November 28, 2003
Scholars of Twang Track All the 'Y'Alls' in Texas
OLLEGE STATION, Tex. ˇ "Are yew jus' tryin' to git me to talk, is that the ah-deah?"
That was the idea. John O. Greer, an architecture teacher at Texas A&M University, sat at his dining table between two interrogators and their tape recorder. They had precisely 258 questions for him. But it waddn what he said that interested them most. It was how he said it.
Those responses, part of an ambitious National Geographic Society survey of Texas speech, with its "y'alls," "might-coulds" and "fixin' to's," are helping language investigators throw a scientific light on a mythologized and sometimes ridiculed mainstay of Americana: the Texas twang.
Among the unexpected findings, said Guy Bailey, a linguistics professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio and a leading scholar in the studies with his wife, Jan Tillery, is that in Texas more than elsewhere, how you talk says a lot about how you feel about your home state.
"Those who think Texas is a good place to live adopt the flat `I' ˇ it's like the badge of Texas," said Dr. Bailey, 53, provost and executive vice president of the university and a transplanted Alabamian married to a Lubbock native, also 53.
So if you love Texas, they say, be fixin' to say "naht" for "night," "rahd" for "ride" and "raht" for "right."
And by all means say "all" for "oil."
In addition to quickly becoming enamored of Western garb like cowboy boots and hats, big-buckled belts, western shirts and vests, newcomers to the state ˇ and there are a lot of them ˇ are especially likely to adopt the lingo pronto.
At the same time, the speech of rural and urban Texans is diverging, Dr. Bailey said. Texans in Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth and San Antonio are sounding more like other Americans and less like their fellow Texans in Iraan, Red Lick or Old Glory.
Indeed, Dr. Tillery and Dr. Bailey wrote in a recent paper called "Texas English," a new dialect of Southern American English may be emerging on the West Texas plains. It is not what a linguist might expect, they wrote, "but this is Texas, and things are just different here."
The changes are being tracked by researchers for the two San Antonio linguists, who are working with scholars from Oklahoma State University and West Texas A&M in Canyon, outside Amarillo, under the sponsorship of the National Geographic Society. They divided Texas into 116 squares and are interviewing four native Texans spanning four age groupsˇ from the 20's to the 80's, in each.
As part of the latest effort, two master's students in linguistics from the University of North Texas at Denton, Amanda Aguilar, 24, and Brooke Earheardt, 23, arranged recently to record Mr. Greer, 70, as he responded to an exhaustive 31-page questionnaire.
Ms. Aguilar first probed some of Mr. Greer's attitudes toward Texas. Was it a barren state?
"It's in the ahs of the beholder," responded Mr. Greer, who was born in Port Arthur. The state, he said, was "dee-vahded, you kin almost draw a lahn."
Was it a progressive state?
"Compared to who?" he said. "Califohnia? Baghdad? Ah'd have to say Texas is a progressive state."
"Most are distinctive in their own way," he said, smiling, "with the possible exception of Ah-wah." (That was Iowa.)
Next Ms. Aguilar quizzed Mr. Greer on a lexicon of Texas words and phrases. Had he ever heard the expression "y'all?"
Of course. "Ah think `you' sometimes just duddn't work bah itself."
Could you use it for just one person?
"Ah would trah to confahn it to the plural," he said. "It's just like `youse guys.' "
Had he heard "fixin' to?"
Of course again. " `Ahma' often goes with it," he said. "Ahma fixin' to go."
The questions and Mr. Greer's answers kept coming. A dragonfly? That's a "miskeeta hahk." A wishbone was a "pulleybone." A cowboy's rope was a lasso or a lariat, or just a "ropin' rope." A drought was worse than a "drah spell"; no rain, or "it haddn for a long tahm." You wait "for" a friend who haddn shown up, but you wait "on" someone who is nearby and delayed, perhaps upstairs putting on makeup.
Afterward, Ms. Aguilar and Ms. Earheardt said that Mr. Greer, though white, employed some noticeable African-American and Deep South speech patterns. There were also Spanish influences, common in Texas, where Spanish was widely spoken for nearly a hundred years before English.
Dr. Tillery and Dr. Bailey warned that it was possible to exaggerate the distinctiveness of Texas English because the state loomed so large in the popular imagination. Few speech elements here do not also appear elsewhere.
"Nevertheless," they wrote in their paper on Texas English, "in its mix of elements both from various dialects of English and from other languages, TXE is in fact somewhat different from other closely related varieties."
Perhaps the most striking finding, Dr. Tillery said, was the spread of the humble "y'all," ubiquitous in Texas as throughout the South. Y'all, once "you all" but now commonly reduced to a single word, sometimes even spelled "yall," is taking the country by storm, the couple reported in an article written with Tom Wikle of Oklahoma State University and published in 2000 in the Journal of English Linguistics. No one other word, it turns out, can do the job.
"Y'all" and "fixin' to" were also spreading fast among newcomers within the state, they said, particularly those who regard Texas fondly. Use of the flat `I,' they found, also correlated strikingly to a favorable view of Texas.
But they found some curious anomalies, as well.
One traditional feature of Texas and Southern speech ˇ pronouncing the word "pen" like "pin," known as the pen/pin merger ˇ is disappearing in the big Texas cities, while remaining common in rural areas, Dr. Tillery said. Texans in the prairie may shell out "tin cints," but not their metropolitan brethren.
Urban Texas is abandoning the "y" sound after "n," "d" and "t," exchanging dipthongs for monophthongs. So folks in the cities read a "noospaper" ˇ what their rural counterparts call a "nyewspaper." They'll hum a "tyewn" on the range, a "toon" in Houston. The upgliding dipthong, too, is an endangered species in the cities, where a country "dawg" is just a dog.
Why city Texans, more than country folk, should disdain to write with a "pin" is not clear, although it seems that some pronunciations carry a stigma of unsophistication while others do not.
It was such mixed patterns that suggested the emergence of a new dialect on the West Texas plains, Dr. Tillery said.
Other idiosyncrasies have all but vanished over time. Texans for the most part no longer pray to the "Lard," replacing the "o" with an "a," or "warsh" their clothes. How the interloping "r" crept in remains an especially intriguing question, Dr. Bailey said. Trying to trace the peculiarity, he asked Texans to name the capital of the United States, often drawing the unhelpful answer "Austin."
The opposite syndrome, known as r-lessness, which renders "four" as "foah" in Texas and elsewhere, is easier to trace, Dr. Bailey said. In the early days of the republic, plantation owners sent their children to England for schooling. "They came back without the `r,' " he said.
"The parents were saying, listen to this, this is something we have to have, so we'll all become r-less," he said. The craze went down the East Coast from Boston to Virginia (skipping Philadelphia, for some reason) and migrating selectively around the country.
Other common Texas locutions that replace an "s" with a "d" ˇ "bidness" for "business," "waddn" for "wasn't" ˇ are simply matters of mechanical efficiency, Dr. Bailey said. "With `n' and `d' the tongue stays in the same position," he said. "It's ease of articulation."
So even "fixin' to" becomes "fidden to" or "fith'n to." And fixin' to ˇ where did that come from, anyway?
"Who knows?" Dr. Bailey said.