

There are two major linguistic traits you will find that make the California accent stand out from other parts of the US. These are the cot-caught and mary-marry-merry mergers.

Cot-caught merger

In the California accent, there is often no distinction between the words “cot” and “caught.” 

They both sound like /cͻt/ or the vowel in “hot”. In places like the Midwest and New York, there is a clear difference between these words.

Mary-marry-merry merger 

In the California accent, you are likely to hear all three of these words pronounced exactly the same: Mary, marry and merry. 

The vowel will all sound like the vowel in “red” /rεd/. Mary /mεry/, marry /mεry/ and merry /mεry/. Someone from the eastern United States, however, will make a different vowel sound for each of these.

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Slang and California accent examples

The valley girl and surfer are extreme and rare examples of California accents. Most Californians believe that they have a very neutral accent or no accent at all. Here are some of the most common California slang

California slangMeaningExample
dudeFriend, guyWhat’s up dude?
totallyYes, veryDo you want to hang out? Totally.
For sureyesDo you want to hang out? For sure.
hellaveryThat’s hella expensive.
likeNo meaning – verbal pauseThat shirt is, like, so cool.

Two hundred years ago, California was part of Mexico and you were likely to hear Spanish. California experienced booms in population after gold was discovered in 1849 and after World War II. People from all over the world came to California. Today, it continues to be one of the most diverse states in the United States, with 39% identifying as Latino.

That’s why some Californians may also know a little bit of Spanish given the population and the historical connection. So it’s common to hear Spanish words like buenos días (good morning) or gracias (thank you) sprinkled into everyday conversation.

Like, totally a California accent

The stereotypical California accent has spread around the world through TV, movies and social media produced in Hollywood. But Californians don’t all sound like valley girls and surfers. There are some very common slang and linguistic developments that make the California accent sound different from Southerners or East Coast Americans.

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Alison Maciejewski Cortez is Chilean-American, born and raised in California. She studied abroad in Spain, has lived in multiple countries, and now calls Mexico home. She believes that learning how to order a beer in a new language reveals a lot about local culture. Alison speaks English, Spanish, and Thai fluently and studies Czech and Turkish. Her tech copywriting business takes her around the world and she is excited to share language tips as part of the Lingoda team. Follow her culinary and cultural experiences on Twitter.

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