We talk right. And if you don’t, like, believe us, just watch the TV shows we make.
A few months ago, I got into a discussion about which segment of the country speaks English correctly. I’d just assumed it was Los Angeles. Some of us don’t enunciate that well, but the majority of us have the inflections down properly. I always knew how to make the "a" sound, as in "cat," until it occurred to me in this conversation that I may have been mispronouncing "cat" my whole life.
Around the same time, I was on the phone with someone who lives in Las Vegas. She pointed out my accent. I insisted that I didn’t have one. She insisted that I did: a Los Angeles accent. And it’s not like this woman lived in the Bronx or something.
I know a Los Angeles accent exists, but I always thought it was present only in a minority of our residents. And I always thought it was represented not by an accent but by an overuse of "like" (as in, "I’m, like, uffended..."), "totally" (as in, "I’m, like, totally uffended..."), and "all" (as in, "He’s all, ‘You don’t have to be, like, totally uffended’").
But it is also marked by a laziness in inflection. One native friend of mine, for example, rarely says the word "butt." She says "buh," sort of clipping off the very end of it so that it sounds like she’s about to interrupt herself. The best way I can spell it is B-U-dash. "Bu--." She also does it with other words that end with T. "Not" often comes out "no–-." "I am no-- happy with the size of my bu--."
Despite these regional quirks, it’s never occurred to me -- or anyone else in Los Angeles with whom I’ve talked about this -- that we have any kind of accent. This myopia about language may be a sign of a greater self-absorption that permeates Los Angeles, but more likely it’s because our TV representatives have become the self-appointed arbiters of what English is supposed to sound like.
You may have noticed the curious lack of accents -- or widespread application of the Los Angeles accent -- among characters on television shows. How often do you hear anyone on ER flatten the "A" in "Chi-CAH-go?" Which characters on Friends besides Joey sounded like a New Yawker? They all sounded like people from Los Angeles. Heck, Phoebe sounded vaguely like a Valley Girl. (Just for the heck of it, I went and looked it up. Lisa Kudrow is from Encino.)
There are either many reasons for this homogenization or one giant circuitous one. For starters, most of the shows on TV are made here, so they star people who live here. The actors from here already have the Los Angeles accent, and the ones who move here develop it after years of commingling with us. If they don’t lose their regional accent, they have agents and managers who tell them to do it or else they won’t get cast in anything. (Directors and producers look at so many actors for each role that they will find any reason to pare down their lists of candidates. If an actor has a slight drawl, that might be enough reason to eliminate them from contention for a role.) While this practice may increase an actor’s chance of getting work, it also reinforces the homogenization of the local accent.
As for trying to replicate an accent for shows that take place in a particular region of the country, that’s usually too much of a bother. It’s hard enough to find the right actors for a TV show. But to find actors who have the right accent or train the right ones to speak in the regional tongue is more trouble than it’s worth. Also, the convention of every TV show having the same accent is so entrenched that any deviation from it -- especially since TV audiences are already used to hearing the "Angelized" accent -- would detract from any realism it might add. Besides, who watches TV for the realism?
The only exception is for shows that take place in the South. For all our tacit insistence that everyone sound the same, we here in TV land can’t ignore the Southern drawl. But that’s where our sense of realism ends. While residents in the South can no doubt distinguish variations on the Southern twang, residents of Los Angeles can’t -- or won’t. Characters that feature Southern accents all seem to use the same one. It’s the thickest of the thick, obvious to the point of comical, and so absurd that it defines their characters. It sounds like a cross between Georgia and Mars.
As a result, since we hear the Los Angeles accent all around us, whether on TV or off, we assume that we speak with the correct accent. The irony of it all is Los Angeles’s source of this homogenization is the rest of the country. We’re a mess of transplants, most of whom come with our home region’s tongue. The only reason we can’t hear Minnesota, or Oklahoma, or West Virginia in our accent is because it’s drowned out by New York, Rhode Island, Texas, Alabama, and all the other accents that have blended with it.
If our non-accent accent doesn’t distinguish the Los Angeles dialect, our subject matter might. We talk about a lot of the same things everyone else does (the weather, the war, who’s going to win on Dancing with the Stars), but we do dwell on subjects that aren’t as common elsewhere. Since a premium is placed on appearances, subjects related to that come up a lot. The one I hear about most often is gyms, probably because people complain about them so much. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone mention how great their gym is. But I’ve heard an awful lot of people share how much they don’t like their gym.
We’re also big on cars, a topic close to our hearts because it combines two of our greatest obsessions: appearances and spending time in traffic.
Oddly enough, religion is a recurring topic. There seems to be more of a search for faith here, possibly because we have less of it than anywhere else. I hear -- and get drawn into -- conversations about other religions. And these are with people who aren’t even proselytizing. I think there’s more of a genuine interest in discussing -- not arguing -- the topic here.
Maybe it’s just the company I keep, but the entertainment industry might be tops on the topic du jour list. Show me any restaurant with more than 12 people in it and I’ll show you at least one table that has someone talking about an agent or a script. Sure, this is an industry town. But I’d be willing to bet that they don’t sit around in bars in Pittsburgh all day and talk about smelting.
I remember reading a Q and A column once where a reader asked the columnist what segment of the United States spoke English properly, since our country has so many distinct accents. The columnist replied that Midwesterners spoke it correctly -- or more close to correctly than anyone else in the country. If this is true, then why don’t any Midwesterners that I meet insist that they speak it right?
Because, like the rest of us, they watch more TV than read Q and A columns.
L.A. Nuts is a weekly look at the cast of characters that make up this city.