“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 ‘muther‘ an’ ‘father.’ 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 to the mix of Anglo settlers from the Deep South and Appalachia who began talking to each other was an established Spanish-speaking population and an influx of Mexican, German, and Czech immigrants. “What distinguishes a Texas accent the most is the confluence of its influences,” said Bailey.
But exactly what sets the Texas accent apart is what Bailey and his wife, Jan Tillery, a fellow linguist at UTSA, are trying to pin down. Until they have completed the fieldwork for a study called the National Geographic Survey of Texas Dialects—which examines the speaking habits of Texans in every last nook and cranny of the state—they will identify only the “monophthong” as the key indicator of a Texas accent. Bob Hinkle’s merging of “fire” and “far,” for instance, is a monophthong. Bailey and Tillery are also interested in the way Texans articulate other vowels. The “vowel merger” is a blending of vowel sounds, so that words like “win” and “when” start to sound alike, as do “cot” and “caught,” “feel” and “fill,” and so on. More and more Texans are now blurring their vowels together this way, particularly those born after 1972. “There are three kinds of vowel systems,” Bailey explained. “In New York you have the Northern Cities Chain Shift, which makes ‘bad’ sound like ‘bid’ and ‘dog’ sound like ‘dooaug.’ In the South, you have the Southern Shift, which makes ‘wait’ sound like ‘wuhate.’ And in much of the West, you have the Third Dialect, which is characterized by the merger of the vowel in ‘caught’ and ‘cot.’ In Texas you have a combination of the Southern Shift and the Third Dialect. That’s what makes Texas distinct.”
Bailey began to notice Texans’ use of the monophthong in 1989, when he tacked several linguistic questions onto the Texas Poll, a wide-ranging phone survey that asks people about their political preferences, buying habits, and so forth. By studying respondents’ word pronunciations in the surveys, which were recorded, along with their demographic information, Bailey made several unexpected discoveries. He was not surprised to find that the dialect was slowly changing, since such shifts are a given in linguistics; accents, like slang, are not static, but evolve along with a region and its culture. (Accents can change so rapidly, Bailey notes, that had Scarlett O’Hara actually existed, she wouldn’t have spoken with what we now recognize to be a Southern accent.) But what was startling was that Texans’ word pronunciation, by and large, was not moving toward a national norm. Beyond the suburbs and the state’s largest cities—which are populated by many nonnative Texans—younger people living in mid-sized cities like Lubbock and Beaumont sounded as regional as their rural counterparts.
Bailey has a theory about why Texans use monophthongs more than they used to and why phrases like “y’all” and “fixin’ to” have not just persisted but become more common in recent years. His theory stems from the results of the 1989 telephone survey, in which respondents were also asked how they felt about living in Texas. Bailey was intrigued to find that those who described the state as an “excellent” place to live were five times more likely to use monophthongs as residents who characterized it as “poor.” Of course, people who are proud to be Texan are proud to talk like Texans. But Bailey sees it as no coincidence that people are now, more than ever, claiming their Texan identity through language, whether that choice is a conscious or unconscious one. “The Texas identity is threatened,” he said. “There was a large influx of people who moved here in the seventies. Oil was big, and the auto industry and the Rust Belt were on the decline. Suddenly, in the seventies, Texas attracted many new residents from outside the state. The arrival of so many outsiders can make people circle the wagons, linguistically.”
Perhaps the best example of a Texan who defines his identity through language is George W. Bush, whose parents and siblings do not speak with the same heavily inflected speech that he does. Bush first left Midland at the age of fifteen, attending prep school at Andover, college at Yale, graduate school at Harvard, and vacationing in Kennebunkport. Yet his West Texas twang has stuck over the years, and it seems to have grown thicker since he moved into the White House. (Case in point: his pronunciation of “America,” which comes out sounding like “Amur-cah” or sometimes just “Mur-cah.”) “President Bush emphasizes his connection to Texas through his language,” Bailey said. “It’s a way of anchoring himself to this place. He can use language to set himself apart, say, from Northeastern intellectuals, like LBJ did, or to bind himself to the state he identifies with.” In that respect, Bush is little different from many of the Texans whose speech Bailey has studied who strongly identify with this state. “If you like Texas a lot, you might wear a pair of boots,” Bailey observed. “You might drive a truck, and you might learn how to two-step. Language is another kind of accoutrement.”
