The Spread of the California Dialect

The Spread of the California Dialect

Like the English spoken in the United Kingdom, American English has several regional dialects. Most of us have heard the term Standard American English—but what is Standard English? We often think of Standard American English as proper, and used primarily in broadcasting or in professional or academic settings. Natalie Baker-Shirer, an accent coach, claims that “Standard speech is spoken nowhere in America. It is based on British Received Pronunciation, which was adopted by linguist William Tilly. You can hear the ‘Standard’ American English in old black and white movies.” (“Standard American English” 2005). Professor Jeanette Gilsford of California State University at Long Beach also concludes that a standard for spoken American English may never be achieved due to its vast diversity of Englishes and the cultural and ethnic backgrounds of native English speakers (368-71).

However, it is evident that aspects of American English dialects and lexicons spread across the country and globally. Because English is a global business language and is the foremost producer of movies, certain “Americanisms” have spread throughout the world. As the epicenter of film as well as one of the most prominent states, California has become the leading trendsetter in the American English Language. From the gold rush to the days of the Valley Girl, Southern California’s social dialect has found its way across the nation and is beginning to take hold of other English speakers around the world.

California is the most ethnically and linguistically diverse states in the union. According to Bucholtz, Bermudez, Fung, Edwards, and Vargas, California has the largest population of Spanish speakers and Asians in the United States (328). Though the languages of the indigenous natives have nearly died out, California retained much of the influence of the original natives as well (Bucholtz et al. 327). According to the interactive map “Languages of California,” place names such as Encino (from the Inceno tribe), San Louis Obispo (from the Obispeno tribe), Ventura (from the Venturano tribe), and Mojave Desert (from the Mojave tribe) are named after the indigenous people that were eventually wiped out (2010). This pattern of incorporating a native language into the dominant language of settlers can be seen throughout the history of the English language. For example, the word literature is rooted in the Latin word littera, from which we also get the English word letter (“Literature” and “Letter”). Because of the invasion of the Spaniards in California, much of the native words were altered into Spanish, as can be seen in the names of several cities like San Louis Obispo and Ventura.

Though Spanish has been spoken in California for over 250 years, English became the primary language after the Republic of California voted to become the 31st state to join the Union in 1850. Though Spanish is still very prominent and common in the southern portion of California, the English dialect of California evolved due to a vast westward movement during the Gold Rush and the migration of Midwesterners between the 1930s and the 1960s (Bucholtz et al 328). Though English was the official language of California, the Spanish influence on California English remained. Newcomers from the east began to use the word patio in place of porch and the term plaza took hold (Delaney 2010).

Bucholtz et al. also notes that the large Asian population was primarily the result Chinese who arrived too late for the gold rush, though more recently there has been a growing population of Japanese, Filipino, and Vietnamese (328), though their languages have not had a large effect on English. More recently, California dialects have been studied according to region such as Northern California, Southern California dialects. Carmen Fought, argues that because the migration of the Midwesterners were primarily in the northern region of California, the dialects between Northern California and Southern California evolved according to the culture and dialect that they brought with them (Bucholtz et al. 328). In the latter part of the nineteenth century, the black population began to increase, but a significant population of African Americans in Southern California did not begin until the early to mid-twentieth century (Bucholtz 328). This migratory influence on the dialects of Southern California is evident in the growing trend of Ebonics in the Los Angeles area (Bucholtz 329).

As noted in the article “Early Modern English (c. 1500- c. 1800),” the printing press was a primary factor in determining standard spelling and grammar (2011). The advent of common literacy led to a widespread use of words and phrases had not been used in some of the dialects of Britain prior to the printing press. The same can be said today with the commonality of television, movies, and the internet as widespread sources of communication.

Terms such as ‘goner’ and ‘pan out’ stem from the California Gold Rush, but are now commonly used terms not only across the nation, but globally as well. A simple Google search of “he’s a goner” will bring up a plethora of sports commentary and articles from sites such as,, and Surprisingly, the phrase search also brought up an article on in reference to political events. This California colloquial term refers to someone whose case is hopeless. According to the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, this term was coined in 1850. Another simple google search of the phrase ‘will pan out’ led to an article titled “Leader: How will new Isa pan out?” published by on 25 March 2015. This term was coined in 1868 and means to succeed, but was originally used in reference to gold panning. I posit that these terms gained popularity along with the fascination of “the Wild West” and the Western Dime Novels written between the 1870s and the 1920s. Even Berlin, Germany shares a fascination with the Wild West and the California gold rush. Old Texas Town is an amusement park of sorts in the great city of Berlin. Visitors will find three saloons, an Indian campground complete with teepees, a western chapel, a museum, and a blacksmith among a variety of other ‘Western’ goodies such as a gold panning site. According to Joel Stonington, “the obsession comes from the works of Karl May, a German writer who penned dozens of Old West novels in the late 1800s and early 1900s,” which explains why I have seen many “Country Western” bars in Bavaria.

