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Texas English

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The way that Texans speak has a special place in the story of American English. Jan Tillery and Guy Bailey of the University of Texas at San Antonio explain.

Few states have as great a presence in the popular imagination as Texas. For many Americans the mere mention of the state brings to mind oil and cowboys, glitzy modern cities and huge isolated ranches, braggadocio and excess. The popular image has been fueled to a large extent by the size of the state, its portrayal in television shows such as Dallas and in movies such as Giant  andThe Alamo, its larger-than-life political figures such as Lyndon Johnson, and its unique history.

Unlike other states, Texas was an independent nation before it became a state, had its own Revolutionary War and creation story (who hasn’t heard of the Alamo?), and negotiated special considerations when it joined the union (the Texas flag, for instance, can fly at the same level as the United States flag). Moreover, the pride of Texans in their state and its culture reinforces the idea that Texas is somehow unique. Visitors to the state are often struck by the extent to which the Texas flag is displayed, not only at government offices, but also at private residences, on the sides of barns, at car dealerships, and on tee shirts, cups, and other items. The Texas flag flies virtually everywhere, even in area like the Rio Grande Valley, where the flag of Texas often stands along side the flag of Mexico.

Perhaps because of the sense of the state’s uniqueness in the popular imagination, Texas English (TXE) is often assumed to be somehow unique too. The inauguration of George W. Bush as President, for instance, led to a rash of stories in the popular media about the new kind of English in the White House (Armed Forces Radio ran an interview with us on the new President’s English once an hour for 24 hours). The irony of the media frenzy, of course, is that the man George Bush was replacing in the White House spoke a variety of English that was quite similar to Bush’s in many ways and perhaps even more marked by regional features. Actually the uniqueness of TXE is probably more an artifact of the presence of Texas in the popular imagination than a reflection of linguistic circumstances. Only a few features of Texas speech do no occur somewhere else. Nevertheless, 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.

A Short Linguistic History of Texas

Historically, English is the second language of the state

Any linguistic overview of Texas must begin with the realization that English is, historically, the second language of the state. Even setting aside the languages of Native Americans in the area, Spanish was spoken in Texas for nearly a century before English was. With the opening up of Texas to Anglo settlement in the 1820s, however, English quickly became as widely used as Spanish, although bilingualism was not uncommon in early Texas. While the outcome of the Texas Revolution meant that Anglos would outnumber Hispanics for many years to come and that English would be the dominant language in the new nation and state, the early Hispanic settlement of the state insured that much of that culture (the ranching system, for example) and many Spanish words (e.g., mesa, remuda, and pilon) would blend with the culture and language that Anglos brought from the east to form a unique Texas mix. The continuing influx of settlers from 1840 to the beginning of the twentieth century enhanced and transformed the mix.

Anglos from both the Lower South (Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina) and the Upper South (Tennessee, Kentucky, and North Carolina) moved rapidly into the new state after 1840, frequently bring their slaves with them. Lower Southerners generally dominated in east and southeast Texas and Upper Southerners in the north and central parts of the state, though there was considerable dialect mixing. This complex dialect situation was further complicated, especially in southeast and south central Texas, by significant direct migration from Europe. Large numbers of Germans, Austrians, Czechs, Italians, and Poles (the first permanent Polish settlement in the U.S. was at Panna Maria in 1854) came to Texas during the nineteenth century. In some cases their descendants preserved their languages well into the twentieth century, and they influenced English in certain parts of Texas even as they gradually gave up their native tongues.

welcome sign in laredo, tx

Although the border between Texas and Mexico has always been a permeable one, migration from Mexico accelerated rapidly after the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920, slowed somewhat during the mid twentieth century, and since 1990 has been massive. As late as 1990, only 20% of the 4 million Mexican Americans in Texas were born in Mexico. After 1990, however, the number of immigrants grew rapidly. During the two-year span between 2000 and 2002, for instance, foreign migration into Texas, most of it from Mexico totaled more than 360,000. The new immigration is steadily changing the demographic profile of the state and insures that Spanish will remain a vital language in Texas for some time to come. In fact, it has led to a resurgence of Spanish in some areas. The linguistic consequences of the new migration will be worth following.

Some Characteristics of Texas English

As the settlement history suggests, TXE is a form of Southern American English and thus includes many of the lexical, grammatical, and phonological features of Southern American English. As a result of the complex settlement pattern, however, the South Midland/Southern dialect division that divided areas to the east was blurred in Texas. Throughout the history of the state, South Midland lexical items (e.g., green bean and chigger) and phonological features (e.g., constricted post-vocalic /r/ in words like forty and intrusive /r/ in words like warsh) have coexisted and competed with Southern words (e.g., snap bean and redbug) and pronunciations (“r-lessness” in words like forty and four), although Southern features were and still are strongest in east Texas. In south, south central, and west Texas, a substantial number of Spanish words gained general currency.

