For many years, linguists believed that the whole West Coast spoke with a single, homogenous accent. The California Vowel Shift, however, prompted a closer look. Last year, Becker and a group of Reed linguistics students set up a table at the Sylvania campus of Portland Community College and interviewed 35 native Oregonians, listening to their vowels.
They are still sifting data, but preliminary results are emerging. Most respondents pronounced cot the same as caught, just as those Palo Alto teens started doing 30 years ago. Most also demonstrated the “fronting” of back vowels—the infamous di-ood. So far, so Californian. But then Becker’s team looked for the third ingredient of CVS: a mutation that turns a Bay Area kegger into a kagger.
Sometimes, respondents followed the CVS pattern, making trap more like trahp and black like block. But in other cases, these vowels seemed to be moving in the opposite direction. Many Portland speakers made keg like kayg (rhymes with plague), and egg like ayg—a feature that PSU’s Conn and other linguists have identified as unique to the Pacific Northwest.
In other words, Portland may be in the first stages of developing its own distinctive accent. Becker believes that could be due to our long-held desire to separate ourselves from the colossus to our south. “If you think California is all surfer dudes and Valley girls,” she says, “you might not want to speak like exactly them.”
The future of the Portland accent—or even if there is one—is very much in doubt. “You could line up 100 Portlanders and not hear the same accent twice,” says Conn, the PSU linguist. “But there would also be similarities.” Whether our speech apes the Bay Area or branches off in its own direction, the changes will be part of a much larger story of North American English. Even as Californians sound more and more...Californian, Rust Belt residents are giving an increasingly distinctive spin to their own vowels in a phenomenon known as the Northern Cities Shift. There’s also a separate, and contrary, Southern Shift. (Don’t even get us started on Canadian Raising.)
These changes may seem subtle. But sustained over centuries, little quirks of speech—the ah in caught, the old rivalry between soda and pop—can spin out into bigger differences. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, Latin became Spanish in Madrid, French in Paris, and Portuguese in Lisbon. Americans and Brits once sounded much the same—in fact, linguists believe that the modern American accent is actually closer to the way people on both sides of the ocean spoke before the Revolution.
Of course, those changes came about because of separation. California and Portland will always have each other. They’ll give us movie stars and strange body-hair trends; we’ll give them whimsical indie bands and real estate bargains. What remains to be seen is where Portland falls in grand scheme of how Americans talk: as a di-ood-erific colony of the Golden State, or a linguistic free city, with a dialect all its own. Or maybe an opportunistic hybrid would best reflect Portland’s eclectic pride. We could fry up California’s cool-sounding behcon, but crack our own aygs.