surfervoice

Dude, Where Does the ‘Surfer Voice’ Actually Come From?

It’s a loose, slang-heavy vibe that rejects the formalities of English — and tracing its history means venturing far outside Southern California

In 2002, a young man named Micah Peasley stood in front of a local TV news camera and delivered perhaps the greatest ode to riding a wave uttered by man. Using a combination of words, hand gestures and sound effects, Peasley told a tale of surfing nirvana. “You smack the lip — whaaaa-pak! Drop down, sma… bwaahhhhaaa!” he told the camera, using slaps of his open hand to punctate the scene. “Then, after that, you drop in and just ride the barrel and get pitted, so pitt-hed, like that.”

It was a pitch-perfect rendition of the slightly ditzy, super-stoked surfer bro, packaged for viral consumption on the internet, and it brings a smile to my face every time I remember it. That drawn-out surfer-bro voice is tightly associated with Southern California culture, but it’s fairly rare to actually encounter a local with an accent so unironically thick. Thing is, the few people I know with a genuine surfer drawl aren’t sure of where it comes from. “We all kinda talked like this when I was growing up in Malibu, man,” YouTube personality, surfer and bowl-cut expert Hamish Patterson told me earlier this year. “I wouldn’t say I have an accent, but people comment on it all the time.”

In the spirit of summer, I set out to figure out why this style of speech has become so encoded and satirized in American pop culture, whether in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure or a random City Council meeting. For a long time, the field of linguistics settled on just one broad category for the accent spoken by people in the Golden State: California English. But further study in recent years has determined that California features a number of dialects shaped by ethnicity and geography. As it turns out, the surfer-guy drawl really is a white American phenomenon at its heart, observed at its peak in (very white) enclaves like Huntington Beach and Santa Cruz. The spread of California slang and aesthetics in the 1980s and 1990s helped embed terms like “brah” and “sketchy” — and the vocal affectations that come with them — into the mainstream.

To understand the dynamics of speaking like I’ve just been pitted, I reached out to Pamela Vanderway, a veteran dialect coach who’s worked in Hollywood and Broadway.  “What’s key is the jaw hinge. With this surfer accent, the molars in the back are dropped further than you would think,” Vanderway tells me. “Go watch the guys in movies. They almost look… not quite slack-jawed, but there’s a widening of the mouth that changes the resonance of the words.”

That shaping changes the way people pronounce vowels. Californian voices increasingly feature something called the “cot-caught merger,” which is a fancy linguistic term for what happens when you keep the tongue low and back in the mouth and blend the vowel sounds for words like cot and caught or don and dawn. This merger was first identified as a trend in California 40 years ago, and it’s held firm since, even spreading outward toward other parts of the American West.

Then there’s something researchers have dubbed the California Shift, in which vowel sounds start to move: Bit starts to sound more like bet (think “hey, betch”), and bet starts to round into bat, and bat morphs into a looser baht. You can hear similar vowel shifts in the exaggerated pronunciation of a word like “dude,” too. “These changes appear to be recent innovations in California speech; they came to the attention of researchers in the 1980s and today are heard primarily from younger speakers,” linguistics expert Matthew Gordon wrote for PBS in 2005. “As these examples reveal, most of the action in the changing sound of American English is heard with vowels. This reflects a general pattern in the history of the language: The consonants have been relatively stable, while the vowels have undergone great changes.”

In a sense, the surfer bro lives in linguistic harmony alongside the trope of the California Valley Girl, both featuring varying doses of “uptalk” and vocal fry. But it also reminds me of another kind of surfer bro — the one found in my home state of Hawaii.

As a transplant there at age 7, with Korean parents who had no roots on the islands, I never truly picked up the dialect of Hawaiian Pidgin. But I learned to understand the intricacies of the creole language, and I began to mirror the slang and cadence in my own speech when given the right setting. As the result of multiple generations of language-sharing among immigrants, many of whom worked on island plantations with broken English, Pidgin holds little resemblance in origin to Cali surfer speak. In fact, a lot of mainlanders would probably struggle to interpret a simple phrase like “Eh, where you stay? I got da kine green bottles fo’ pau hana, ya.”

But for me, there’s something telling about how “surfer” dialects, whether in Southern California or Hawaii or Australia, share the kind of loose, slang-heavy vibe that rejects the formalities of English. And crucially, switching in and out of these accents is a way to signify tribe, Vanderway observes. That rings true to me: I spoke to a number of old friends from Hawaii who described how they “code-switch” from “regular” English to accented, grammatically specific Hawaiian Pidgin whenever they come home or meet other people from the islands. “I tend to slip into it when I detect it in other people I’m talking to. It’s possibly on a subconscious level,” Lindsay Kido, a poker player who now lives in Vegas, tells me. “I love when I get to speak it. It makes it a little easier to handle because I miss home a lot. The other time it comes out is when I’m mad. Most people here can’t understand me either way!”

It’s kind of strange when I start to slip into any kind of Pidgin, given that my friends once roasted me for how inauthentic it can sound. But put me in a room with the sound of that dialect and it just happens whether I plan it or not. Notably, that’s also the same thing Patterson once told me about how his own accent comes out more among his old Malibu friends. Whether earnest or tongue-in-cheek, the use of this voice and slang sets over time.

Fifteen years after he appeared on camera, Micah Peasley returned to TV for an update on his life after a burst of viral fame. “I was totally faking it for the camera,” Peasley claimed to Fox 11, but you can still hear that California Shift and the surfer’s cadence in his voice. Regardless of whether it was real or not, that drawl will live forever on the internet as a slice of summer weirdness. Every good dialect, after all, has its inside jokes.