The Speech of Old L.A.

My Grandmother

My Grandmother (right), in 1940′s Los Angeles

My grandmother grew up in Los Angeles. Her L.A. was not the L.A. of contemporary stereotype. It was a city with one of the world’s finest rail systems, gracious Victorian homes in forgotten neighborhoods like Bunker Hill, and a bustling urban core which has only recently approached its former glory.

My grandmother’s accent, to my ears, did not sound Californian. I found it Eastern, worldly and sophisticated.  As a child I associated her crisp diction with the British actors I saw on PBS. Likewise, my father remarked that she sounded rather Irish.

I reacted similarly to another pre-sprawl Angeleno, the late Julia Child. Here’s a video of her from a very early television appearance:

There are several ways Child’s accent differs from contemporary Californian speech. The sound she uses in words like ‘goose’ is very conservative and back; California English today is known for fronting this vowel. Note also that where young Californians raise the ‘short-a’ before nasals (so that ‘can’ sounds something like ‘keh-uhn’ or kẽən), Child generally leaves this vowel unshifted.

What most strikingly makes her accent sound rather ‘upper-crust,’ however, are Child’s t‘s. Most Americans ‘tap’ the /t/ in between vowels so that ‘part of‘ is more or less indistinguishable from ‘pard of.’ Child, however, tends to keep these t’s as, well, t’s (although not consistently so). Note that, at 7:14, she says ‘part of’ with a very aspirated, un-tapped consonant.

I don’t mean to suggest that it’s possible to pinpoint what an ‘old’ Los Angeles accent was. If anything, the city’s English has long been incredibly diverse, with its waves of emigres from Europe, Mexico and New York.

But it’s amazing how quickly California English is developing its own distinctive accents and linguistic identities. Still, like photos of LA’s streetcards, I enjoy glimpsing the Californian English that once was.

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About Ben Trawick-Smith

Ben Trawick-Smith began 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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21 Responses to The Speech of Old L.A.

  1. Ben Zimmer says:

    Did your grandmother pronounce the name of the city as [lɔs ˈæŋgəliz]?

    • It’s funny, I can’t say I have a single recollection of her using the phrase! (I’ll have to consult my parents on that one). But I wouldn’t be surprised. As this interesting article from LA Times last year points out, it wasn’t until the 1950′s that lɒs ænʤələs became the accepted pronunciation among locals.

      • David R. Ginsburg says:

        As I recall, if one listens to almost any audio- or videotape of former Mayor Sam Yorty (who served from 1961 to 1973), he always pronounced Los Angeles as [lɔs ˈæŋgələs].

  2. David R. Ginsburg says:

    I was born and raised in Los Angeles, and am 61. One phonetic peculiarity of speech I remember among locally-raised relatives in the 1950s was the elision of the /l/ in words like golf and palm; they were pronounced as if the /l/ weren’t present. The local pronunciation of those words is now almost universally consistent with their spelling.

    • Interesting. It’s been mentioned here before that ‘almond’ rhymes with ‘Hammond’ in some California dialects. Not sure if it’s a similar phenomena or not, but still an intriguing connection.

      Didn’t people get on Yorty’s case because his parents were from the midwest? That seems like a pretty silly argument, since I’d hazard to get that a large percentage of EVERY LA resident’s parents were from elsewhere at the time.

  3. Stephen says:

    A finer point that may be worth noting is that Julia Child actually grew up in Pasadena. I’m not sure how much a difference it would have made, but even today Pasadena is considered a bastion of WASPy Old Money, jokingly called “Connecticut West”. I grew up near Pasadena, and I have met many an older Pasadenan with a distinctive accent that came off as vaguely aristocratic to me, and vaguely East Coast though I have not sat down to compare features in a systematic way. My own ancestors were orange grovers in nearby San Gabriel at the end of the 19th century, and my grandfather (who is the oldest person I’ve personally met who was born and raised in the Los Angeles area, born about a decade after Julia Child) didn’t have a particularly distinctive accent that I can remember. His pronunciation was pretty General American for his age, but he was also from a less moneyed and educated background than Julia Child.

