Hank Sims / @ 2:04 p.m. / Our Culture

Born and Raised in Humboldt? Stanford’s ‘Voices of California’ Project Wants to Talk With You!


Were you born and raised in Humboldt County? Do you have an hour or two to spare over the coming week?

Well, then, consider making an appointment to sit down with one or more members of the team of Stanford University researchers who are in town to document life and language here in Humboldt. They’re here representing the university’s multi-year “Voices of California” project, which seeks to document life in the Golden State outside the megalopolises.

Let them introduce themselves:

We’re a group of researchers (graduate students and faculty) from the Linguistics and Anthropology departments at Stanford University. Our personal research interests are quite diverse, but we have teamed up because we all have an interest in studying the great diversity of geography, people, perspectives and language in California. And we all share the understanding that the best way to do this is one community at a time. 

They choose a different ruralish community every year to do this work, and this year it’s Humboldt’s turn. Their goal, eventually, is to map out the culture and language of all California — to suss out the currents and eddies of influence and culture that differentiate California from other places, and parts of California from each other.

“The project is important because so much of what we know about California is limited to these big metropolitan areas,” researcher Teresa Pratt said. “So some of it is about representing the California that is not represented. But also it’s about telling your story.”

Here’s how to sign up: Go to the Voices of California website. Find the “Participate!” button, which will take you to this page. Fill out a very simple questionnaire, and — according to Pratt — researchers should be in touch with you within a couple of hours.

They’re looking for Humboldt-born people from all ages, and across all categories of the ethnic and socioeconomic spectrum. They’ve rented meeting places in McKinleyville, Eureka and Arcata, but can also come to your home if time permits.

For what it’s worth, the researchers we spoke with were delightful people with whom it would be a pleasure to spend time. Their questions sound fun. If you need extra incentive, though, Pratt told the Outpost that participants can elect to receive a full transcript of their interview, presumably suitable for passing on to grandchildren and such.

Do it! Contribute to science. Press release below.

Psycholinguistic maps of “Northern California” v. “Southern California,” according to residents of (from left) Redding, Red Bluff and Merced. Graphic: Voices of California.

From Stanford University’s “Voices of California” Project:

Researchers from Stanford University’s Department of Linguistics will visit Humboldt County this September to conduct interviews with residents of the area. The group of fifteen researchers consists of both faculty and graduate students, all of whom are part of a multi-year research endeavor called Voices of California, which documents language and life across the state. During their 10-day stay in Humboldt, the researchers will conduct one-on-one interviews with over 100 Humboldt Bay natives.

Now in its eighth year, the Voices of California project studies regional differences in English as it’s spoken across California. The project focuses on the language and culture of Californians in non-urban areas of the state, because most dialectology studies in the United States have been based in big, coastal cities. In California, linguists have studied English in Los Angeles and the Bay Area, but not the Central Valley or smaller coastal towns. The Voices of California project aims to fill that knowledge gap by visiting those important but understudied parts of the state.

Thus far, researchers visited sites along the Central Valley: Merced County in 2010, Shasta County in 2011, Kern County in 2012, Sacramento County in 2014, and Salinas County in 2016. This year’s visit to Humboldt county marks the project’s first trip to a northern coastal California town.

Penny Eckert, a professor of Linguistics and Anthropology, initiated the project along with two fellow faculty and several graduate students in linguistics. “We wanted to make sure California was represented as it is, rather than just the California you see on TV. There’s cultural and linguistic diversity across the state that doesn’t fit neatly into those California stereotypes we see over and over again in popular media.”

The great environmental diversity of California results in vastly different ways of life across the state. And the diversity of the state’s population brings a variety of linguistic influences to the dialects of California. The Stanford research team will be conducting interviews with lifelong Humboldt Bay residents who are members of all ethnic communities that have been in the area for several generations.

“Humboldt is the perfect addition to the project,” says graduate student Kate Lindsey, a Humboldt native herself. “There’s a community and a way of life around the Humboldt Bay that you can’t find anywhere else and we’ll get to add a new way of talking ‘like a Californian’ to our project. I’m excited to introduce the team to my home and learn more about Humboldt’s rich history and diversity.”

In the interviews, which are recorded and last upwards of 45 minutes, interviewees are asked to share their oral histories and their perspectives on the community, the region, and the rest of the state. Interviewees also read a standard list of words so that pronunciations of the same set of words have been recorded for all participants.

The group will visit Humboldt from September 11 to September 21, 2017. Native residents of Humboldt County who are interested in participating in an interview should visit the project website — voicesofcalifornia.stanford.edu — or call 707-407-9027.

About Voices of California

Voices of California is a multi-year research endeavor conducted by Stanford University’s Department of Linguistics to study the social and linguistic variety of communities across California. To date, faculty and graduate student researchers have conducted nearly 600 interviews with lifelong residents of Merced, Shasta, Kern, Sacramento, and Salinas counties. In these interviews, residents share their oral histories, including how they see their communities, their regions, and the rest of the state. Project researchers use these recordings to study ways of speaking across the state.


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