The moment Carmen Fought laid eyes on the man in the hallway of a Pomona courthouse, she was certain he was white. Then his lips parted, and Fought did an about-face.
Now she was sure he was Mexican American, probably from East Los Angeles or Boyle Heights.
The tell-tale signs: the drawn-out vowels in the first syllables of his words.
“Together” became “TWO-gether” instead of “tuh-GE-ther.”
“Going” sounded like “GO-ween.”
Fought, a linguistics professor at Pitzer College, sidled up to the man for some detective work.
“So — is your family originally from California?” she asked.
“Oh, you’re asking because you think I’m Mexican,” the man said with a smile. “You think I’m Mexican because I sound like a homeboy.”
Fought, it turned out, was half-right. The man was of European descent, but he was born in East L.A.
The East L.A. accent is not as well-known as some other Southern California styles of speech — the Valley Girl accent or the surfer dude patois. But it is a distinct, instantly recognizable way of talking, associated with a part of L.A. famous as a melting pot of Mexicans, Japanese, Jews, Armenians and other ethnic groups.
The accent — also known as Chicano English — crosses racial and ethnic lines and inspires a certain pride even in those who have long since left the neighborhoods where it prevails, most notably East L.A., Boyle Heights, Lincoln Heights, El Sereno and City Terrace.
It is also an object of scholarly attention. Researchers say that as Mexican immigrants spread across the country, they probably are creating regional versions of Chicano English.
The East L.A. accent is marked by a higher vowel sound at the end of words, so that “talking” is often pronounced “talk-een.”
Many speakers pronounce the “eh” sound before the letter L as an “ah” — as in “ash” — so that elevator becomes “alavator” and L.A. becomes “all-ay.”
In a slightly Canadian-sounding twist, some people will add “ey” to the end of a sentence, in a vaguely questioning tone: “Someone’s on the phone for you, ey.”
The word “barely” is often used to indicate that something just happened, as in: “I barely got out of the hospital.”
Some linguists believe that aspects of Mexican American speech, particularly a sing-song quality, can be traced to Nahuatl, a group of indigenous tongues still spoken in parts of Mexico.
What makes the East L.A. accent especially interesting to linguists is that it’s been adapted by people of different races and cultures.
Thus, the “white” man, whom Fought met while both were doing jury duty in Pomona.
“There is no genetic component. It’s not like you talk that way because you’re Mexican,” Fought said. “You talk that way because that’s where you grew up, and in that area, that’s how a lot of people spoke.”
Fought has been studying the East L.A. accent since 1994 and wrote the definitive text on the subject, “Chicano English in Context.”
She developed an exercise for her students to show how complex accents can be. The students listened to Mexican Americans from the Eastside speaking English and were asked to guess if the people also spoke Spanish. Students could not reliably tell. Fought said the exercise showed that a person can sound like a Latino even if he is not a Spanish speaker.
Walt Wolfram, a linguist at North Carolina State University, has been studying accents of American-born children of Latino immigrants in that state. He has detected similarities to Chicano English, but with a decidedly southern tint.
William T Fujioka, chief executive officer of Los Angeles County, grew up in East L.A. and neighboring Montebello, and traces of the old neighborhood linger in his speech.
“People say, ‘Oh, you grew up in the Eastside,’” said Fujioka, 57. “There’s just some inflections, some use of slang. I don’t know, I guess some mannerisms. If you’re talking to a bunch of friends, you’re calling them ‘homes’ or saying things like watcha! [look] You’ll just be talking and it’ll slip out.”
“The cadence too,” he said. “If you’re with certain people, the cadence, it’s almost like music.”
Fujioka recalled how a teacher from his childhood, whose last name was Chitwood, bristled when students pronounced the “ch” as “sh.”
As Fujioka tells the story, the principal said, “They can’t help it” and explained that many Mexican Americans pronounce “ch” that way. Linguists say that’s true, especially for first-generation Mexican Americans.
The teacher wasn’t buying it, Fujioka said, perhaps because Japanese American children, himself included, also used the offending pronunciation.
The East L.A. mode of expression can be as much a persona as an accent. It goes beyond pronunciation to include choice of words, use of slang, even body language.
For many, it is a badge of authenticity and a lifelong source of pride.
“It’s about identity. You wear it like a shield,” said actor Edward James Olmos. “I want people to know where I’m coming from. You use that accent, and you use it very strongly. I use it with pride and self-esteem.”
For some who hear it, the accent can lead to assumptions, not always positive, about the speaker’s social class or educational level.
On television and in movies, Mexican American accents are often associated with negative or cartoonish depictions of characters.
In the 2006 dystopian comedy “Idiocracy,” one character melds two classic L.A. speaking styles, those of East L.A. and the surfer dude, when he exclaims, “Heeeey, how’s it hang, ese?’”
Cheech Marin drew on Chicano English in providing the voice for Ramone, the talking 1959 Chevy Impala low-rider in Pixar’s “Cars.”
Olmos used the accent in depicting Jaime Escalante in the 1988 film “Stand and Deliver,” just as the Bolivian-born teacher used it to inspire and cajole his East L.A. students into showing ganas, or effort.
For the role of Gaff in the cult classic “Blade Runner,” Olmos helped develop a fictitious street language that incorporated bits of several tongues, including Hungarian, German and French — but not Spanish.
Still, the character’s tone and rhythm — along with his flamboyant clothes and fedora, hinting at a Zoot Suiter — were reminiscent of East L.A. To Olmos, they imbued Gaff with street cred.
“Of course the Eastside was put in there. Of course. Are you kidding?” he said.
City Councilman Jose Huizar, who grew up in Boyle Heights, said that after he left the neighborhood, he could recognize people from the Eastside by their speech.
As a student at UC Berkeley and then Princeton, he became self-conscious about the accent. People asked questions that usually nibbled around the edges. But he knew they wanted to know where he was from, he said.
He wondered whether the accent might not be a hindrance, a barrier to his ambitions.
“I honestly thought about taking courses to get rid of my accent,” he recalled. “I thought, ‘One day, I’m going to be a professional and this accent is not part of that.’”
More than 20 years later, he no longer worries about that. His accent has receded, as accents often do when someone moves geographically and socially. But traces of it burble up sometimes.
“When I’m hanging out with guys I grew up with in the ‘hood, yeah, that’s part of the language that we use. You relax a little bit and may retreat into that comfort zone where you say things a certain way,” he said. “I don’t apologize for it. This is who I am. I don’t need no stinkin’ get-rid-of-my-accent classes!”
Frances Flores, 61, rarely thought about her accent. She was born in Boyle Heights to a Japanese mother and a German-English father. Left behind by her parents, she was raised by a Mexican American woman. She grew up watching Spanish-language movies starring Mexican icons like Pedro Infante and Maria Felix at the old Million Dollar Theater, and dancing in the ballet folklorico.
Sometimes, in a snippet of her own speech on a voice mail, she’ll hear the residue of those childhood influences.
“I’m like, ‘Is that me? Is that what I sound like? I sound like a Mexican American,’” Flores said with a laugh. “People always ask me what nationality I am. They see that I look Asian, but then they hear the way I talk, so they’re confused.”
She’s not. “I think wherever you were brought up, that’s who you are.”