    • I think you have a point there. Different areas of the LA area were influenced by different influxes of newcomers. I tend to associate East LA with Chicano English, Beverly Hills with New York-influenced English, and the Valley with the California Vowel Shift (although some of these are obviously over-generalizations). I wouldn’t be surprised if Pasadena has something of its own East Coast-aristocratic influence; Child certainly had roots in New England.

  4. I grew up in LA (Miracle Mile) and had several older relatives who were raised in the LA area (Pomona, Boyle Heights) in the 1920s through 1940s. None of them sounded remotely like Child. I agree with Stephen that Child’s accent is distinctly “Pasadena”; the pronunciation that jumped out for me is broad-A “rah-ther.” A friend of mine, who’s now around 70, grew up in Pasadena and also uses this pronunciation. I used to think he was being mock-posh, but I now suspect it’s the Pasadena coming out.

    It’s amusing to hear Child mix that high-tone “rah-ther” with “now we’re gonna…”

    • I found that amusing, too. Also her occasional use of “lil’ bit,” which sticks out like a sore thumb. I think that these goofy register changes were very much a part of her charm.

      Interesting that Pasadena was an old money suburb. Such places obviously developed on the East Coast (Fairfield County, CT; Philadelphia’s Main Line; Boston’s North Shore), but I had never associated Pasadena with that kind of milieu. Although I was aware of its reputation as something of an oasis of political conservatism.

      • Pasadena is “old money” only in context: late 19th-early 20th century. It was home to L.A.’s aristocracy: the Buffums and Chandlers of the L.A. Times and Buffum’s department store, for example.

      • Sam Huddy says:

        Pasadena is not a suburb. If you said that in Pasadena you’d better prepare to make peace with your God.

        As for political conservatism, it wasn’t much. It was founded by leftists from the Chicagoland area, and after lots of political turmoil in the late 19th century it elected moderate Republicans. The tide began to turn in the 1980s and now it’s SOLIDLY Democratic.

  5. AL says:

    Ever since watching that ‘Julie and Julia’ movie I’ve wondered what kind of accent Julia Child had (or, was portrayed as having).

  6. Sooryan FM says:

    I liked the accent John Wayne had, in his 1st movies.

  7. m.m. says:

    I was curious about the old speech of the region recently when the people at pinks did that bank of america commercial http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t8EsSmfEF3o , and they sounded eastern-y, similar to how old san fransisco sounded easternish.

  8. Sam Huddy says:

    Julia Child is a bit of a misdirect as she’s from Pasadena, which has a distinctively more midwestern sound than neighbouring LA owing to its original settlers, along with its own idiosyncracies and a few common features with the rest of southern California.

    I recently did a study on the Pasadena dialect if you’re interested.

    • Darla says:

      Sam, I saw your youtube video wherein you read the rough draft of your term paper in a Pasadena accent. I am 60, learned to speak in Altadena, but now live in Orcutt/Santa Maria. I am very interested in reading your paper and talking with you. Often people ask me where I’m from and insist I sound like I’m from the Midwest or back east. I suspect it’s my Pasadena accent–this after discovering your delightful youtube presentation.
      Darla
      P.S. Does part of the Pasadena accent include having people sound like they have gum in their mouths? My mother and sister had that sound. (I don’t think I do.)

  9. Pingback: The Indestructible Sound of Pasadena « The Writer Sam Huddy

  10. AUDIO NOIR says:

    i was born and raised in l.a. and for the record it’s english, scottish, irish, australian and newzealanders who say LOS ANGELEEZ. no one from l.a. or even people from other parts of the states say it like that that i’ve ever heard. and 99 out of 100 times it is referred to as ‘l.a.’. as someone born and raised in these parts i will go on record as saying LOS ANGELEEZ sounds completely foreign and even silly to me. people from other english speaking countries, however, seem to have that pronunciation totally ingrained and even when doing american accents for movies, t.v. etc. will still often say it like that. how that happened i don’t know but for the record the anglicized american version is LOS ANGELISS.

  11. I love it when individuals get together and share ideas. Great blog, keep it up.

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