“You guys,” all about the Pacific Northwest accent

“You guys,” all about the Pacific Northwest accent

by Alison Maciejewski Cortez

Updated November 10, 2022

Let’s move along on our US accent map to the Pacific Northwest (PNW). Famous for its beautiful coastline, forests, mountains and… accent? Hmmm. 

Many people think that there is no Pacific Northwest accent, but people from the PNW definitely sound different from the US’s east coast. The Pacific Northwest accent has a lot in common with California and a little bit in common with Canada. 

While it might not be the most obvious accent in the United States, let’s talk about how people sound in the Pacific Northwest.

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Is there a Pacific Northwest accent?

Many locals will say there isn’t really a Pacific Northwest accent. Oregonians may not think they have an Oregonian accent. The same goes for Seattleites (someone from Seattle) with a Washington accent. But to outsiders, there is an obvious difference between someone from the east, middle, south or west in the United States. The difference between a Pacific Northwest accent and a California accent, on the other hand, is subtle.

The Pacific Northwest of the United States includes Oregon, Washington, Idaho, parts of Montana and sometimes southern Alaska.

This and other western parts of the United States didn’t have early British colonies like on the east coast. The PNW didn’t have an aristocracy that copied British culture and accents. People migrated to the Pacific Northwest from other parts of the United States and other countries beginning in the early 19th century. 

Chinook Jargon

The Pacific Northwest has many indigenous cultures as well. There are 49 federally recognized indigenous tribes in the area. To communicate with European traders, a pidgin language developed in the Pacific Northwest in the 19th century called Chinook Jargon. It is still used today and influences place names in the area.

What does Pacific Northwest English sound like?

So, is Pacific Northwest English that different? Does a Seattle accent sound different from a Portland accent? Maybe. Research about accents in the area is ongoing

The first thing to know about how the PNW accent sounds is that it is rhotic (pronouncing all the r’s) and has fewer vowels than the east coast of the USA.

Cot-caught merger

Secondly, speakers in the Pacific Northwest pronounce the vowels in “cot” and “caught” exactly the same. This is known as the “cot-caught merger” or the “low back vowel merger” that we see in the California accent as well. It can be heard in words like:

  • Don – dawn
  • Bot – bought
  • Pond – pawned

Mary-marry-merry merger

Third, the Pacific Northwest accent demonstrates simplified, fewer vowels like with the “mary-marry-merry merger.” Someone from the PNW likely pronounces these vowels exactly the same. 

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Similarity to the Canadian accent

Fourth, two things make this accent similar to the Canadian accent: Bag-beg merger and saying [oʊ] and [eɪ] as monophthongs. Pacific Northwesterners may pronounce the vowel in “bag” and “beg” exactly the same. This also occurs in the word “egg” /ahg/. 

The PNW accent also pronounces the [oʊ] in “boat” and [eɪ] in “bait” similar to Canadians. 

No Canadian Rising

Finally, you can hear that with Pacific Northwesterners, the /aɪ/ and /aʊ/ do not rise in tone. Most Canadians have a subtle rising pronunciation such as “price” /pry ees/. Someone from the PNW will not use a rising diphthong. They pronounce this more like a Californian than a Canadian.

Who has a PNW accent?

A famous example of how people speak in Oregon is the show Portlandia. Listen to the characters and see if you can detect the accent. Bill Gates is another famous Pacific Northwesterner from Seattle, Washington. 

YouTube video

How to do a Pacific Northwest accent

Using the tips above, try out some slang unique to the Pacific Northwest. Here are a few examples.

The mountain is outIn Seattle, it means the weather is good/clear and you can see Mount Rainier.Is the mountain out? No, it’s going to rain.
Muckamuck; muckety-muckFrom Chinook Jargon, meaning the person in power.Who is the muckamuck at that company?
The bridge is upAn excuse for being late.Sorry boss, the bridge was up.
PDXAirport code for Portland International Airport, but is now shorthand for the city itself.She’s in PDX this weekend. I saw the carpet photo on her Instagram story.
JojosWedge french fries.Can I have a side of jojos with my burger?
You guysYou all (plural you).You guys want to get some jojos?

How to sound like a muckamuck

It may not be as easy to spot the Pacific Northwest accent on TV the way you can with a New York accent. The PNW has a fairly neutral American accent similar to other regions of the western United States. There is some colorful slang too. The next time you’re late in the PNW just tell them the bridge was up.

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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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