Sunday, July 27, 2008

Californian, a World of Freeways.

I have been traveling across the U.S. this summer, and contrary to what many Europeans may think, the regional differences between states, and regions are pretty big, so much so that you sometimes feel that you are in different countris, even if you are still in the United-States.

Take California, it is a nation of its own, and in fact, Southern California itself is a country of its own. One of the major features of life in Southern California is the "freeways". They are big (sometimes as many as 14 lanes) and numerous.

I am sure you have seen pictures of the tangles of freeways passing over and under each other with overpasses made of concrete pillars holding them up. (I imagine they are "earthquake proof" but still wouldn't like to be there for the Big One). From the sky it looks like a web, but from the ground, it is more like a post-apocalyptic spectacle of concrete jungle disconnected from any sense of human measurement in mythical proportion.

This "regional feature" is actually also reflected in linguistic differences:

  • "freeways" in CA are often called "highways" or "expressways" everywhere else and "interstates" (because that's what they are) in the South, and they are all essentially the same.(A highway in Clifornia seems to be for smaller roads like PCH - Pacific Coast Highway)
Strangely, the police on California freeways are called "Highway Patrolmen" (remember CHIPs?).

  • when the freeways are not "free", they are called "tollways" in California and "turnpikes in the Midwest and in the Northeast.
  • Then, as Kevin Drum noted this week, Southern Californians tend to use a definite article (the) when referring to freeways. Therefore you talk about "the 5", "the 405", or "the 10".This is not something you hear in the rest of the country. (you say, for instance, "take 95 to...." without the definite article).

This habit though seems not to have spread north of Monterrey.
Adding the in front of highway names seems to be a Southern California issue. In the San Francisco Bay area 'the' is almost never pre-pended, and the same applies to the Sacramento area and all of California north of San Francisco as far as I can tell. Indeed, my Southern California habits in this regard have gotten on the nerves of SF Bay Area natives more than once. (The Wash. Monthly)
  • California freeways are also referred to by name. (The Santa Monica Freeway, the San Diego Freeway, etc... ) although that does not seem specially SoCal (in Chicago "expressways" are often referred to with their names, "The Edens" or "The Kennedy,")
NOTE: For some reason, it seems that in "Ontario (Canada) no one calls it "Highway 401" or "Highway 400", it's "the 401" or "the 400".". (Wash Monthly)

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