The Accent(s) of the Pacific Northwest

Olympic National Park

Photo: John Hunter

I’m moving to the Pacific Northwest in about six weeks.  I will soon be able to participate in a hotly debated topic: is there such a thing as a Pacific Northwest accent?  And if there is, what does it sound like?

As I’ve mentioned before, I mistook a number of Northwest natives for Canadians some years back.  In this interviewBill Gates exemplifies some of the features that led me to this wrong conclusion:

Like many Canadians, Gates uses a vowel for words like “lot” and “top” which tends to be more back and rounded (i.e. an “aw” or IPA ɒ].  He also exhibits a vowel in words like “trap” or “that” which is somewhat more back as well (i.e. IPA [a]).  Both are features of some varieties of California English, so one might presume these pronunciations to be more indicative of the West Coast than our neighbors to the North.

Yet Gates also tends toward a monophthongal pronunciation of words like “face” (i.e. “fehs”), and a back and monopthongal pronunciation of words like “goat” (i.e. “goht”).  These features, along with the ones I’ve just mentioned, would indeed be more typical of Canada.  Still, Gates doesn’t exhibit Canadian raising in words like “about:” in this sense, his accent is still firmly American.

All this being said, Gates strikes me as one of a slightly endangered breed:  a Seattleite with parents from the Northwest.  Young natives of the city are likely to have parents from New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, or some other far-flung place.  Given the tremendous amount of transplantation that has occurred in the region, I think it will be some time before the accents of Seattle (and no doubt Portland as well) will resettle into something that can be easily identified.

Like other areas of the West, the region feels a linguistic crucible, a place where new varieties of English are stirred together and create more exceptions that rules.  For example, like Gates, singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile has spent much of her life in and around Seattle.  But as you can see from this interview, she speaks with what might be described as a slight “twang” (note how “I” and “time” tend toward “ah” and “tahm”).

I realize that Carlile may have one of those unique “musicians’ accents,” similar to New Jersey native Bruce Springsteen’s rather un-New Jersey speech. (I don’t want to conclude anything based on this single speaker).  But her accent may also be indicative of a region that hasn’t quite found its voice yet, a place where younger people readily adopt the features of the sub-cultures they identify with.

Any Northwesterners care to elaborate?

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About Ben

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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44 Responses to The Accent(s) of the Pacific Northwest

  1. Charles Sullivan says:

    There are so many people from all over the country who live in Portland now that it’s hard to identify a regional accent.

    Here’s Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber (born and raised in Pacific NW), although I have to say his accent sounds just a little bit “rural” to me. Maybe that’s because he was raised until 11 in eastern Washington, then lived in South Eugene (OR), then Roseburg (OR), none of these are big metropolitan areas.

    • m.m. says:

      I’ve been under the impression via washington residents that eastern washington, apart from being more ‘rural’, was also more genereral american ~ midlands sounding. I’d presume the same would apply to oregon, as it also generally applies to california.

      I like how tarwicks brings up about natives. Huge sections of the LA area are full of transplants from other regions/states. Sometimes running into natives seems surreal, especially when lots of them moved away into suburbs around the area.

    • trawicks says:

      @Charles,

      Great clip. Kitzhaber’s hometown is fittingly near southern Idaho–it seems this area is the Northernmost place where features of the “Western twang” can be heard. When you cross the border, in fact, I’ve heard some accents that sound startlingly Southern: Boise native Troy McClain from the first season of “The Apprentice” (US version) sounded downright Texan to me.

      @m.m,

      I find that some LA natives don’t sound particularly Californian. Beverly Hills, for example, was populated with so many New Yorkers that up until a generation ago, some of their children maintained hints of New York English (two notable celebrity examples: David Schwimmer from Friends and Julie Kavner of the Simpsons fame).

      • Charles Sullivan says:

        Kitzhaber’s birthplace is Colfax, WA. That’s closer to northern Idaho (south of Spokane), not southern Idaho. But yeah, I detect a subtle “twang” in his speech too.

        • Julie says:

          Some years ago, I knew an older woman from Southern Idaho. She had about the “thickest” Southern accent I’ve ever heard. She also had some interesting quirks to her speech and would say things like: “Try one. Them’s good.” Not occasionally, but every time. I’m not sure “they” was in her vocabulary.