Lexical items like frijoles, olla, arroyo, and remuda reflect not only the relatively large number of Hispanics in the areas, but also the importance of Mexican American culture in the development of a distinct Texas culture. These areas of the state are different linguistically in one other way.

Many features of Southern American English never became as widespread there so that hallmarks of Southern English like the quasi-modal fixin to (as in, “I can’t talk to you now; I’m fixin to leave”) multiple modals like might could (as in, “I can’t go today, but I might could go tomorrow”) and traditional pronunciations like the upgliding diphthong in dog (often rendered in dialect literature as dawg) have always been restricted in their occurrence in south and south central Texas, although they occurred extensively elsewhere.

Other trademarks of Southern English also occur extensively throughout most of the state, with south and south central Texas sometimes being exceptions. These include both stereotypical phonological features such as the pen/pin merger (both words sound like the latter) and the loss of the offglide of /ai/ in words like ride and right (so that they sound like rahd and raht) and also grammatical features like y’all, fixin to, and perfective done (as in “I’ve done finished that”). In addition, a number of lexical items seem to have originated or have their greatest currency in Texas (e.g., tank ‘stock pond,’ maverick ‘stray or unbranded,’ calf, doggie ‘calf,’ and roughneck ‘oil field worker’), while at least one traditional pronunciation, the use of ar in words like horse and for (this makes lord sound like lard), occurs only in Texas, Utah and a few other places.

Change and Persistence in Texas Speech

Rapid metropolitanization, increasing dominance of high tech industries, and massive migration have reshaped Texas

Few states have been transformed as radically as Texas has during the last thirty years. Rapid metropolitanization, the increasing dominance of high tech industries in the state’s economy, and massive migration have reshaped the demography of the state. Roughly a third of the population now lives in the Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, and San Antonio metropolitan areas, and non-native Texans make up an increasingly large share of that population. Between 1950 and 1970, 85% of the population growth in Texas came from natural increase. With people moving rapidly into the state from other areas during the 1970s, migration accounted for 60% of the population during the 70s. While migration slowed during the 1980s, accounting for only 35% of the growth, during the 1990s it accelerated again and accounted for more than half. Much of the migration into Texas before 1990 was from other states, but since 1990 it has been from other countries. Texas, then, has become a metropolitan, diverse, high-tech state—with significant linguistic consequences.

Perhaps the most obvious consequence is an emerging rural-urban linguistic split. Although most Southern features remain strong in rural areas and small cities, in large metropolises many stereotypical features are disappearing. The pen/pin merger, the loss of the of the offglide in /ai/, and upgliding diphthongs in words like dog are now recessive in metropolitan areas, although the first two in particular persist elsewhere. The urban-rural split is so far largely a phonological one, though. Both y’all and fixin to are expanding to non-natives in metropolises (and to the Hispanic population too). Those grammatical features that are disappearing in metropolises (e.g., perfective done) seem to be disappearing elsewhere as well.

This is Texas, and things are just different

Even as some traditional pronunciation features are disappearing, some interesting new developments are taking place. Especially in urban areas, but also in rural west Texas, the vowels in words like caught and cot are becoming merged (both sound like cot), as are tense/lax vowel pairs before /l/: pool-pull are now homophones throughout much of the state, and feel-fill and sale-sell are increasingly becoming so. The caught-cot merger is particularly interesting in Texas since it should signal the movement of the phonological system away from the “Southern Shift” pattern. In the Texas Panhandle, though, things are not quite so simple. Even as the caught-cot merger has become the norm among those born after World War II, the loss of the offglide in right and ride and Southern Shift features remain quite strong. What seems to be emerging on the west Texas plains, then, is a dialect that combines features of Southern speech and another major dialect. The development of such a mixed pattern is not what a linguist might expect, but this is Texas, and things are just different.

Suggested Reading/Additional Resources

  • Arnold, Jennifer et al., eds.  Sociolinguistic Variation: Data, Theory, and Analysis.  Stanford: CSLI, 435-451.
  • Atwood, E. Bagby. The Regional Vocabulary of Texas. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1962.
  • Bailey, Guy, Tom Wickle, Jan Tillery and Lori Sand. “The Linguistic Consequences of Catastrophic Events: An Example from the Southwest.” 1996.
  • Labov, William. Principles of Linguistic Change: Internal Factors. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1994.
  • Thomas, Erik R. An Acoustic Analysis of Vowel Variation in New World English. PADS 85. Durham: Duke University Press, 2001.
  • Tillery, Jan, Guy Bailey, and Tom Wikle. Forthcoming. “Demographic Change and American Dialectology in the 21st Century.” American Speech.
Guy Bailey is Provost and Executive Vice-President at the University of Texas at San Antonio and continues the work he began on Texas speech in the 1980s. A Texas native, Jan Tillery is an associate professor of English at the University of Texas at San Antonio who researches the dialects of Texas and Southern American English generally. 

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