However, idioms and colloquialisms from the gold rush are not the only words and phrases to take over the world. The 1950s brought television sets to nearly every middle class American home. In this era, the surf scene was beginning and was spurred by the obsession of Hawaii and its eventual inclusion as a state in the Union. Television shows such as “Gidget,”—a popular television series about a young surfer girl, played by the beloved Sally Field, and her single father, played by Russell Lawrence,—were gaining in popularity. Soon a plethora of surf and beach themed movies would sweep the nation. By the mid-1960s, surf themed music would be played on nearly every radio station across the U.S. Thus begins the fascination with Southern California.

What began as a dialect (or slang) for the youth of the greater Los Angeles and Orange County areas, Valley Girl speak quickly spread in popularity with the parody song “Valley Girl” written by Frank Zappa and performed by his daughter, Moon Unit Zappa (Bucholtz et al. 326, 339 and Delaney). In Zappa’s parody, a Val—a girl who lives in the Los Angeles Valley—talks to friends about a flirty teacher, her mom, and going to the dentist. She uses phrases such as “Like, Oh my God!/ Like—Totally/Encino is like so Bitchin” and “Anyway, he goes are you into S and M?/ I go, oh Right./I’m sure! Like No way!” (Zappa, 1982). Though many of the terms such as bitchin have fallen out use, the phrase oh my God and the use of like have spread throughout the world. It was not only Zappa’s song that spread Valley Girl Speak across the nation. Movies such as Valley Girl, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and Night of the Comet among others (including any 1980s film with Molly Ringwald) feature prominent use of Valley Girl Speak.

You can see the usage of Oh My God! nearly everywhere on social media today in the revised form of OMG. Though you will not often hear this phrase on the nightly news or see it in a newspaper or journal article, it is definitely present in everyday language, especially among younger English speakers. It is entirely possible that even though the heavy use of this phrase originated in the Valley Girl speak, the popularity across America may be attributed to the popular television show, Friends.  Janice Litman, a recurring character on the show, often said “Oh. My. God!” whenever she got excited or was surprised (1994).

More notable, however, is the use of the word like in American English and among other English speakers worldwide. What was once strictly an annoying and overused word by the youth of Los Angeles Valley and Orange County, like has made its mark on social Englishes.  In 1982, Mary Corey and Victoria Westmark published their book,  “Fer Sure! How to Be a Valley Girl—Totally!” which spurred the growth of the Valley girl lingo. This book instructs the reader how and when to use words, including like. Like was to be used before a preposition or to introduce a thought. For example, one might say “She was like with him at the mall!” or “I was like I can’t believe she did that!” (23).  It can also be used to modify an exclamatory word or phrase, such as “It was like totally rad!” or “Like Wow!” (23). As a combatant to the overuse of this annoying word, Dr. Lillian Glass, a known body language expert, published her book,  How to Deprogram Your Valley Girl in 1982.

Obviously, the 1980s teens were not deprogrammed. What was once deemed a passing fad soon made a vigorous insurgence into dialects across the nation and around the world.  In less than twenty years, the word like can be heard in speech in New York, Canada, and even in Germany (Tagliamonte 2014 and Tagliamonte and D’Arcy 2004). According to Tagliamonte and D’Arcy, “the rise in the [quotative] be like has been considered a case of grammaticalization in progress” (495), primarily due to the multitude of substantive research on the subject over the past twenty years.

Tagliamonte (2004) explains that “grammaticalization is the process by which grammatical morphemes develop out of earlier lexical forms” (496) or in other words, it is the morphing of a sociolinguistic word or phrase that becomes a grammatically functioning word or phrase in language. In this case, she argues that be like can function as a grammatically correct introductions to a quotation (508). For example, it can be used to introduce dialogue in replacement of say or think.  Below is the first example of be like used in placement of say and think.

  1. a. Even though I have the shirt, I’m like, ‘I’m going to blend in today.’

I was like, ‘but I won’t.’

        And we were like,  ‘No, you won’t.’

In the example above, I thought would normally be used in the first and second sentences and said would normally be used in the third sentence.  However, Tagliamonte and D’Arcy argue that the use of say and think are “becoming less frequent” in today’s common speech. Though the use of like is not as frequent as it was in Valley Girl speak, it has managed to spread quickly to Canada, the UK, New Zealand, and Australia (Tagliamonte 225).

Tagliamonte argues, “the impact on language of media is surprisingly difficult to substantiate” (229) and that “a distinction between broadcast and communication media…does not suit the contemporary facts” (223-24) while Sayers argues that research on media and language “should ideally compare spoken language in the world to spoken language in the media” (Tagliamonte 225).  I would have to agree with Sayers’ statement because media extends well beyond the boundaries of standard television.  Media encompasses not only television, but also includes radio, music, movies, the Internet, and books.  According to the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, media is any format or medium used to “cultivate, convey, or express” an idea or rhetoric.

