Why the Myth of the 'San Francisco Accent' Persists

13 min
Accent is different from word choice. It's about how a word is pronounced.  (Kelly Heigert/KQED)

When you think about America’s biggest cities, many have a recognizable accent — from the shifting vowels of Chicago to the dropped R’s of New York.

This early Joan Rivers standup clip provides a good example of what many people might identify as a New York accent.

If you ask people for an example of a San Francisco accent, some might say they hear it in San Francisco Mayor London Breed:


Or Grateful Dead frontman Jerry Garcia:

Or comedian Ali Wong.

Breed, Garcia and Wong are all San Francisco natives — born and raised in the city. And they all have very different ways of speaking.

Bay Curious listener Jonathan Morton wants to know: "Is there still such a thing as a San Francisco accent? Or have migration and television erased it?"

"So logically every single person has an accent, because everyone has some set of pronunciations that they use most of the time, and that's going to be different from someone else's set of pronunciations," said sociolinguist Lauren Hall-Lew. "But there's not really a way of speaking that identifies a San Franciscan."

Hall-Lew comes from a Chinese-American family that goes back five generations in San Francisco. She's currently based at the University of Edinburgh. She has spent years studying how people speak in her hometown.

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Despite the many differences in locals' speech patterns, Hall-Lew said the idea of a quintessential "San Francisco accent" still persists in some quarters.

Linguist Lauren Hall-Lew.
Linguist Lauren Hall-Lew. (Courtesy Lauren Hall-Lew)

One reason for this, Hall-Lew said, is because of misunderstandings about the definition of the word “accent.”

Some people think it's about localized vocabulary, like how Northern Californians are known to say “hella,” or the way locals say “S.I.” to refer to Saint Ignatius.

But accent isn’t the same thing as word choice, Hall-Lew said.

"Unlike a dialect, which is referring to words and grammar, an accent is just about pronunciation," Hall-Lew said. "So an accent is basically a set of pronunciations that people notice as being distinct from another set of pronunciations."

Mission Brogue: An Accent, but not The Accent

When some think of a San Francisco accent, they imagine a particular way of speaking known as the "Mission Brogue," which came to dominate the city in the 20th century.

This 1985 video, featuring "Tough Tony," a San Francisco bus driver, provides a good sample of Mission Brogue.

Tony’s accent is particular to Irish and Jewish people who started settling in the city during the Gold Rush days. Many of them originally spent time on the East Coast, which explains why they sound a bit like they’re from New York or Philadelphia.

The Mission neighborhood was a big Irish enclave back in the day, which is how the accent came to be known as the Mission Brogue.

Few people in San Francisco speak with this accent today, though you can hear traces of it in former California Gov. Jerry Brown’s voice. Brown comes from true San Francisco Irish stock.

"Jerry Brown's speech style is definitely reminiscent of that old Mission Brogue style," said Hall-Lew. "The marker in this speech that stood out to me the most is probably the way he says the 'r' in 'store.' It's a rather soft or even deleted 'r,' more like 'stwah' than 'store.' "

Hall-Lew said other markers of this accent are things like dropping the “th” at the end of “South,” so it sounds like “sout,” or pronouncing a word like “third” as “thoid.” Listen to Tough Tony say third in this clip:

The Trouble With Defining Accents

Like New York, Chicago and other big cities, San Francisco was a total melting pot. Starting in the mid-1800s, the city attracted people from all over the world. Not only was English spoken in many different ways, but the language was only one of many languages spoken.

Hall-Lew said the reason people came to view the “Mission Brogue” as the San Francisco accent in the 20th century — in spite of all this linguistic variety — has a lot to do with who wielded the most power.

"The idea of a San Francisco accent is usually framed in terms of a specific social group that was predominant at the time, in terms of political power," Hall-Lew said. During the 20th century, Irish immigrants were more visible in public life than many of the other groups living in the city, dominating local politics and law enforcement.

This might explain why some people, even today, see the Mission Brogue as the quintessential San Francisco accent — even though the city’s leadership is more diverse these days.

Lauren Hall-Lew said the very question of whether there is, or ever has been, a San Francisco accent is problematic in a city that's long been so diverse.

"Are you honestly meaning to ask: Do the people from Chinatown talk like the Russians in the Richmond, talk like the Central Americans in the Mission? No of course not," she said. "No, what you mean is, probably, is there a way of speaking that we associate with the middle-class white people of European heritage? That's what that question usually means. And that's the problem. That’s not actually representative of the city."

If you want to find out more about statewide California accent trends, click the play button below to hear Chloe Veltman chatting with The California Report’s Lily Jamali on the subject.

Thanks to sociolinguists Lauren Hall-Lew and Teresa Pratt for their help with this story.

Thanks also to Jonathan Morton of Mountain View, who asked the Bay Curious question this week.

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