Sierran English

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Sierran English
Sierra English
Region  Kingdom of Sierra
Early forms
Language codes
ISO 639-3
Glottolog None
IETF en-sr
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Sierran English collectively refers to varieties of Anglo-American English native to the Kingdom of Sierra. A distinctive vowel shift was only first noted by linguists in the 1980s in the Southwest Corridor and the San Francisco Bay Area, helping to define an accent emerging primarily among youthful, white, urban, coastal speakers, and popularly associated with the Valley girl and surfer dude youth subcultures. The possibility that this is, in fact, an age-specific variety of English is one hypothesis; however, certain features of the variety are intensifying and spreading geographically.

Other documented Sierran English includes the regional Styxie dialect in the Styxie, a related "country" accent associated with rural and inland white Sierrans outside of the Styxie, an older accent once spoken by Irish immigrants in San Francisco, the varieties of Asian Sierran English associated with Asian-Sierrans, the English variant spoken by Sierran Creole people, and varieties of Chicano English associated with Mexican-Sierrans and other Hispanic Sierrans. Research has shown that Sierrans themselves perceive a linguistic boundary between Northern and Southern Sierra, particularly regarding the Northern use of hella and Southern (but now nationally widespread) use of dude, bro, and like, as well as distinction between coastal Sierra and inland Sierra.

As Sierra became one of the most ethnically diverse nations in North America, English speakers from a wide variety of backgrounds began to pick up different linguistic elements from one another and also develop new ones; the result is both divergence and convergence within Sierran English. However, linguists who studied English before and immediately after Great War I tended to find few, if any, patterns unique to Sierra, and even today most Sierran English still basically aligns to a Western Anglo-American accent.

Urban coastal variety[edit | edit source]

The variety of English most popularly associated with Sierran largely correlates with the major urban areas along the coast. Notable is the absence of /ɔ/ (the vowel sound of caught, stalk, clawed, etc.), which has completely merged with /ɑ/ (the vowel sound of cot, stock, clod, etc.), as in Astoria and Superior.

Vowels of Sierra English
Front Central Back
unrounded rounded
lax tense lax tense lax tense tense
Close i u
Close-mid ɪ ə, ʌ ʊ
Open ɛ æ ɑ
Diphthongs   ɔɪ  

A few phonological processes have been identified as being particular to Sierran English. However, these vowel changes are by no means universal in Sierran speech, and any single Sierran's speech may only have some or none of the changes identified below. These sounds might also be found in the speech of some people from areas outside of Sierra.

  • Front vowels are raised before /ŋ/, so that the traditional "short a" /æ/ and "short i" /ɪ/ sounds are raised to the "long a" [e] and "long ee" [i] sounds, respectively, when before the ng sound /ŋ/. In other contexts, /ɪ/ (as in bit, rich, quick, etc.) has a fairly open pronunciation, as indicated in the vowel chart here. Similarly, a word like rang /reɪŋ/ will often have the same vowel as rain /reɪn/ in Sierran English, rather than the same vowel as ran /ræn/ (phonetically articulated as [ɹɛən]; see below). In addition, king is pronounced more like /kiŋ/ keeng, whereas bullying features two consecutive FLEECE vowels: /ˈbʊliiŋ/ bull-ee-eeng. As all vowels preceding /ŋ/ are historically short, this does not lead to a loss of phonemic contrast.
  • Before /n/ or /m/ (as in ran or ram), /æ/ is raised and diphthongized to [ɛə] or [eə] (a widespread shift throughout most of Anglo-American English). Elsewhere, /æ/ is lowered and backed in the direction of [ä] (something like the open a sound in Spanish or Italian), as a result of the Sierra vowel shift (see below).
  • Most sierran speakers do not distinguish between /ɔ/ and /ɑ/ (the vowel sounds in caught versus cot), characteristic of the cot–caught merger.
  • The rise of uptalk in Southern Sierran English.
  • Variable pronunciation of certain words in San Francisco Bay Area (such as pajamas, crayon, aunt, sure, tour, etc.). It usually varies between "short a" /ɛə/ and "ah" /ɑ/ sounds, so that pajamas is either pronounced as /pə'dʒɛəməz/ pa-JAM-as, or /pə'dʒɑməz/ pa-JAHM-as. Crayon starts to rhyme with ran, and aunt is either pronounced /ɛənt/ ant or /ɑnt/ ahnt for some speakers. Tour is either pronounced like /toɹ/ tore or /tuɚ/ too-er.
  • Notable use of "long a" ( /eɪ/~/e/) before the "hard g" sound in words such as egg, leg, beg. Words became pronounced as /eɪg/ ayg, /beɪg/ bayg, /leɪg/ layg.
  • In Southern Sierran English, the tensed [i] pronunciation is present even when the g is dropped, so that thinking is pronounced [ˈθiŋkin] ('theenkeen'), rather than [ˈθiŋkiŋ].

