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December 31, 2012 6:56 AM   Subscribe

What is the native San Francisco accent? That is, the accent that San Franciscans had in the middle of the 20th century. Was it as distinctive as a Boston or New York accent? This is a question that I've pondered on and off for a while...


This article from 1984 in the SF Gate discusses the San Francisco accent in detail and how it is disappearing.

The first thing to go is the language. Despite everything you've ever heard, there is a distinctive San Francisco way of talking and it is important to make note of it, for the record, before it becomes as dead as Latin. Here's how to talk like a San Franciscan...

It then notes that "With any luck, you might catch Russ Coughlin, also on KGO-TV. He is a graduate of Mission High, and has the last pure San Francisco accent on the local airwaves.

Well, here's some video with Russ Coughlin so you can hear yourself. What is remarkable is that he sounds a lot like another old time native San Franciscan that I've met before - Roger Boas. They both have an accent that I would have described as East Coast/New York-ish. Anymore instances of this accent? Is there more scholarly documentation on this?
posted by vacapinta to Writing & Language (15 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
 
David DeCamp's 1953 Ph.D. dissertation The Pronunciation of English in San Francisco seems like it might be relevant. It was also published in Orbis as two articles, 7:372–391 (1958) and 8:54–77 (1959). I can't find it online.
posted by stebulus at 7:38 AM on December 31, 2012


There's an awful lot of eye-dialect in that article (things like "twenny fourth" and "workin' man", which are perfectly normal pronunciations all over the US), so I'd take its claims with a sizable grain of salt. Also, a deep knowledge of local place-name conventions, geography, and lexical items isn't at all the same as a unique accent.

There's a Stanford dissertation from Lauren Hall-Lew (PDF) that might be relevant - here's her description of her research. You might also be interested in the Voices of California Project, although it's quite new and it doesn't look like they've gotten to San Francisco yet.
posted by ootandaboot at 7:52 AM on December 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


I took a college course with a older gentleman from San Francisco. He sounded exactly like Murray Roman from this track (famously sampled by DJ Shadow).
posted by infinitewindow at 7:52 AM on December 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


They recently discussed the California accent on the California Report, which mentions the Stanford research. Pinning anything down isn't easy and whenever this topic comes up, Valley Girls are interviewed. (That's San Fernando, not Noe.) The thing that makes theirs distinctive, to my ear, is how "o" becomes "eo" but a San Francisco accent? I'm from Washington DC and a Korean once complimented my English, said it was amazing because there was no accent, a way I'd also describe most native-born Californians' speech.
posted by Rash at 9:16 AM on December 31, 2012


Interesting question. I found this from David Decamp, "Hypercorrection and Rule Generalization," Language in Society 1:1 (Apr., 1972), p. 88:
There is another kind of hypercorrection, however, to which the relevance of rule generalization is not so obvious. In San Francisco, r-dropping is thought of (quite erroneously) as a southern trait and is strongly disapproved by most speakers. Among the more vehement critics of such 'careless, Okie' pronunciations without r, there was a gentleman who talked about the parm of his hand. Socially this is indeed hypercorrection, but what is happening here linguistically? Certainly it is not another simple case of rule generalization, for the relevant rule is r-dropping, which does not carry the prestige necessary to cause generalization. Quite the opposite: it is the failure to r-drop that carries prestige. What is overgeneralized is the converse of the rule.
I'm not finding much on JSTOR that directly addresses the question (though I did find articles on "San Francisco Bay Area German" and "Phonological Innovations of Bilingual Samoans in San Francisco").
posted by languagehat at 9:21 AM on December 31, 2012


That Stanford vowel shift thing doesn't sound anything like the Californian accent I know. That said, the 1984 article reads pretty much like the Bay Area/Sacramento (Sacramenna) accept I've known all my life, mixed with some local area knowledge.
posted by aspo at 10:26 AM on December 31, 2012


I am hesitant to use any newscasters as a definitive example of accent or style, because a lot of them have very over-pronounced, stylized ways of speaking. My next-door-neighbor was Don Mozley, a fixture on KCBS for many years, and he had a very "old timey radio" voice that sounded a lot like a lot of other older radio guys but was not necessarily representative of "regular' people (clip of his voice is the second track here). I was also friend's with the daughter of Ken Ackerman, another KCBS guy, and he spoke a lot like Mozley. Ken Russ Coughlin's speech isn't as pronounced as Mozley's but it is definitely not a regular SF accent.
posted by radioamy at 11:09 AM on December 31, 2012


Anecdata: My dad, 73, is a third generation San Franciscan, and grew up in the Sunset. He he has no discernible regional accent and sounds like any other Californian.

