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Houston Filmmakers and Actors: A twang Texans really can call their own

Sunday, January 09, 2005

A twang Texans really can call their own

Jan. 8, 2005, 10:55PM

A twang Texans really can call their own
On the trail of y'all, linguists find pride among double modals
By HOWARD WITT
Chicago Tribune


SAN ANTONIO - Turns out it's all in the y'all.

If you find yourself in a group of Southerners and want to spot the Texan in the bunch, listen hard for the "y'alls." Most of the group will surely use the contraction, but the Texan is more likely to employ it to refer to a single individual as well.

That's just one of the unusual discoveries made by two linguistics professors at the University of Texas at San Antonio who are studying Texas Twang, the distinctive dialect of English proudly spoken by natives of the Lone Star State — and sometimes ridiculed by the rest of the country.

The husband-wife team, Guy Bailey and Jan Tillery, are fixin' to complete the last of their research this summer. When they're done finished with their work, which is underwritten by the National Geographic Society, they might could write the definitive guide to what they lovingly call TXE, or Texas English.

"Texas is different — it's the only state that was its own country at one time and has its own creation story," said Bailey, a native of Alabama and provost and executive vice president of the university. "Out of that has come a sense of braggadocio and a strong desire to hold on to a unique way of speaking."

"Y'all" is a case in point. Use of the term is spreading beyond the South throughout the United States, Tillery noted, largely because it fills a linguistic need: It's a clearer way to denote the second-person plural than the existing — and confusing — "you."

But Texans, in a kind of defiant counter-reaction to the mass appropriation of their beloved term, now also use it to refer to one person as well as many ("Y'all are my beautiful wife"), Tillery said. That, of course, is precisely the kind of confusion that "y'all" evolved to clear up in the first place.

"If the rest of the country says you can't use 'y'all' except for more than one person, then of course we're going to take it and say, no, you can use it for one person," said Tillery, whose drawling speech bears the marked twang of her childhood home in Lubbock.

"For me it's a conscious effort, because I was treated as such a backwards pea-brain because of how I talked that I decided I would just be very upfront and even more pronounced," she said. "I'll tell you something — it's a good way to hide an intellect."

To conduct their research, Bailey and Tillery have divided the state into 116 geographic grids and have sought to interview four representative Texans in each one. Ideally they try to find four generations of a single family, to chart linguistic changes over time. To locate their subjects, they often approach small-town postmasters for referrals.

Interviewees are asked a series of 250 questions to check unique Texas pronunciations and determine whether they use certain words and phrases, such as "polecat" for skunk or "snake feeder" for dragonfly.

Some of the terms are used elsewhere across the southern United States as well, but many combinations are distinctively Texan.

Then the interview subjects read aloud a brief story, My Friend Hugo, carefully designed by Tillery to contain every vowel sound and phonetic variation in the English language. To an expert linguist, how a person reads the story can reveal where that person comes from.

Most native Texans, for example, use a flat "i", saying "naht" for "night" and "rahd" for "ride," and they don't make any audible distinction when pronouncing such words as "pool" and "pull" or "fool" and "full."

The researchers have found that some distinctive Texas speech patterns, such as saying "warsh" instead of "wash" and "lard" instead of "lord," are beginning to disappear as younger generations abandon them.

But in other ways, Texas English is expanding. Newcomers to the state soon begin sounding like Texans, Bailey noted, tossing around "y'all" and saying "Ahma fixin' to" (generally defined as "I will do it if I get around to it").

The infamous double modal ("might could," "may can," "might would"), a hedging construction denoting less certainty than "might" alone, remains more elusive to new arrivals, however.

When all is said and done, do Texans sound funny?

"Not to Texans," Bailey said, "and not really to other people in the South."

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