Q&A: Your guide to talking like a Californian. Tips for the ‘hella tricky’ dialect
It’s not that Californians have an accent that takes some getting used to, as in Boston, or the American South. On the contrary, the standard-issue California accent is about as plain, mainstream American English as you can get. But speaking like a Californian means something else, and for the people who come here from elsewhere, it can take some getting used to. For them, and many of the rest of us, the new little book “Talk Like a Californian — A Hella Fresh Guide to Golden State Speak” offers some guideposts. The author’s family has been here since the Gold Rush, which is why Colleen Dunn Bates writes it under the romantic pseudonym “Helena Ventura.”
Is this for people who come from other places, who may just want to fit into the scenery here and sound like the rest of us?
Exactly. And it’s also to help settle some disputes over who claims what word, Northern California or Southern California. And even if you live here — we have a chapter on Hollywood-speak — you may be a native Californian, but if you’ve not grown up with or been around the Hollywood system, you won’t necessarily understand when somebody says, “I’ll get you a drive-on.” But those of us who grew up around it, we just know what it is.
It means that you can actually drive your car and not humiliatingly walk onto the movie lot.
If you have to park in a structure off the lot, then you’re a lower stratum.
I thought the war between Northern and Southern California was over. What are we still fighting over?
Well, “hella,” which is a Northern California word, which means “really,” like, “hella good.”
For a helluva good time you say hella.
Hella, h-e-l-l-a. Some foolish Southern Californians have said, “Oh no, no, that doesn’t belong,” but that is a Northern California word.
So many of our words taken up by the rest of the country are surfing terms or Hollywood terms or Silicon Valley terms.
The original list was double this length, and we weeded out a fair number of words that have really become national, for example “on fleek” or “bae.” A lot of times they start in the music industry, or in hip-hop culture; they do start in California.
Apart from the fact we’re large, we’re inventive, and we’re beautiful, why are so many words of national or even international popularity from California?
It’s tied to the same reason that fashion and music [do]. We are a dominant culture. A lot of these worlds spill over — the surf world, the Hollywood and tech worlds. California has been the home of all three. There’s a surf scene in Florida and New Jersey, and of course there’s tech all over the place, but the core of it is here.
I grew up in the surf world here in L.A. My dad is still surfing at 83. So I grew up speaking surf-speak. My husband works in television, so for 35 years I have been hearing Hollywood-speak. My daughter works in the industry; she was a consultant for some of the Hollywood-speak that I didn’t know, like “crafty.” It used to be “craft services,” now it’s “crafty,” with no “the.” You don’t say, “What is the crafty?” You say, “Does crafty have LaCroix [sparkling water]? It means the craft services person.
You talk about our state dish as guacamole, and that everyone says “guac.” I looked in the L.A. Times and could find “guac” at least to the 1980s.
A lot of these words are just elaborate ways of saying good or bad, a lot or a little, and often they’re also just shorthand, like the shorthands Samohi [high school] and PV for Palos Verdes.
“Samo” for Santa Monica.
Generally if names are more than a few syllables, people are going to instinctively shorten them and then sometimes they stick.
And “guac” because “guacamole” is too long?
Right — too many syllables!
With the new law legalizing marijuana, we’re going to hear more about the Emerald Triangle, where marijuana is grown in the three-county area: Humboldt, Trinity and Mendocino.
This Emerald Triangle business long predates the current legal mess. When I was in college in the 1970s, everybody knew about Humboldt. It’ll be interesting to see whether the Central Valley, the San Joaquin Valley becomes a stronger place for that and maybe get its own 4/20-related [status]. 4/20 is another good example. 4/20 is shorthand for the national day of smoking pot. It apparently came out of San Rafael High in the Bay Area. The high school itself doesn’t claim it; they don’t want that! But it came out of Northern California.
There’s another one I had not heard of: Karl the Fog. What is Karl the Fog, and why does it have a bigger Twitter following than I do?
I’d never heard of it, either. The Twitter following is huge! It’s very funny – Karl the Fog is like a person. Karl the Fog gets very busy in the summertime in San Francisco, where as Mark Twain famously said, it was the coldest winter he ever spent –
… was a summer in San Francisco. Not all of these are flattering. “Marina Girl” may be the Northern California equivalent of Valley Girl? A little vapid, a little overindulged?
A little shallow — Mommy and Daddy are paying for her apartment in the Marina [District]. My millennial consultants in the Bay Area said the Marina Girl is very much a real thing. Another one is “brogrammer,” which is a cross between a frat boy and a nerdy coder guy.
A Silicon Valley word I like, because it harkens back to student days, is “ramen profitable” – a startup that is profitable only because the founders live in an uncle’s basement and eat ramen.
And then sometimes what can happen, though, is that kid in the basement can go from “ramen profitable” to “unicorn” or can join the “three commas club.” The three commas club is when your net worth suddenly needs three commas. And that’s the lure of Silicon Valley: that you can go from ramen profitable to three commas club in a few weeks.
How often do words fall out of usage in California?
I’m surprised at how many stay. One of the ones in the book is “moded.” I remember in the ’70s, as a teenager, that that was popular. I did my digging on that word, and it does have California roots. “You’re so moded” means you’ve been humiliated or embarrassed.
One I didn’t know about is “tightsauce,” tight, like tight-fitting. It means something is really great, it’s really cool, it’s tightsauce. Will that stick around? In 10 years, will people still be saying that? I don’t know. “On fleek” quickly went national, and it may be on its way out. Some millennial advisors said “on brand” was better.
We take bits and pieces from a lot of other languages, principally Spanish, and make them Californian.
I think part of our language is Spanglish, a hybrid. Southern California was Mexico before, and especially in San Diego or Orange County, L.A., it’s just normal to say “la troca” or “los Doyers” or “sup, ay?”
“Troca” for truck.
“Los Doyers” for the Dodgers. “Sup, ay?” is a Spanglish version of “what’s up?” And “no bueno,” everybody says. The family I grew up in, who were not Latino, say it all the time – “ah, that’s no bueno.” That’s our hybrid California culture.
You wrote this book under the pseudonym “Helena Ventura.” Why did you do that?
They’re both old California names, from the Mission era ...
And yours is an old California family.
It is. My six-generations-back grandfather was allegedly the first white settler in Ventura County. Hence Helena Ventura’s last name.
Christian Borchard was your forebear. Isn’t Borchard a freeway exit now?
Yes, he’s a freeway exit. We’re very, very proud.
Is it daunting for someone who might be moving to California to think, I really would like to undertake this and sound Californian?
We had a lot of fun doing pronunciation guides because that’s often how you can tell a newcomer, when they say “Sep-ul-VAY-da” instead of “Se-PUL-ve-da.” I grew up in Los Feliz, which is not “Los Fe-LEES.” I had an argument with a friend from Northern California who insists on pronouncing it “Los Fe-LEES” because she speaks Spanish. And I’ve had this discussion with my friend Dora, who owns Yuca’s Hut in Los Feliz, who is as Spanish speaker, is Mexican American. And we agree. We both grew up in the same neighborhood in Los Feliz. It’s “Los FEE-lis.” Because it’s not authentically Spanish. It’s authentically L.A.
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