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I'm playing around with story ideas involving university students. Most of them are locals but I wanted to include a foreign character as a sort of outside view.

I also decided to make her Southern Californian on the grounds that that would be exotic enough for the rest of the cast (who are mostly from the north west of England) to find interesting but still familiar enough to be relatable.

I've run into a few issues with her mode of speech though, I thought that researching how people from Southern California talk and act would be fairly simple because they are responsible for a huge amount of American pop culture but the reality has proved rather different. Whilst there are plenty of pages on the internet describing Californian slang, I've been told that there are a lot of problems with them. They include a lot of stuff that a university-aged character would consider outdated (for example "grody" gets mentioned a lot but I'm told that it's considered very outdated), and they mix up slang that originates from different parts of California.

What's more, while they do discuss slang, they rarely discuss other things about the region's mode of speech that would distinguish it from other English-speaking regions. I'm aware that it was once considered a Southern Californian thing to constantly insert the word "like" into sentences but that's become common enough worldwide that it wouldn't really make it obvious where she's from if I had her talking like that all the time.

Are there any good resources out there with up to date information on how people from various regions, specifically Southern California in my case, that could help me make this character sound reasonably authentic?

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    The best resourse would be a university-aged south californian. You could try looking at vlogs/blogs by Californian people and ask them to write a piece on the topic using their personal experience. – Sara Costa Jun 15 '17 at 9:14
  • This is arguably better suited to english.stackexchange.com – Chris Sunami Apr 29 at 19:33
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I think you started on the right track before taking a wrong turn. 'Slang' is and outsider term. The results of your search are always going to be dated.

Any peer group had 'its speech'. They are not aware how their speech differs from 'correct speech' - asking them will do no good because they don't know.

I'd also argue that amongst the younger generation speech less localised due to the effect of media. Couples have gone from 'going steady' to 'going out' to 'seeing' to 'dating' regardless what part of the western world they live in.

[Sample]

As soon as we'd settled in to our new home they enrolled Charlie into a summer school. My sister quickly bagged herself one big potpourri of brand new, shiny California friends. On account of her basketball skills she'd been awarded a scholarship. No such luck for me. I'm stuck here day in day out. Dad's at his new job with Google. Veronica's still working for the same firm but has transferred to the LA Office. It's almost summer. I got no college to go to, not 'till next semester. I don't know nobody I can visit. I ain't got no friends. There's just me, the pool, the floating recliner, the sofa, Veronica's treadmill, the TV, a TiVo that I don't know how to work, the AC, and 136 crazy, fucked up TV channels. I shouldn't watch TV. That's where they get you. It's a conspiracy. You're having a moment when you're feeling a little off key. We all have them. It's not something I haven't felt before. Normally the moment would pass. You'd give yourself a little pep talk and you'd be back on your game before you know it. But they won't let you do that, they suck you in. The air-brushed people on the TV tell you how much your life sucks. And then they tell you all the things you need to make your life better – the things you need for true happiness. Oh man! You need this hairstyle and you have to wear these clothes. Your teeth have look like this, and you must drive one of these cars. You're required to manicure these and wax that – all these things are the basic requirements of happiness, without them you are a loser. Money can't buy happiness. Happiness can only be leased on a monthly payment plan, and even the basic happiness package don't come cheap, not in Cosmetic City. If I wanted to be happy I'd have forget the idea of sitting on my ass waiting for September, and college. I'd have to get myself a job.

I have written a couple of novels featuring Southern Californian students, the most recent has an LA resident as the narrator. I met my Californian beta reader online - she didn't realise I'd never been to California (let alone the US). So, I guess I do pretty well. Most of the language I learned from TV. There's no need to concentrate on students. This generation's millennials are were students not so long ago.

Of course, I'm not perfect. Occasionally my 'Britishness' slips through. Rather than correct my slips I justify them within the story. Your novel qualifies for the same excuse. e.g. My character's deceased mother was born in the UK. Her stepmother went to University in the UK. Subsequently my character uses the odd expression picked up from them.

Only a part of the characterisation is language you need to build in the culture that goes with it.

If you need a sample let me know.

  • A sample would be very nice, thanks! But I do think there are still fairly distinct regional dialects to take into account. For example in the north west of England it's fairly common to refer to all male people as "mate" and all female people as "luv". I think that would be baffling to most Americans! One thing I discovered is that in California "low key" means something quite different from most of the rest of the English speaking world, and I've also read that a character's mode of speech is a good way to distinguish them in a text-only media. – GordonM Jun 16 '17 at 11:20
  • @GordonM. I think its perception. 'Mate' and 'Luv' may be though of as a northern 'thing' but nationally it's a class thing. "Stick the kettle on, luv," said the builder. "Mate, lend us a tenner?" etc . . . Have added a sample to original answer. – Surtsey Jun 16 '17 at 11:29
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As the proud "owner" of a college aged native Southern Californian (e.g. my daughter) I think you're going to be hard pressed to find a real distinction in her language as a type.