        • trawicks says:

          Not sure how I misjudged the shape of Idaho there. Sorry!

      • m.m. says:

        Hmm, david schwimmer was born in new york and moved here when he was 2 [born 1966], julie Kavner was born and raised since 1950.
        I would be quite surprised if either had distinctively californian traits. Julie in fact, when listening to her on the simpsons, sounds quite ‘east coast’ to me, or at least ‘foreign’.

        I agree with ‘up until a generation ago’. The oldest ive heard someone sound remotely ‘neo’ californian was by singer Jason Lytle [born 1969] and even his tendencies are minimal compared to those born post 1980. its a tad cause of dismay though that to sound californian may be an age-grading accent.

  2. PJ says:

    I just think Bill Gates has his own stereotypically nerdy idiolect. I’m not a Northwesterner though. However, I really want to move there and I’m jealous of you.

    • Lish says:

      No, it really is characteristic of Seattle accents. Another very good example is Ambassador Gary Locke, former Governor of Washington State.

      • PJ says:

        I’m not sure what you’re saying, but I listened to Gary Locke and I think he sounds completely different from Bill Gates. Bill Gates has a very “nasal”, nerdy way of speaking.

  3. Charles Sullivan says:

    This sounds like a pretty typical Portland accent:

    http://web.ku.edu/~idea/northamerica/usa/oregon/oregon.htm

  4. trawicks says:

    PJ,

    Funny, I’ve had so many people say that. It’s a part of the country that a lot of people would love to live in–unfortunately, it’s also a uniquely remote part of the country (despite great cities). It’s something that I had to think long and hard about, despite all the region’s many assets.

    Charles,

    I definitely notice something I’ve heard in a few Portlanders: a fairly consistent use of a rounded vowel for “lot” words. Otherwise, her accent is fairly typical General American.

  5. Charles Sullivan says:

    Well, where are you moving to, Trawicks? If it’s Portland then we’ll have to meet some time for good coffee and/or good beer.

    • trawicks says:

      Absolutely! I’m moving to Seattle, although I plan on spending a decent amount of time in Portland as well. Amtrak to adjacent cities in the Northwest is cheap compared to the East Coast, where it costs you like $3000 to a take a 20-minute train ride. (Okay, I’m exaggerating, but the relative inexpensiveness of Amtrak Cascades is still pretty great).

      • Charles Sullivan says:

        Hope you like rain. Oddly, not many people use umbrellas in Portland. Not sure about Seattle.

        • trawicks says:

          They don’t seem to use umbrellas in either city. I’ve visited when it’s rained for days and I’ve never cracked open an umbrella. The rain is extremely light compared to the East Coast … it’s just more frequent.

        • Liz says:

          Are umbrellas not considered “cool” or something? That’s the impression I get.

  6. Here’s a link to a recording I did for the Worldwide Accent Project.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GA8d8QH3TpY

    I don’t hear the same rounding in my speech as Gates’, and I think my speech is more representative of the area, as a Asian American kid who grew up in the 1970s here, when super-assimilation was the order of the day. Remember, Gates grew up on Mercer Island, which has a significant Jewish population, which I associate (rightly or wrongly, but hopefully not unfairly) with those rounded vowels. (NB, please don’t think I’m trying to get into a who’s-more-local-sounding contest with Bill Gates; it’s my opinion as a linguist with an ear, not as some provincial chauvinist).

  7. Also, I wrote a blog post about our dialect a while ago:
    http://jpv206.wordpress.com/2011/07/25/pacific-northwest-dialectology-smackdown/

    It’s more of a smarmy rant than a scholarly analysis; my readers are not dialectologists, but I do make a point or two about how we talk up here in Seattle.

    trawicks, I’d love to shake your hand when you get here, and talk shop if you’d like! Let me know if there’s anything you need, if you get lost, or whatever…

    • trawicks says:

      Sounds great, JP! A question about your post: you mention the whole pin-pen merger thing. I’ve noticed something like this in a few Northwesterners (Portland mayor Sam Adams being one example). How does this differ from the Southern merger?

      • trawicks, I noticed this a lot when I was younger, less so now due to education and migration, but it’s still around. I feel the locals merge toward “pin,” which is the opposite of the South, where people merge toward “pen.” I remember a Wendy who used to insist that her name wasn’t “windy.”

