“SEE, I WAS WORKIN’ AS an actor in Hollywood,” said Bob Hinkle. He grinned under his white straw hat as he told me the story of how his twang, which is pure West Texas, had changed the course of his life. “It was 1955, an’ I had gone on an audition fer a part in Giant. Well, the very next day I git a call that George Stevens, the director, wunts to see me agin. So I go back over to Warner Brothers, an’ his sec’tary says, ‘Mr. Hinkle is here.’ An’ George Stevens runs out the door an’ grabs my hand like we was ol’ buddies. Well, I start hyperventilatin’ ‘cuz I jus’ knew he was fixin’ to give me the part of Jett Rink. See, I was perfect—I’m a Texan, I kin ride a horse, an’ I talk raht, yew know. But George has a diff’rent idea. He says to me, ‘Kin yew teach Rock Hudson to talk like yew do?’ An’ I say, ‘Whut? I been goin’ to a speech coach tryin’ to lose this accent ‘cuz I cain’t git work.’”
In the fifties and sixties Bob Hinkle taught Hollywood how to talk Texan. On the sets of Giant and Hud, he read dialogue to Rock Hudson, James Dean, Dennis Hopper, Paul Newman, and Patricia Neal until they could mimic his pronunciation: Barbed wire became “bob wahr,” a dime was “tin cints,” the petroleum industry was the “all bidness.” His accent has its own topography, a landscape of flat a’s, dropped g’s, and rounded o’s, where syllables rise up without warning, as in “He was playin’ the gui-tar,” and vowels stretch on forever. He does not have the soft, musical drawl of East Texas or the more clipped rhythm of Central Texas, but the flat, nasal twang that is typical of his hometown of Brownfield, south of Lubbock. James Dean was the best at imitating his slow, lazy cadence, and the way Dean meandered around his consonants and lingered over his vowels until words like “bad” stretched into “ bay-uhd” and “kid” became “ kee-uhd” made women weak in the knees. “I told Jimmy whut I’ll tell yew,” Hinkle said. “In Texas, yew don’t say near as many words, but yew git it said, an’ yew slow it down to where people kin understan’ it.”
I had tracked Hinkle down after reading about a study, conducted by University of Texas at San Antonio linguistics professor Guy Bailey, that found that the Texas accent is actually spreading. Bailey discovered that the use of the flattened vowel sound that makes “night” sound like “naht”—a key marker of the Texas twang—is expanding across all socioeconomic groups, most dramatically among people who are thirty and younger. Just as surprising, in an era when media saturation and urban living are the norm, regional phrases like “y’all” and “fixin’ to” are becoming more popular among Texans, not less. Add to these developments all the attention that the twang is garnering now that Dubya is in the White House, and the Texas accent hasn’t been this cool since, well, arguably since James Dean ambled over to Elizabeth Taylor in Giant and said, “Yew shore do look purty, Miss Leslie.”
Over lunch this spring in Dallas, I asked Bob Hinkle, now 72 and retired from a quirky career in show business (he was once Evel Knievel’s promoter), about the twang. While there is no one Texas accent, he explained—people who grew up in Beaumont, say, sound different from Amarillo natives—he attempted to clarify what makes a Texan sound like a Texan. “Well, yew know, a Southern accent is real syrupy,” Hinkle said. “Southerners say ‘muthuh’ an’ ‘fathuh.’ A Texas accent is harder. Yew keep the r. Yew say ‘muth er’ an’ ‘fath er.’ Yew kin always tell a Texan by that. An’ yew flatten out words. See, take the word ‘fahr.’ How do yew spell ‘fahr’?”
“ ‘Fahr’?” I said. “F-a-r.”
He grinned. “Shore, it’s f-a-r. But it’s also f-i-r-e. ‘Look, that damn house is on fahr.’ ‘How fahr is it over there?’ See, it’s the same word.” He chuckled to himself.
“Are there other things you’d tell an actor to do?”
“Well, yew shorten thangs, so yew make ‘em easier to say,” he observed. “Do yew remember in Giant, when Jimmy’s [Dean] all well comes in? He comes up on the porch an’ he says to Rock Hudson, ‘I’m a rich’n, Bick.’ Well, he’s really sayin’, ‘I’m a rich son of a bitch, Bick.’ See, yew kinda slur yer words together: ‘I’m a rich’n.’ Yew shorten it, an’ then yew slow it down.” Hinkle paused to reflect on this point. “Now, I’m jus’ shootin’ from the hip here, but it’s also the way yew talk about thangs. Like him,” he said, motioning toward a man wearing a gimme cap. “Yew’d say he was a purty good ol’ boy. Or if he’s not, yew might say, ‘That ol’ boy raht there is as crooked as a snake with the cramps.’ Now do yew git it?” I suppose I was getting there.
“THE MOST BASIC EXPLANATION OF a Texas accent is that it’s a Southern accent with a twist,” said Professor Bailey, who has determined that the twang is not only spreading but also changing. “It’s the twist that we’re interested in.” The preeminent scholar on Texas pronunciation, Bailey hails from southern Alabama; he has a soft, lilting drawl that, for the sake of economy, will not be phonetically reproduced here but is substantially more genteel and less nasal than Bob Hinkle’s twang. The broadly defined “Texas accent” began to form, Bailey explained, when two populations merged here in the mid-nineteenth century. Settlers who migrated from Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi brought with them what would later become the Lower South Dialect (its drawl left an imprint on East Texas), while settlers from Tennessee and Kentucky brought with them the South Midland Dialect (its twang had a greater influence in West Texas). Added