California - Languages



The speakers of Russian, Spanish, and English who first came to what is now California found an amazing diversity of Indian cultures, ranging from the Wiyot in the north to the Yokuts in the Central Valley and the Diegueño in the south, and of Indian languages, representing four great language families—Athapaskan, Penutian, Kokan-Siouan, and Aztec. Yet, except for place names such as Shasta, Napa, and Yuba, they have not lent any of their words to California speech.

As in much of the West, California English is a composite of the eastern dialects and subdialects brought by the continuing westward migration from the eastern states, first for gold and timber, then for farming, for diversified manufacture, for Hollywood, and for retirement. The interior valley is Midland-oriented with such retained terms as piece (a between-meals lunch), quarter till, barn lot (barnyard), dog irons (andirons), and snake feder and snake doctor (dragonfly), but generally, in both northern and southern California, Northern dominates the mixture of North Midland and South Midland speech in the same communities. Northern sick to the stomach, for example, dominates Midland sick at and sick in, with a 46% frequency; Northern angleworm has 53% frequency, as compared with 21% for Midland fishworm; and Northern string beans has 80% frequency, as compared with 17% North Midland green beans and South Midland and Southern snap beans. Northern comforter was used by 94% of the informants interviewed in a state survey; Midland comfort by only 21%. Dominant is Northern /krik/ as the pronunciation of creek, but Midland bucket has a greater frequency than Northern pail, and the Midland /greezy/ for greasy is scattered throughout the state. Similarly, the distinction between the /wh/ in wheel and the /w/ of weal is lost in the use of simple /w/ in both words, and cot and caught sound alike, as do caller and collar.

There are some regional differences. San Francisco, for instance has sody or soda water for a soft drink; there the large sandwich is a grinder, while in Sacramento it is either a poor Joe or a submarine. Notable is the appearance of chesterfield (meaning sofa or davenport), found in the Bay region and from San Jose to Sacramento; this sense is common in Canada but now found nowhere else in the US. Boonville, a village about 100 mi (160 km) north of San Francisco, is notorious for "Boontling," a local dialect contrived in the mid-19th century by Scotch-Irish settlers who wanted privacy and freedom from obscenities in their conversation. Now declining in use, Boontling has about 1,000 vocabulary replacements of usual English words, together with some unusual pronunciations and euphemisms.

As the nation's major motion picture, radio, and television entertainment center, Los Angeles has influenced English throughout the nation—even the world—by making English speakers of many dialects audible and visible and by making known new terms and new meanings. It has thus been instrumental in reducing dialectal extremes and in developing increased language awareness.

California's large foreign-language populations have posed major educational problems. In 1974, a landmark San Francisco case, Lau v. Nichols, brought a decision from the US Supreme Court that children who do not know English should not thereby be handicapped in school, but should receive instruction in their native tongue while learning English. California's Chacon-Moscone law required native-language instruction, but the law expired in 1987. In 1997, a federal judge ruled against an injunction that had blocked English immersion classes in Orange County. The ruling ended the bilingual education program in the school district and opened the possibility for a statewide vote in June 1998 to decide if non-English-speaking students will be permitted to learn English upon entering public schools. On 2 June 1998 California voters enacted Proposition 227, which called for students to be taught English by being submerged in English language classrooms.

In 2000, 19,014,873 Californians—or 60.5% of the population five years old or over—reported speaking only English at home, down from 68.5% in 1990.

The following table gives selected statistics from the 2000 census for language spoken at home by persons five years old and over.

California

LANGUAGE NUMBER PERCENT
Population 5 years and over 31,416,629 100.0
Speak only English 19,014,873 60.5
Speak a language other than English 12,401,756 39.5
Speak a language other than English 12,401,756 39.5
Spanish or Spanish Creole 8,105,505 25.8
Chinese 815,386 2.6
Tagalog 626,399 2.0
Vietnamese 407,119 1.3
Korean 298,076 0.9
Armenian 155,237 0.5
Japanese 154,633 0.5
Persian 154,321 0.5
German 141,671 0.5
French (incl. Patois, Cajun) 135,067 0.4
Russian 118,382 0.4


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