All of the stereotypical slang -- dude, gnarly, etc. -- came from the surfing culture which, as you've noted, has mostly fallen by the wayside. Now she certainly uses words to mean different things than I believe them to mean, such as "salty" meaning sarcastic/snarky rather than crude (swearing like a sailor), but I'm not sure how much of it is So Cal versus her generation in general.

So, living here, I would say that without making her a caricature, linguistically she's not going to be easily identifiable as being Southern Californian. She would, however, be used to a very different life-style. In San Diego, it's pretty much sunny all the time, and my daughter actually lost points on a French exam because she literally didn't know what season came after fall... in any language! We're also used to fresh fruit and veggies year 'round, most of us are foodies, and there is a strong health/outdoor expectation.

The bottom line is, I'd focus more on culture than language, or switch to a more dramatically different location in the US like Texas or the south where there really are strong linguistic differences.

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Southern California is the home of Hollywood, and that makes it difficult to recognize its unique dialect

A huge percentage of the media we consume is being created by people who live in Southern California. And unless they are trying to imitate a particular dialect, their word choices will reflect that. That means that the Southern California 'sound' is disseminated far faster and far wider than most regional dialects.

The most distinctive linguistic quirk I can think of is that all of our freeways have 'the' in the front. If you're traveling in LA, you can take the 118 to the 405 to the 101.

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So I'm assuming that you are from the U.K., I wanted to clarify that @Arcanist_Lupus' answer with appending the title "The" to route numbers is only done in California (I have family in the San Jose/San Francisco that do this). It's my understanding that the UK does this (I've heard references to The M5) but in the U.S. the general rule is that Non-Californians will use the abbreviation for the numbered highways. So on his list it would be S.R. (or State Route) 118, I-405 (or Interstate), and U.S. 101 (the difference is who pays for the roads). Named routes will always use the name as is, so it would be Hollywood Blvd, not The Hollywood Blvd.

A good example character to base on is Cordillia Chase from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, who is a very 90s Valley Girl characterization though she's not a one off character and has some hidden depth (especially since I'm aware Buffy and Angel get some mad love in the UK so it's an easy reference to understand.). Many Californians, especially those from L.A. are Hollywood obsessed (it is a big industry after all) and can play Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon like a boss.

California these days has a reputation for being very very left of center in U.S. Politics (Historically though, this is very recent... California went through a period of 40 years from 1952 to 1992 where they voted for the Republican candidate in the election with exception to one candidate. They had some serious love for Reagan and surprisingly Nixon though both make more sense when you realize both were Californian politicians). She'd probably have opinions on leftist politics, talks about being vegetarian (especially if she's vegan) and talk about the plight of the poor as she pulls out her credit card to by a very expensive fashion accessories. The hypocritical materialism hasn't died at all, but a recent trend is that they are very generous and honestly caring... and think more stuff will help... think Lottie from Princess and the Frog.

One of the difficulties as you pointed out is that due to Hollywood being the center of the film industry for over a century, Californian culture tends to be very familiar to the world and unique slang is ported quickly. Ask any American where they will get their drivers liscense and they will all say the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) despite most states not having a DMV... But California has one and the people who make movies and TV all go to the DMV, so the DMV is accepted in every state in the Union (as an example, my home state of Maryland has the Maryland Vehicle Administration (MVA) but good luck finding a Marylander who will call it that in any situation that isn't formal.). One other interesting fact is that the term "Dude" did not originate with the Valley Girl's male counterpart, the "Surfer Dude/Dude Bro" but was adopted from Cowboy Culture where "Dude" meant "Rookie, New Comer, or non-professional" and only exists in this context in the form of "Dude Ranches" which are working Ranches that offer Cowboy experiences to tourists (If you've seen Malcolm in the Middle, Francis works at one with German "dudes" Otto and Grechen, who known nothing of ranch work beyond loving American Western genre).

One general thing I love to do if I have Brits and Yanks in dialog is, rather than establish an attempted accent pronunciation, I'll have the dialog of the British characters use the British Spelling and the American Characters use dialog with American Spelling. It's subtle, but it's a fun way to show the accent without attempting bad alternative spellings."

  • Lots of good stuff here. For example I had no idea that "DMV" was a uniquely Californian institute, I just always assumed that's what it was called everywhere in America! Thanks, I'll read it over more thoroughly when I can. – GordonM Apr 30 at 8:11
  • @GordonM I think some other states have a DMV as well, but motor vehicle laws are administered at the state level of government, so it's different between each one and I don't care to find the actual number. It's vernacular because of California using DMV. This is true of most state level government agencies. – hszmv Apr 30 at 13:17

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