They took their own accent, the California accent, and ramped it up

Wednesday, May 18th, 2022

Pop-punk was created in the late 1980s and early 1990s at 924 Gilman Street in Berkeley, an all-ages venue normally referred to as “Gilman”:

This is where Bay Area bands like Rancid, Operation Ivy, the Mr. T Experience, and, especially, Green Day all started to get attention. Bay Area pop-punk is a kinder, gentler variety than either the nihilist Londoners or the hardcore California bands like the Circle Jerks and the Dead Kennedys that preceded them. The Gilman bands obviously worshipped the Clash, whose songs showed more craft, hooky melodies, and subtlety than, say, the Sex Pistols. Some of the bands, like Rancid, were responsible for amping up the Clash’s combination of punk and reggae into what’s now called the Third Wave of ska music.

The Bay Area community was goofier, sillier, more suburban, and more inclined to make happy, poppy music than any punk community that came before it. As an ode to the Clash, a lot of their singers adopted a sort of faux-British accent. “I’m an American guy faking an English accent faking an American accent,” Green Day lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong told Rolling Stone in 1994. Tim Armstrong, the (unrelated) lead singer of fellow Bay Area band Rancid, sings with an accent that varies song by song; sometimes it’s nearly featureless, other times it’s a Strummer-esque Brit inflection, other times it sounds nearly New York.

The pop-punk accent really became smooth and polished a little bit later, in the mid-1990s, with bands like Blink-182 and the Offspring, both hailing from Southern California. Their singers (Mark Hoppus and Tom DeLonge from Blink-182, Dexter Holland from the Offspring) totally abandoned any pretenses of Britishness. Instead they took their own accent, the California accent, and ramped it up, pushed it to new extremes. It was almost exactly what happened in London. Pop-punk singers became more Californian than the Californians.

Penelope Eckert, a linguistics professor at Stanford, is one of the foremost scholars examining what’s known as the “California Shift.” The California Shift is a linguistic theory covering the particular changes in dialect that affect the Pacific coast of the United States. Eckert was nice enough to humor me and listen several times to a song I chose based on its particularly egregious “pop-punk voice,” Blink-182’s “First Date.” I love the song, but am aware others may find it horribly annoying. “It really does sound like someone’s messing around,” she told me.

A key change in the California Shift is what’s called the cot/caught merger. Northeasterners and Midwesterners pronounce those words differently, giving the former an “ah” sound and the latter an “aw” sound. “Californians do not,” says Eckert, who is originally from New York. “They have no idea. That vowel is almost completely merged. Think ‘mawwm’ instead of ‘mom.’”

Vowel sounds work like those sliding puzzle games where you have to unscramble a picture by sliding one piece of it at a time. As soon as you move one piece, you’re left with an empty space behind you, which has to be filled by something else. Californians dropped the “cot” vowel sound, pronouncing it like “caught” instead. So something had to fill that space. “The California Shift is this kind of combined change in the pronunciation of short vowels,” says Kennedy. The easiest way to think about it? Look at the words kit, dress, and trap. In the California Shift, “kit” becomes “ket”, “dress” becomes “drass”, and “trap” becomes “trop”.

Linguists talk about this shift in terms of directions; to talk with a California accent is sometimes called “trap-backing,” or “trop-bocking.” Your mouth functions like a resonating chamber. You can alter the frequencies of the sounds you make by changing the size of the chamber and by moving your tongue around. Your tongue’s placement is a major factor in dialects; it can be raised, lowered, moved to the front, or moved to the back. Californians move their tongues back, hence “trop-bocking.”

But there are some more complex things going on in the pop-punk voice. Eckert walked me through the Blink-182 song word by word, pointing out places where DeLonge was playing around with accent. “When they say ‘to pick you up on our very first date,’ the interesting thing about ‘date’ is that he renders it as a monophthong ‘dehhht’ instead of ‘date,’ says Eckert. “In most American English it’s a diphthong.” A diphthong is a vowel sound with two simpler sounds in it; for most Americans, “date” is a kind of compound vowel made up of the “eh” sound and the “ee” sound. Not so much for Tom DeLonge, who eliminates all but the “eh,” making it a single sound, or a monophthong.

The monophthong “date” surprised Eckert, as she says it’s not part of the California Shift. Except! “I’ve heard that some in Chicano English, but not so much in Anglo English,” she says. Chicano English is spoken by native English speakers of Mexican descent—it’s not a Mexican accent, because Chicano English speakers are native English speakers, but sort of their own English dialect. And that goes along with one of DeLonge’s most obvious vocal tics: changing short “ih” sounds as in the work “think” to a long “ee” sound, turning it into something like “theenk.” “Chicano English raises the vowel I to ‘ee’ before nasal consonants,” says Eckert. “So ‘theenk’ is very Chicano. And you have a lot of Anglo wannabes saying that too.”

Another very distinctive element of the California accent that’s extremely present in DeLonge’s vocals is the long “oo” sound in words like “room,” which DeLonge pronounces as something more like “rehm.” That’s almost an efficiency move; the particular combination of shapes your lips have to make to move from the first consonant, R, to the last consonant, M, plus the moves your tongue has to make to form the “oo” sound, are pretty difficult. If you move your tongue closer to your front teeth, it’s a lot less work, but you’ll change the pronunciation of “room” to “rehm.” It’s called “oo-fronting.”

There are plenty more things Eckert taught me about DeLonge’s delicious accent, but one last example would be the way Californians pronounce the letter R in certain words. In a word where the stress falls on a vowel one syllable before a word ending in R, like “whatever” or “over,” most of the country, but most noticeably those in the New York/New Jersey area, stress the consonant in the second-to-last syllable extra hard. But Californians lengthen the R. So a New Yorker will say “whatevah,” but a Californian will say “whateverrrr.” “We talk about New York/New Jersey accents as being ‘R-less’ and California accents as being ‘R-ful,’” laughed Eckert. (Linguistics jokes are pretty good.)

DeLonge does some weird, non-Californian stuff, though. His pronunciation of words like “light” and “spider” come out somewhere between the vowel sound from “rye” and “roy.” “His pronunciation of it is striking, and different from Californians generally,” says Kennedy. “It may be another attempt at projecting British punk vocals, but if I recall correctly he does this in speech as well, and so it might actually be a skate/surf/punk subculture linguistic feature.”


  1. Keynes says:

    Or maybe this is some subgroup trying to sound different. Academics desperately searching for source material can get beyond silly in their assertions. Of course musicians try to differentiate themselves from the pack. But to extrapolate that all Californians speak in such a way, let alone even understand such foolishness is hypothesis too far. What is annoying is that taxpayer funding keeps these eggheads from pushing shopping carts, or heaven forbid a real job

  2. Altitude Zero says:

    To paraphrase the late P.J. O’Rourke, I’d say that this indicates that there are a surprising number of people out there who can’t enjoy the simplest human pleasure without being driven into frenzies of analysis.

  3. Carol says:

    Have you noticed the odd vowel sounds in modern pop music, tho? Very affected. They don’t speak like that, they just do it in their music.

  4. TRX says:

    Odd. Last time I was in California, almost everyone I talked to sounded like Cheech Marin. Most of the others just spoke Spanish.

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