Does The Pacific Northwest Have An Accent? (Yes, a lame one)

Do you remember that scene in My Fair Lady when Rex Harrison’s character Professor Higgins sings “Why Can’t The English Learn to Speak?” It’s one of my favorite movies, so I remember it very well.

I think about that movie a lot when people ask me about the Pacific Northwest accent or if there even is one.

An accent dictates the way you pronounce certain words and syllables. For example, someone living in New Hampshire would likely pronounce “lawyer” as “loy-er”, where the first syllable rhymes with “boy”.

However, anyone who watched Andy Griffith on Matlock will remember that his character said it with a southern accent as “law-yer,” where the first syllable sounds like “claw.”

It’s the same word but pronounced differently because of the regional accent used. So, does the Pacific Northwest have an accent?

Does the Pacific Northwest Have an Accent?

Strictly speaking, everyone has an accent all over the world. Most people don’t think they have one because the way we speak sounds like everyone around us who grew up in the same neighborhood. We think other people have accents, not us.

However, the Pacific Northwest “accent” has been described by linguistics experts as being as close as possible to a neutral accent.

This is in sharp contrast to many other regional accents in the United States, where someone from Maryland, for example, would pronounce their state’s largest city as “Bawlmer” and not “Baltimore”.

The “General American Accent” is used to describe the average, non-specific version of English pronunciation in the United States. No one actually speaks that way but it exists relative to various regional accents as a comparison.

If you’re familiar with British accents, General American is essentially the American version of Received Pronunciation (RP), the “standard” British accent used by BBC newscasters or David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor on Doctor Who, although Tennant is Scottish.

No one in England naturally uses RP, but it sounds like British English from no particular city. The same can be said of the General American accent.

However, accent aside, many places in the PNW have unique words that they use so you’ll want to brush up on some of the Seattle slang if you plan on visiting.

Is the Pacific Northwest Accent the “Correct” One?

Well, there’s no such thing as a correct accent. Everyone around the world sounds different and that’s great! I don’t want to imagine a world where everyone sounds exactly the same; it would be no fun.

People from the region speak very closely to the General American or “standard” accent, but there are actually a few key differences in how we pronounce things here and they’re all related to how we pronounce vowels.

Vowel Sounds in the Pacific Northwest

People with Pacific Northwest accents use what linguistic experts call “the caught-cot merger,” which means the word “caught” (the past tense of the verb “to catch”) and “cot” (a type of bed) are pronounced exactly the same.

Some, but not all, people around here also pronounce “pen” and “pin” exactly the same. I once had a telephone conversation with my mother where she asked me to get some “clothes pens” while I was at the store.

Naturally, I bought two or three of those Clorox bleach pens at Walmart and triumphantly came home, ready to impress my mother. As it soon turned out, she meant “clothespins” because she was doing an art project. Oops!

Regional Variances

One of the most recognizable accents in the country is the “California” accent. As northern California is part of the Pacific Northwest, you might be wondering if people in Seattle or Portland sound like that as well.

The California accent is now limited to southern California, while the northern parts now use the Pacific Northwest version.

What About British Columbia?

There are a few minor exceptions to the standard accent, of course, since the Pacific Northwest is such a large area that encompasses many different places.

British Columbians, for example, will use a few Canadian English pronunciations that differ from the Pacific Northwest accent, but not as many as someone living in Ontario or New Brunswick.

The classic American stereotype joke of Canadians pronouncing “about” as “aboot” is no longer accurate, either. Over the past few years, Canadian English vowels have begun to raise and be pronounced in the Pacific Northwest “neutral” accent.

Famous Users of the Pacific Northwest Accent

A lot of celebrities born in the Pacific Northwest use the region’s accent unless playing a role that requires them to use a different one.

The sketch comedy show Portlandia, which I’ve never really watched but I’ve seen clips of on YouTube, stars Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein and is a parody of Portland’s stereotypical “hipster” culture.

Brownstein was born in Seattle, Washington, and Armisen was born in Mississippi, but both use the standard accent that you would hear if you visited Portland.

Another good example of how the accent sounds is any of Kurt Cobain’s interviews, although not his music, necessarily.

I’ve always been shocked at how musicians are able to sing in what sounds like a General American accent no matter where they’re from. As a teenager, I’d hear AC/DC songs and it took me years to find out that they were Australian. I never would have guessed.

Summary and Conclusion

To sum up, yes, the Pacific Northwest does have its own accent, but it is generally considered to be one of the most neutral in the world.

There are some vowel pronunciation differences, however, that set it apart from the generic General American accent that exists as a baseline to compare regional pronunciations across the country.

If you really want to know how people in the Pacific Northwest talk, why not pay us a visit? The Pacific Northwest is full of kind people and amazing beauty, you should come to see it for yourself!

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