In this case, I posit that the spread of the California dialect is a direct result music, television, and movies. Though it is argued that because English has not been predominant in California “long enough to develop the kind of dialect that is apparent in the East Coast and Midwest” (“American Varieties: California English” 2005), the California dialect certainly has made an impact on both American English and Global Englishes. In fact, Christopher Mulvey stated, “english is biological” and that “a closed and finite rule system is inadequate for the description of natural and cultural language,” furthermore, even though language has, in the past, changed gradually, that is primarily due to the lack of frequent connection outside of one’s own region.  It is therefore plausible to argue that with the globalization of American media sources and videos on You-tube or Facebook that the English language has evolved at a faster rate than ever before.

In summation, we may not know what English will look like in one hundred years, but what we do know about our language is that it is ever-changing and evolving. What began as an Indo-European language has morphed into Old English, Middle English, and finally into Modern English.  But, would Shakespeare say that the language we speak is ‘Modern English’?  Perhaps we ought to start calling it Early Contemporary English as it has evolved quite a bit over the past 300 years. California has lent its golden tongue to the American and global Englishes. What was once considered a fad, use of the word like and the phrase Oh my God! are seemingly here to stay.

Works Cited

“American Varieties: California English.” PBS.Org. National Endowment for Humanties. 2005. Web. 30 March 2015.

Bucholtz, Mary, Bermudez, Nancy, Fung, Victor, Edwards, Lisa, and Vargas, Rosalva. “Hella Nor Cal or Totally So Cal? The Perceptual Dialectology of California.” Journal of English Linguistics 53.4. December 2007. 325-52. Web. 21 March 2015.

Corey, Mary and Westmark, Victoria. Fer Shur! How to Be a Valley Girl—Totally!. Los Angles: Bantam Books, 1982. Print.

Delaney, Robert. “A Dialect Map of American English.” Long Island University. 23 October 2010. Web. 19 March 2015.

“Early Modern English (c. 1500- c. 1800).” The History of English (2011), Web. 16 Mar. 2015.

Gilsdorf, Jeanette. “Standard Englishes And World Englishes: Living With A Polymorph Business Language.” Journal Of Business Communication 39.3 (2002): 364-378. Business Source Complete. Web.  4 Apr. 2015.

Glass, Lillian. How to Deprogram Your Valley Girl. 1982. 28 March 2015.

“Goner.” Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary 11th ed. Springfield: Merriam-Webster. 2011. 538. Print.

“Languages of California.” Survey of California and Other Indian Languages. 2010. Web. 6 April 2015.

“Literature” Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary 11th ed. Springfield: Merriam-Webster. 2011.726.  Print.

“Letter”  Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary 11th ed. Springfield: Merriam-Webster. 2011. 713.  Print.

“Media2”  Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary 11th ed. Springfield: Merriam-Webster. 2011. 770.  Print

Mulvey, Christopher. “The Development of English” An English Project Talk. Winchester: (2010). Web. 15 Mar. 2015.

“Pan Out.” Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary 11th ed. Springfield: Merriam-Webster. 2011. 895. Print.

“Janice Litman from Friends: ‘The One With Barry’s Wedding’ 1994.” Internet Movie Database. Web. 8 April 2015.

“Standard American English.” PBS.Org. National Endowment for Humanities. 2005. Web. 30 March 2015.

Stonington, Joel. “Why Are Germans So Obsessed With the American Wild West?” 3 March 2014. Web. 4 April, 2015.

Tagliamonte, Sali and D’Arcy, Alex. “He’s Like, She’s Like: The Quotative system in Canadian Youth.” Journal of Sociolinguistics. 4 August 2004. 493-514. Web. 21 March 2015.

Tagliamonte, Sali. “Situating Media Influence in Sociolinguistic Context.” Journal of Sociolinguistics  18 February 2014. 223-32. Web. 23 March 2015.

Zappa, Frank. “Valley Girl.” 1982. Web. 28 March 2015.

2 thoughts on “The Spread of the California Dialect”

  1. You need to watch a show called America’s Secret Slang, and you will find that the American Language was, and is, influenced by all parts of America, not just the over-rated California. It’s actually fascinating how the different cultures all contribute to the language we use here. A professor I had in college said that within 150 years we will need a translator to speak to people in the UK because of how quickly our versions are changing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. First, thanks for taking the time to read the essay. Not many people actually want to read academic writing unless forced to so. 🙂

    Secondly, I know that the language is not only influenced by California. It would have been at least a 50-page essay if I were to cover every state and regional dialect. This is an assignment piece, and since I grew up in the area noted in the essay, I chose to write on the topic of So Cal influence. And, I am sorry, but I do not think that California is “over-rated.” I have lived in several states, and each one had its own charms and downfalls. I have lived in New Mexico, Kansas, and Colorado and have family in Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Washington State. I have visited several other states as well. But, no matter where I am in the world (currently Germany), Southern California will always be my home.

    I do think, however, that English is becoming more blended and that regional colloquialisms and lexicons in speech as opposed to professional language use will always continue to change and make English one of the most interesting languages for study.


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