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1:47 pm
Wed December 5, 2012

Texas Twang Fixin' To Ride Off Into The Sunset

Originally published on Wed December 5, 2012 5:25 pm

When most people think of Texas — and what makes a Texan — one of the first things that might come to mind is the way Lyndon Johnson or the late Gov. Ann Richards spoke.

But these days, "talking Texan" sounds a whole lot different than it did just a few decades ago.

Just outside Austin, Laurel Robertson is watching a 1962 NBC documentary shot in Amarillo about her family. Back then, her sister had a deep Texas twang, leaving her sounding a bit like this:

"Thees room is on top of the din, and it was beelt the same tahme the din was beelt," she says, describing the room above the den in the house.

"It's hysterical. She doesn't talk like that anymore," Robertson says. In fact, she adds, no one in her family talks like that now.

A Twang On The Wane

As it turns out, the same goes for a growing number of Texans. "What's changed over the past few decades is that you don't automatically have a twang because you're from here," says Lars Hinrichs, a linguistics professor at the University of Texas who leads the Texas English Project.

Hinrichs has been comparing recordings of the way Texans spoke decades ago with how they sound now. He has hundreds of tapes, created when students went out and recorded native Texans in the 1980s.

Each recording starts with the subject reading the same passage, containing words full of "I" vowels, like Tyler, five and Whitehouse:

I've lived in Texas all my life. I was born in Titus County. And when I was 5 we moved to a farm near Whitehouse, which is southeast of Tyler.

"The issue back then was to study how many, and how frequently, speakers turned that 'I' vowel into an 'AH' vowel," Hinrichs says — the "AH" sound being the more traditional Texas pronunciation.

So over the past few years, Hinrichs sent his students to record native Texans reading the same passage. Not only is the "AH" pronunciation fading — other typically Texan sounds are fading, too.

"For example, a more old-time pronunciation of face would be "faice" ... A more old-time pronunciation of goose would be "gewse," Hinrichs says.

Other accents are experiencing changes, as well.

Several years ago, Kara Becker, a linguist at Reed College, went to New York City's Lower East Side, where residents have their own linguistic quirks. Becker points to "the vowel in the word like coffee or dog. ... In New York it gets pronounced like cooauffee or dooaug."

Think Mike Myers on Saturday Night Live's "Coffee Talk" sketch from the '90s.

Becker found that those pronunciations are also falling out of use — in entirely different corners of the country.

Changing On Purpose?

But why? There's the media and migration, of course, but Becker says some New Yorkers also have what's called "linguistic insecurity."

"Which means that they're sort of aware that other people don't like their accent, and they might themselves not be so excited about their accent," Becker says.

In other words, New Yorkers might be consciously trying to stop doing the "Coffee Talk."

And the same goes for some Texans. Back at Laurel Robertson's house, she says people laughed at her when she moved from Amarillo to Austin.

"I said see-ment. I said um-brella," Robertson says. "You know, put that accent on the first syllable. And I had to consciously learn not to do that."

At the same time, Texans are also proud of the twang — it's part of them. And even if they don't use it all the time, Hinrichs says they do use it when they think it's more appropriate — around family or friends.

In other words, he says, he doesn't think the twang is going to become extinct. But, like a lot of regional accents, it is changing. Especially in Texas, where more than 1,000 new people move to the state every day.

Copyright 2013 KUT-FM. To see more, visit http://www.kut.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. Think about Texas and what makes a Texan. One of the first things that might come to mind is the twang, the way Lyndon Johnson spoke or the late Texas Governor Ann Richards.

GOVERNOR ANN RICHARDS: After all, Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels.

BLOCK: Well, as Matt Largey reports from member station KUT in Austin, these days, talking Texan sounds a lot different.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

MATT LARGEY, BYLINE: At Laurel Robertson's house outside Austin, she's in front of her TV.

LAUREL ROBERTSON: We're watching an NBC documentary shot in 1962 that was about my family in Amarillo, Texas.

LARGEY: And we're listening to how her family talks, including her sister, who back then has this deep Texas twang.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: This room is on top of the den, and it was built the same time the den was built.

ROBERTSON: It's hysterical. She doesn't talk like that anymore.

LARGEY: In fact, Laurel says no one in her family talks like that now. Turns out, the same goes for more and more Texans.

LARS HINRICHS: What's changed over the past few decades is that you don't automatically have a twang because you're from here.

LARGEY: Lars Hinrichs is a linguistics professor at the University of Texas. He leads the Texas English Project and, yes, that's a German accent you're picking up there. He has been comparing recordings of the way Texans used to talk decades ago to how they sound now. He's got hundreds of tapes, like this one made in the mid '80s.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 2: I've lived in Texas all my life. I was born in Titus County. And when I was 5 we moved to a farm near Whitehouse, which is southeast of Tyler.

ROBERTSON: Back then, students went out and recorded native Texans. Each of them started by reading the same passage.

HINRICHS: And it was a passage that had a lot of I vowels, you know, Tyler, five, Whitehouse.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 2: In the spring, I'd fly a kite and on summer nights, we'd catch fireflies. But we called them lightening bugs.

HINRICHS: The issue back then was to study how many, and how frequently, speakers turned that 'I' vowel into an 'AH' vowel. So the AH is the more traditional Texas pronunciation.

ROBERTSON: So, Hinrichs had his students go out again in the last few years to record native Texans reading the same passage.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I've lived in Texas all my life. I was born in Titus County. And when I was 5 we moved to a farm near Whitehouse, which is southwest of Tyler.

LARGEY: Hear the difference? And it's not just that AH vowel.

HINRICHS: For example, a more old-time pronunciation of face would be "faice" Did I do that well? A more old-time pronunciation of goose would be "gewse."

LARGEY: Both of those pronunciations are getting used less, too. But the twang isn't the only accent seeing changes. Kara Becker is a linguist at Reed College. Several years ago, she went to New York City's Lower East Side. People there have their own linguistic quirks.

KARA BECKER: One is the vowel in the word like coffee or dog. And it gets pronounced in New York like "cooauffee" or "dooaug."

LARGEY: You might have heard Mike Myers do it on "Saturday Night Live" in the '90s.

(SOUNDBITE OF "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

MIKE MYERS: Welcome to "Coffee Talk." I'm your host, Linda Richmond.

LARGEY: But Kara Becker found those pronunciations, too, are also falling out of use. Now it's coffee and dog, but why? Of course, there's the media and migration, but Becker says some New Yorkers also have what's called linguistic insecurity.

BECKER: Which means that they're sort of aware that other people don't like their accent, and they might themselves not be so excited about their accent.

LARGEY: So they be consciously trying to stop doing the "Coffee Talk." The same thing goes for some Texans. Back at Laurel Robertson's house, she says people would laugh at her when she moved from Amarillo to Austin.

ROBERTSON: I said see-ment. And I said um-brella. You know, put that accent on the first syllable. And I had to consciously learn not to do that.

LARGEY: But at the same time, Texans are also really proud of the twang. It's part of them. And even if they don't use it all the time, Lars Hinrichs says they do use it when they think it's more appropriate, around family or friends. He doesn't think the twang is going to go extinct or anything. But, like a lot of regional accents, it is changing.

Especially in Texas, where more than 1,000 new people move to the state every day. For NPR News, I'm Matt Largey in Austin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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