My mom, 72, is a second generation San Franciscan who grew up in the Richmond. She also has no discernible regional accent and sounds generically Californian.

Now, what Carl Nolte's article does spend a good deal of time on are regionalisms, and those are accurate. Growing up, SF was always "thecity", and the districts in which they grew up were "the Sunset" and "the Richmond," respectively. We moved "Down the Peninsula" when I was five, so perhaps had we stayed longer in SF proper I might have a stronger grasp of the subtleties of speech to which the article refers, but in general...yeah, there were terms they used that were specific to the region (e.g., always "French bread", never "sourdough"), but I don't think their accents are otherwise noticeable or distinctly San Franciscan.

Offered for whatever it's worth...
posted by mosk at 11:17 AM on December 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


My grandfather was a third generation Northern Californian, born and raised in the City. He sounded a lot like Russ Coughlin- a bit east coastish, brusque, familiar, though he pronounced "almond" the California grower way, as "ahhmens". I've always associated the San Francisco accent with blue collar workers, maybe because San Francisco was such a strong union town and was settled by more people from the northeast than the rest of California. San Francisco was also a port city, and many people in that industry came to work here. There is a distinct dialect called "San Francisco Urban":

San Francisco Urban (8)
Unlike the rest of California, which in the early twentieth century saw an influx of people from the South and other parts of the West, San Francisco continued to be settled by people from the Northeast and Northern Midwest, and elements of their dialects (North Midland, Upper Midwestern, Inland Northern) can be found. Mission dialect, spoken by Irish Catholics in a specific part of the city is very much like the New York City dialect.

posted by oneirodynia at 11:36 AM on December 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's interesting - my dad is in his late 70's and is a native of SF and does the r-dropping hypercorrection that languagehat posted about. He adds r's to everything. Just anecdata, I know.
posted by guster4lovers at 11:36 AM on December 31, 2012


This dialect map links to many samples (youtube) of pronunciation. On this map, the San Francisco dialect is classified with the Midland dialect.
posted by oneirodynia at 11:53 AM on December 31, 2012


I grew up in the San Francisco bay area, left for a while, and returned there to live as an adult. I graduated from San Francisco State.

I have a pretty standard California accent. The western hard consonants, and a melodic delivery. I do occasionally lapse into some southern stuff what with me living here in the South, but over all, people know I'm "not from around here."

The whole "French Bread, Fire not Earthquake, thecity" things are ingrained. It's not an accent so much as a nomenclature.

It's hard to find San Francisco natives so I think the actual accent is pretty standard flat American.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 4:26 PM on December 31, 2012


(e.g., always "French bread", never "sourdough")
I never knew this was a regionalism. My husband grew up in the East Bay and calls all unsliced bakery-style bread French Bread and it drives me crazy! As a midwesterner living in SF now, I haven't detected a specific accent in the 15 years I've been here and I know quite a few old-timers and native borns. I know a bunch of local radio people who grew up here and they all just sound like broadcasters to me. When I lived in Philadelphia and Delaware the accent drove me nuts but I really don't hear much of anything here.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 9:28 PM on December 31, 2012


I got my hands on DeCamp's thesis and I've been reading it and I guess it confirms much of what is believed. Namely, that:

1) San Francisco has had lots of waves of immigration so there is not really one unified SF manner of speaking. I suppose this is really no surprise.

2) SF does have accents but divided less by region than by class. And this class reflects the immigration origins of those speakers. That is, its a bunch of imported accents from different class regions mostly from the Northeast US. San Francisco is most like the Northern and North Midland dialects of the eastern US, reflecting the accents brought from migrants from those regions.
He also calls out a special Mission dialect which is similar to NYC accents and was probably brought over by Irish catholics who first inhabited that region.
posted by vacapinta at 5:32 AM on January 7, 2013


Lauren Hall-Lew, cited above, asked me to include a link in this thread to her paper "'I went to school back East… in Berkeley': San Francisco English and San Francisco Identity".
posted by knile at 3:26 PM on January 14, 2013


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