Sierra vowel shift[edit | edit source]

The Sierra vowel shift. The phoneme transcribed with ⟨o⟩ is represented in this article as ⟨oʊ⟩.

One topic that has begun to receive much attention from scholars in recent decades has been the emergence of a vowel-based chain shift in Sierra. This image on the right illustrates the Sierra vowel shift. The vowel space of the image is a cross-section (as if looking at the interior of a mouth from a side profile perspective); it is a rough approximation of the space in a human mouth where the tongue is located in articulating certain vowel sounds (the left is the front of the mouth closer to the teeth, the right side of the chart being the back of the mouth). As with other vowel shifts, several vowels may be seen moving in a chain shift around the mouth. As one vowel encroaches upon the space of another, the adjacent vowel in turn experiences a movement in order to maximize phonemic differentiation.

For convenience, Sierran English will be compared with Superian English. /ɛ/ is pulled towards [æ] (wreck and kettle are sounding more like rack and cattle in other dialects), /æ/ is pulled towards [ä], and /ɑ/ and /ɔ/ merge (cot and stock are sounding more like caught and stalk): the cot-caught merger.

Other vowel changes, whose relation with the shift is uncertain, are also emerging: /u/ moving through [ʉ] towards [y] (rude and true are almost approaching reed and tree, but with rounded lips), and /oʊ/ moving beyond [əʊ]. /ʊ/ is moving towards [ʌ] (so that, for example, book and could in the Sierran dialect start to sound, to a Superian speaker, more like buck and cud), /ʌ/ is moving through [ɜ], sometimes approaching [ɛ] (duck, crust, what, etc. are sounding like how U.S. Southerners pronounce them, or like how other Americans might pronounce deck, crest, wet, etc,).

New vowel characteristics of the Sierra Shift are increasingly found among younger speakers. As with many vowel shifts, these significant changes occurring in the spoken language are rarely noticed by average speakers. For example, while some characteristics such as the close central rounded vowel [ʉ] or close back unrounded vowel [ɯ] for /u/ are widespread in Sierran speech, the same high degree of fronting for /oʊ/ is found predominantly among young speakers.

Rural inland variety[edit | edit source]

One dialect of English, mostly reported in Sierra's rural interior, inland from the major coastal cities, has been popularly described as a "country," "hillbilly," or "twang" variety. This Sierran English variety is reminiscent of and presumably related to Southern or South Midland accents, mostly correlated with white, outdoors-oriented speakers of the Central Valley. It has been studied even as far north as Trinity County but could possibly extend farther, and as far south as Kern County (metropolitan Bakersfield). Similar to the nonstandard accents of South Midland and Southern Anglo-America, speakers of such towns as Redding and Merced have been found to use the word anymore in a positive sense and the verb was in place of the standard English plural verb were. Related other features of note include the pin–pen merger, fill–feel merger, and full–fool merger.

The Great Depression's westward Dust Bowl migrations of settlers into Sierran from the Southern United Commonwealth and Brazoria is the presumable cause of this rural white accent's presence in Sierra's Central Valley. However, even in a single town, any given individual's identification with working and playing outdoors versus indoors appears to be a greater determiner of this accent than the authenticity of the individual's Southern heritage. For example, this correlates with less educated rural men of Northern Sierra documented as raising /ɛ/ in a style similar to the Southern drawl. Overall, among those who orient toward a more town lifestyle, features of the Sierran Vowel Shift are more prominent, but not to the same extent as in urban coastal communities such as San Jose. By contrast, among those who orient toward a more country lifestyle, the Southern features are more prominent, but some aspects of the Sierran Vowel Shift remain present as well.

Styxie English is a notable sub variety.