THE QUEST TO UNDERSTAND WHAT makes Texans sound like Texans led, late in the afternoon on Good Friday, to a beauty parlor in the town of Helotes (population: 4,285), just northwest of San Antonio. At the suggestion of Bailey and Tillery, two graduate students in linguistics, Amanda Aguilar and Brooke Ehrhardt, had taken their tape recorders to Ella’s Barber and Beauty Salon. Ella’s is a bright, cheerful place on the main drag where locals share the latest gossip beneath the bubble dryers and where the talk that day was of the upcoming corn festival, Cornyval. Amanda and Brooke, who were conducting fieldwork for the National Geographic Survey of Texas Dialects, had come to record the speaking styles of the three generations of women who work at the beauty parlor: Ella Dunford, who is 80; her daughter, Carol Lancaster, 48; and her granddaughter, Kimberly Lancaster, 29. Once the beauty salon’s last customers had had their hair blown dry and styled for church on Easter Sunday, the linguists turned on their tape recorders.
“What do you usually call the kind of bread you sometimes eat for breakfast—the ones where you make a batter and stack them on top of one another and garnish them with butter and syrup?” Brooke asked Carol. (The possibilities listed on the survey, which only Brooke could see, were “flapjacks,” “griddle cakes,” “fritters,” “flitters,” “pancakes,” and “other.”)
“Pancakes,” said Carol.
“Have you ever heard ‘flitter’ used for ‘pancake’?”
“What about the expression ‘Flat as a flitter’?”
“Oh, yeah, all the time!” Carol said with sudden recognition. ‘Flat as a flitter.’ Yeah. That’s pretty flat!”
“Yew say, ‘Flat as a flitter’?” her daughter said, rolling her eyes. “Yew’re real country.”
The National Geographic Survey of Texas Dialects, which was designed in part by Bailey and Tillery, will determine how the Texas dialect differs from one part of the state to another and how it is changing over time. For the purposes of the survey, the state has been divided into 116 grids; in each grid, linguists will interview four native Texans of different generations about their vocabulary and pronunciation. When completed, it will be the most comprehensive study of the Texas dialect ever conducted. The survey will chart the rapid evolution of the way Texans talk, which was obvious at Ella’s, where all three women sounded Texan but different from one another. They all dropped their g‘s and rounded their o‘s but—since they are not native to West Texas—did not flatten out vowels as Bob Hinkle does. (At Ella’s, it’s a “thing,” not a “thang.”) Although the women’s pronunciation was, generally speaking, alike, there were huge variations in their vocabulary and knowledge of idiomatic expressions. “The difference between Ella and Kimberly is astounding,” Brooke said later. “Their speaking styles are as informed by their generation—by the way their peers talk—as they are by the place where they’re from.”
For more than an hour, the three hairdressers sat in their styling chairs, next to the curling irons and hair spray and bobby pins that lay scattered around them, and answered the linguists’ questions, a bit uneasy with the scrutiny they were under. How did they say “pin” and “pen”? (The same: “pin.”) Were they familiar with Spanish words like “arroyo,” “lasso,” and “reata”? (Yes.) What did they call a soft drink? (Carol: “A soda.” Kimberly: “A Coke, even if it’s Dr Pepper.”) Their responses were often followed by gales of nervous laughter or sidelong glances at each other, as if to imply, “What on earth did you just say?” Each woman’s speaking style was divergent from the next; Ella’s accent was influenced by the Spanish that her mother had spoken at home, while her daughter’s accent was not. And while Carol knew many of the older country sayings—a skunk was a “polecat,” and milk that was about to turn sour was “blinky”—her daughter frowned at such folksy expressions. But Kimberly was in no danger of forgetting her linguistic roots; dressed the most “country” in a pink T-shirt, blue jeans, and boots, she spoke with a Texas accent that was just as pronounced as her mother’s or grandmother’s. To her, “night” was “naht,” “you” was “yew,” and an unwashed frying pan was still “greazy.”
When the linguists announced that the survey was done, the three women looked relieved—pleased, perhaps, that they had not been mocked for whatever it was that had caught the linguists’ attention in the first place. As we sat around afterward and talked, I asked if they thought there was such a thing as a Texas accent and if so, what it was.
“Well, I kin hear great big differences between West Texas an’ South Texas,” Carol said.
“An’ in Dallas, oh, my gosh, they have a twang—big time!” Kimberly said, laughing.
“Yew know, yew always think, ‘Gosh, we don’t have accents, but I guess we do. We just don’t hear ’em,” Carol said. “I don’t think we talk funny. But we went to Florida one time, an’ we were in an elevator, talkin’. An’ someone said, ‘Yew must be from Texas!’ An’ we said, ‘How kin yew tell?'”