What does the Pacific Northwest English dialect sound like?
When considering the dialects of the U.S., the Pacific Northwest (PNW) is not usually a region we would consider to have a stereotypical dialect (think southern “cowboy”, northeastern Boston or Jersey accent, as seen here). As cities like Portland, OR and Seattle, WA grow as major U.S. cities in the Pacific Northwest, it’s important to consider how their dialects may differ from other regions of the country.
First, let’s talk about the phonetics of the Pacific Northwest dialect. Phonetics are the sounds that compose words, which vary between dialects. Portland locals especially are known for vowel raising of the “a” or “e” sound, as in “baig” for “bag”, or “aig” for “egg”. This most often occurs in words with a hard “g” sound following the vowel (see here). This is not unique to the Pacific Northwest, but is especially common in this area.
Homophones can also be an area of distinction for the Pacific Northwest dialect. These are words that have different meanings, but may share very close pronunciations. Small differences in pronunciation, combined with speaker context, can influence which word the listener perceives.
For example, the words “caught” and “cot” sound very similar, but have different meanings. Some regions of the country have slightly different pronunciations for both words, but the Pacific Northwest dialect differs. Although these words contrast in meaning, they share identical pronunciation for English speakers in the PNW. However, the Pacific Northwest dialect does not make this distinction – the two words labeled as “homophones” are often pronounced exactly the same way.
Another PNW dialect characteristic that is especially common in the PNW is the dropping of the final “g” in “ing” words, or gerunds. A prime example of this final “g” drop is Bill Gates, a Seattle, WA native. See here for more.
The Pacific Northwest vernacular may not have as many distinctive terms and phrases as stereotypical Boston or southern accents, but there are several hints that may lead you to believe that you are interacting with a true Pacific Northwest local. For example, PNW locals often use the term “filberts” in place of “hazelnuts”. A French saint named Philbert held his feast day on August 20th, right at the peak of the hazelnut season. As the U.S.’ main producer of hazelnuts, Oregonians have adopted the alternative nomenclature for this beloved Nutella ingredient – “filberts”.
Slightly more likely to pop up in daily PNW conversation are the phrases “the coast”, “parking strip”, and “the mountain is out”. When you and your friends plan a weekend trip to see the Pacific Ocean, you’re going to “the coast”, but not “the beach”. The constantly windy and chilly coastal weather out here might have some influence on that one.
Lastly, “parking strip” references the strip of grass between the sidewalk and the street, and “the mountain is out” is used when noting if Mt. Rainier is visible on the horizon.
We also have the Pacific Northwest to thank as the birthplace of the words “black ice”, “cabin fever”, and “Sasquatch”. Perhaps they were inspired by the landscape?
The Bottom Line
Although the PNW dialectical differences are far from stereotyped, these subtle characteristics are worth listening for, both culturally and linguistically. For more information on American English, check out our YouTube channel. If you’re a Portland, OR local, come join us at our Meetups, classes at Portland Community College, and Intel seminars for employees!
If you missed us last week, check out our last post, Can an Accent Have a Negative Impact on Your Interview?.
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