The magnificent state of California has a bigger population than the entirety of the nation of Canada. Los Angeles itself has extensive cultures and demographics of people, all within 503 square miles. San Francisco accomplishes a similar diversity in just 231.9 square miles. All this population size, area and diversity can give rise to a multitude of cultural specificities. One of the most interesting of these specificities is language.
Language is one of the most important developments of society. Without it, there would hardly be any effective ways for two humans to communicate. There are thousands of languages and dialects around the world, with numerous variations even within singular languages based on geographical location. These variations typically come in the form of slang, short for “short language.” California is not unlike one of these places that has different variations of the same language.
Northern Californian slang and Southern Californian slang are like the spoon and the fork: Individually, both can accomplish a great deal, but together, they can guarantee the satiation of the Californian tongue. Phrases from Northern California have permeated the Southern Californian daily vocabulary and vice versa.
One of the most notable terms that has done this is “hella.” This famous word typically means “a lot” and other concepts similar to it. In Southern California, I heard the term being used semifrequently, and I myself used it, but only now and then. In Northern California, this word is to the local population what career and club stands are to Upper Sproul Plaza: You can’t be near one without constantly hearing mention of the other. Since moving to Berkeley, I have been unable to stop saying “hella,” and all my friends back in Southern California are hella fed up with it.
Another term that is common to the Bay but not down south is “the City.” In Northern California, it is pretty easy to figure out what “the City” is. After some deep, personal thought, I have come to the conclusion that this is because there is no dominant “city” in Southern California in terms of culture and life. In some way, San Francisco is weaved into almost everyone’s life here in Northern California, at least around the Bay. Down in Southern California, Los Angeles, which is the only city major enough to qualify as a possible “the City,” does not play nearly as important of a role in people’s lives. The only reason I used to associate with Los Angeles was for the ease of others to visualize where I come from.
Personally, my favorite Northern Californian slang term is “janky.” It is a descriptor used to describe something that is subpar in quality, such as a Berkeley sidewalk or a dining hall meal. Janky could also be substituted with other words, such as “stupid” or “wack,” but none of those words can truly encapsulate the mediocrity of something and insult its existence as much as “janky.” If I call a car janky, the owner would be much more offended than if I called it operationally idiotic, and I wouldn’t even be saying as many syllables. As an insult and a word, “janky” is incredibly economic and just as effective, if not moreso, than some very complex similar-meaning phrases.
One word from Southern California that, for better or for worse, will forever be a part of my daily vocabulary is “like.” This word has no actual meaning in a sentence or phrase when it is used. All it does is fill in empty, silent spaces between other words and phrases. Life in Southern California is fast, fast and faster, and so people must always be speaking. There is no time for being silent, thus “like” was incorporated. Regardless of the topic and length of the sentence or conversation, people will always use “like.” It was so common in Southern California that my brain eventually automatically decided to forego its existence, and I had to actually focus to identify every single time that it was said in regular speech.
Southern California was also the climax of the surfer dude. As such, many surfer dude phrases are very commonplace in Southern California. One of the most frequently used, even to this day, is “dude.” “Dude,” “bro” and “man” are all interchangeable in concept, but in practice, “dude” is really the only acceptable term. Over the years, it has even become unisexual, with everyone calling each other “dude.” In Northern California, I have started to use “dude” less and “bro” more, but “dude” will always feel more appropriate than any other similar term.
Language variance and quirks are just one of the many symptoms of a diverse and thriving society. To residents of Northern California, the Southern Californian terms discussed here might seem stupid and uncouth. The same might apply for Southern California residents reading the Northern Californian phrases. Ultimately, however, this difference in opinion is a hella good sign, and it is important we keep at it.
Contact Hamzah Alam at [email protected].