        Also, when I was a kid, the words “leg,” “egg,” and “bag” all rhymed, and they used the high [e].

  8. dw says:

    He also exhibits a vowel in words like “trap” or “that” which is somewhat more back as well (i.e. IPA [a]).

    In “capitalism”, “that”, and most other TRAP/BATH words he has what sounds to me like [æ] or [æ̝].

    In “banking” he has at least [ɛ] . This may be an idiosyncrasy, rather than general pre-nasal raising, because I don’t hear quite such a high vowel in “Thank you”. His “example” near the end of the interview is quite raised, lengthened and nasalized, but not quite as high as his “banking”.

    I don’t hear anything approaching [a] in any TRAP or BATH words.

    Could it be that many North American accents have raised the TRAP/BATH vowel so much that even [æ] (the theoretically “correct” value) seems very open by comparison?

    • trawicks says:

      [a], I’ll admit, is a bit of a stretch (I originally wanted to say something along the lines of “tends toward”). Although I do think the vowel differs than other American realizations: unlike most other varieties of American English, Labov’s analysis of his Seattle speaker found a TRAP vowel with a lower F2 (i.e. backer) than all the other front vowels and a higher F1 (i.e. lower) than the merged vowel in THOUGHT and LOT.

      • dw says:

        Labov’s analysis of his Seattle speaker found a TRAP vowel with a lower F2 (i.e. backer) than all the other front vowels

        Isn’t [æ], by definition, backer than [i, ɪ, eɪ, ɛ] (assuming that by “other front vowels” you mean FLEECE, KIT, FACE and DRESS)?

        If the Pacific Northwest is distinctive here, it’s by retaining [æ] in TRAP words, rather than raising it to some higher value.

        • trawicks says:

          That’s possible. [æ] is typically a ‘tenser’ vowel in many varieties of American English. This seems to be one of the main differences with some Western Englishes: the vowel is often a bit laxer (backer, possibly lower, less peripheral).

      • Stan says:

        Bill Gates’ TRAP vowel sounds different from that of most Americans to me too. It’s a noticeable difference if you’re an American from another part of the country. But to my ear it doesn’t quite have the openness that you get in some accents of the Caribbean and the British Isles. Listen to people from the Bahamas or Jamaica to hear a fully open vowel in words like “map”.

    • Sam says:

      I don’t think the nasalization of vowels preceding nasal consonants is something that’s unique to American English or even English for that matter. See this book for instance.

  9. Patricia H. says:

    I moved to the Seattle area in 1969 at age eight & Gates sounds like any Seattle native who has a bit of a nasal tone overall. A bit annoying. To any Seattleite, it’s unfathomable how we could sound like Canadians, at least those of British Columbia. That accent is distinct and unmistakable. Interestingly, I take voice lessons from a Yale trained vocalist and Seattle native. Since her opera career ended, she’s taught voice in Seattle and she can hear the Southern influence in certain vowels I use after forty years here and never having lived in the South. However, both my parents were native Virginians who moved a decade before I was born. We lived exclusively in the West and NW West -CA and WA. No one else ever comments on it my “twang” except my youngest daughter and only in a few curse words =]. Her father and I were both raised in the NW. She’s 100% Seattleite.

    As for umbrellas, no self-respecting native uses one except for those who work downtown and have expensive clothes and even that’s not a constant. An umbrella will brand you as non-native or a tourist in a heartbeat. However, no one really cares unless you are with them; it’s just so annoying. Many of us don’t own one or have no idea where it is if we do. Overall, they’re just considered for wussies and a nuisance. Plus, no one has a spot for a wet umbrella in their house. Really. No one. The only umbrella stands I’ve seen in a home were in California. Lastly, never use an umbrella to go in and out of a local store! You will look like a moron. I was mortified when my friend did this. Sigh…the trauma haunts me still. Exceptions: umbrellas are permitted if you are in a wedding gown…I guess. Hope that helps. :0]

    • Patricia H,

      I agree that the Canadian accents are different from ours on the US side of the border; I really think the analysis is lazy.

      Regarding umbrellas: people repeat the “umbrella ban” but I think it’s due to the fact that we drive everywhere instead of walk, and it’s easy to stay out of the rain. We had all kinds of umbrellas when I was a car-less student at the UW. I actually do have an umbrella stand outside my front door, but… I doubt that I own an umbrella now.