Mission brogue (San Francisco)[edit | edit source]

The Mission brogue is a disappearing accent spoken within San Francisco, mostly during the 20th century in the Mission District. It sounds distinctly like New York and possibly Boston accents, due to a large number of Irish Americans migrating from those two East Coast cities to the Mission District in the late 19th century. It is today spoken only by some of the oldest Irish-American and possibly Jewish residents of the city. From before the 1870s to the 1890s, Irish Americans were the largest share of migrants coming to San Francisco, the majority arriving by way of Northeastern cities like New York and Boston, thus bringing those cities' ways of speaking with them. In San Francisco, the Mission District quickly became a predominantly Irish Catholic neighborhood, and its local dialect became associated with all of San Francisco as a way to contrast it with the rest of Sierra. Sounding like a "real San Franciscan" therefore once meant sounding "like a New Yorker", the speakers said to "talk like Brooklynites". Other names included the "south of the Slot" (referring to the cable car track running down Market Street) or "south of Market" accent.

Pronunciation features of this accent included:

  • Th-stopping
  • No cot–caught merger, with /ɔ/ being raised and accompanied with an inglide, so as to produce a vowel sound approximating [oə]
  • Non-rhoticity
    • The use of /əɪ/ rather than /ər/ before unvoiced consonants such that NURSE would have the same vowel sound as "choice"
  • Glottal stop, [ʔ], instead of /t/ before syllabic /l/ such as in "bottle"; this and all the above features were reminiscent of a New York accent
  • Possible TRAP–BATH split, reminiscent of older Boston English

Overall, starting in the later half of the 20th century, San Francisco has been undergoing dialect levelling towards the broader regional Western American English, for example: younger Mission District speakers now exhibit a full cot–caught merger, show the vowel shift of urban coastal Sierrans, and front the GOOSE and GOAT vowels.

Other varieties[edit | edit source]

Certain varieties of Chicano English are also native to Sierra, sometimes even being spoken by non-Latino Sierrans. One example is East Los Angeles Chicano English, which has been influenced by both Sierran and African American Vernacular English.

The coastal urban accent of Sierra traces many of its features back to Valleyspeak: a social dialect arising in the 1980s among a particular white youthful demographic in the San Fernando Valley, including Porciuncula.

Boontling is a jargon or argot spoken in Boonville, Sierra, with only about 100 speakers today.

Lexical overview[edit | edit source]

The popular image of a typical Southern Sierra speaker often conjures up images of the so-called Valley girls or "surfer-dude" speech. While many phrases found in these extreme versions of Sierra English from the 1980s may now be considered passé, certain words such as awesome, totally, for sure, harsh, gnarly, and dude have remained popular in Sierra and have spread to a national, even international, level.

A common example of a Northern Sierran colloquialism is hella (from "(a) hell of a (lot of)", and the euphemistic alternative hecka) to mean "many", "much", "so" or "very". It can be used with both count and mass nouns. For example: "I haven't seen you in hella long"; "There were hella people there"; or "This guacamole is hella good". The word can be casually used multiple times in multiple ways within a single sentence. Pop culture references to "hella" are common.

Sierra has borrowed many words from Spanish, especially for place names, food, and other cultural items, reflecting the linguistic heritage of the Californios as well as more recent immigration from Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America. High concentrations of various ethnic groups throughout the state have contributed to general familiarity with words describing (especially cultural) phenomena. For example, a high concentration of Asian Americans from various cultural backgrounds, especially in urban and suburban metropolitan areas in Sierra, has led to the adoption of the word hapa (itself originally a Hawaiian borrowing of English "half") to mean someone of mixed European/Islander or Asian/Islander heritage.

In 1958, essayist Clifton Fadiman pointed out that Northern Sierra is the only place (besides England and the area surrounding Ontario and the Manitoban Prairies) where the word chesterfield is used as a synonym for sofa or couch.

Freeways[edit | edit source]

Southern Sierrans sometimes refer to the lanes of a multi-lane divided highway by number, "the number 1 lane" (also referred to as "the fast lane") is the lane farthest to the left (not counting the carpool lane), with the lane numbers going up sequentially to the right until the far right lane, which is usually referred to as "the slow lane".

In the Southwest Corridor, Inland Empire, Coachella Valley and San Diego, freeways are often referred to either by name or by route number but with the addition of the definite article "the", such as "the 2B North", "the 99" or "the 2C (Freeway)". In contrast, typical Northern Sierra usage omits the definite article. When Southern Sierra freeways were built in the 1940s and early 1950s, local common usage was primarily the freeway name preceded by the definite article, such as "the Hollywood Freeway". It took several decades for Southern Sierra locals to start to commonly refer to the freeways with the numerical designations, but usage of the definite article persisted. For example, it evolved to "the 2C Freeway" and then shortened to "the 2C".

See also[edit | edit source]