As a native of Oakland, I’m a bit possessive of the word “hella.”
It’s a Bay Area thing. It’s as inseparable from the place as Mac Dre and truly great burritos. Grammatically, it goes rogue. You can say “there’s hella people here,” or you can say “that burrito looks hella good,” or you can say “I hella love Oakland.” If you’re from the Bay, you don’t have to think about it. It just sort of rolls off the tongue and into any point in a sentence deemed worthy.
Since 2010, the population of the Bay Area has risen by at least 270,000 people, many from other parts of the country. Having found themselves suddenly bombarded with hella hellas, maybe some of them decided to try it out for themselves.
An effort to which I would have responded like this:
But maybe I (and the rest of the Bay Area) should chill out, and take it as a compliment.
Mimicking the linguistic tics of a new place, says the West Virginia University professor Kirk Hazen, is actually a sign of affection for one’s adopted home.
In the field of linguistics, this is called accommodation, and generally, it’s an unconscious adaptive response to a new environment. “It makes your life easier if you’re not seen as a stranger,” Hazen says.
For the chronically mobile, the United States is littered with linguistic minefields. They might not be intended to expose the uninformed newbies, but certainly succeed in doing so. Consider, for example, the five place names below, which Hazen says often trip up visitors or new transplants:
It’s often in transplants’ best interests, Hazen says, to adopt the local variances, and it’s well within anyone’s power to modulate certain aspects of their speech. Though area natives will perhaps throw the “poser” label at outsiders attempting to blend in, in the long run, it’s a necessary element of social adhesion. Highly functional groups and societies—down to the level of friendship groups and couples—tend to show the most overlap in verbal patterning.
“If you get two people talking to each other, typically, their speech patterns will begin to converge,” the Georgetown University linguistics professor Jennifer Nycz tells CityLab. But there’s a catch. It depends on whether they like each other or not. That social-attitudinal response, Nycz says, governs how someone responds to
a regional dialects, too. “If you hate a place or you don’t like the people or you’re not planning on staying, you’ll want to create social distance,” she says. Divergent speech patterns are a pretty effective way of doing so.
These adjustments are not always conscious, nor are they inflexible, Nycz says. This became clear in her research of Canadians who had moved to New York City. One woman Nycz spoke to had grown up in rural Alberta; she hated her hometown but loved being Canadian. Nycz noted that when she spoke of where she grew up, she de-emphasized her “about” vowels, which rose again in stereotypical Canadian fashion when talking about places like Toronto, where she could, she told Nycz, imagine herself living one day. “She used this one feature—the “about” vowel—to convey emotional distance to one place and closeness to another,” Nycz tells CityLab.
If you want a foolproof step toward blending in with the locals, relying on vowel shifts alone isn’t your best bet, Nycz says. They’re too flighty. Instead, focus on the words. Regional expressions (“looking at you,” “hella”) are “very salient in speech,” Nycz says. And they’re far from impossible to pick up, she adds. “We’re learning new words all the time, even if we don’t move at all.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post misspelled the name of the Willamette River in Oregon. This post has been updated.