      That said, I am shocked by how frightened people are of a little rain when I’m elsewhere in the world, and how people allow it to ruin their mood. Today was the first rain of the fall, and as always, I feel relieved when the first rain falls.

      I hosted a French teacher here on exchange earlier this year; I told him the old “liquid sunshine” line, and he thought I was a comedy genius.

      Ok, I’ll say one more dialecty thing to try to rescue this comment: when I was in college (early 90s) we started saying “hella” (the way NYC kids say “mad” and Boston kids say “wicked.” I had largely stopped saying it by the time I started my professional career, but last year I heard myself saying it a lot more when I was living in NYC, hanging out with other Asian American Seattlites. Nowadays I hear myself saying it to my students, and I don’t care anymore.

      • Charles Sullivan says:

        About umbrellas, JP. Did you use all your wits to conclude that it’s got to do with car drivers? When was the last time you were in Portland? Umbrella usage has tumbled alongside the tumbling of car usage. Bicycles have taken over. Sheesh.

        • Hi Charles Sullivan,
          I see that you’re frustrated with my comment. I was talking to Patricia H. about umbrella use in Seattle, not Portland.

        • trawicks says:

          I’m going to break my own rules and comment on something off-topic, so as to avoid an all-out Stumptown vs. Emerald City smackdown. But I do think that it’s a simple difference in the nature of rain in Seattle/Portland vs. the East Coast. Here (in NYC) we get short bursts of heavy rain, whereas the PNW cities get long periods of light, misty rain. You’re just not as likely to get wet. When I’ve visited Seattle I haven’t used an umbrella myself, and that’s not because I’m trying to look cool: the rain just rarely gets to the point where I would need one.

    • Matt says:

      Sorry to reply to a 3 year old post, but I live in Vancouver and travel frequently to both Seattle and Portland. No one has ever thought I was not from there, the differences in accents is likely only perceptible to a linguist. Alternately, we have many, many visitors from those two cities in Vancouver all year long and one would not now they are Americans unless you asked them or they told you.

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  11. NemaVeze says:

    For what it’s worth, an interesting study of language attitudes in Washington State. Note that this isn’t about how people in the PNW actually speak, but about how they perceive the range of dialects/accents within the state. http://depts.washington.edu/folkling/

  12. Monique says:

    For me, the Northwest accent has a lot of R sounds and lingering consonnonts (CH and TS at the end of a word). I noticed it when I started working with a group of people from Washington and they all reminded me of how Carrie Brownstein talks (http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=flJPIEj5m8M&desktop_uri=%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DflJPIEj5m8M). I just finished listening to an audiobook recorded by Sussana Burney and noticed her lingering consonnonts, and sure enough, she’s from Seattle.

  13. Spencer says:

    It’s funny: I thought that travel guide author Rick Steves was Canadian based on his accent, but it turns out that he’s from the Puget Sound area

  14. Jenn Simon says:

    Non-linguist here, commenting three years after the original posting. 🙂

    I’m from New York but have lived in Seattle for 18 years. When I go to New York to visit family I hear myself mimicking peoples’ accents, so I end up strengthening my Pacific Northwest accent, which in effect makes me sound Canadian. The main word I hear this with is “sorry.”

    In New York, it’s pronounced “sah-ry.” But because I hear myself saying sah-ry, I correct myself and end up saying “soh-ry.” I do this so much that when I get back to Seattle, my husband laughs at me and asks me why I’ve started to sound Canadian.

    My guess is that true Seattle pronunciation of “sorry” is way rounder than in New York but less round than in Canada.

    FWIW, I have the same thing with orange. (ah-ringe is what I grew up with in NY, but it’s pronounced closer to oh-ringe in the Pacific Northwest.)

    By far the biggest difference between NY and Seattle, though, is not in how the words are pronounced but in what words we say. In New York, it’s “Yes, please” and No, thanks.” In Seattle, no one wants to be negative, so it’s “Yes, please” and “I’m fine.” It’s near impossible to get Seattleites to say “no.” It’s simply not done here.

    “Would you like some coffee?”
    “I’m fine.”

    Finally—nope. No umbrellas. We just wear water repellant clothing since all winter it’s damp, but it’s rarely wet. And I agree with previous posters, it comes down to the climate and not any desire to be hip. You’re better off with a rain slicker and water-resistant shoes here than an umbrella.