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Originally published Saturday, February 11, 2012 at 6:00 AM

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Are Texans losing their distinctive twang?

In Austin and other big cities — Houston, Fort Worth, Dallas, San Antonio — the Texas twang is being infiltrated by what linguists call General American English, a more-or-less Midwestern accent, the standard heard on TV and other spoken media.

American Statesman

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Thank God. That accent sounds soooo hickish. MORE

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AUSTIN, Texas — Heard any real good Texas accents lately?

Among younger Texans, likely not. In Austin and other big cities — Houston, Fort Worth, Dallas, San Antonio — the Texas twang is being infiltrated by what linguists call General American English, a more-or-less Midwestern accent, the standard heard on TV and other spoken media.

Blame it on the girls, University of Texas researchers said.

"The typical pattern for any language change is always the young women," said Lars Hinrichs, assistant professor of English language and linguistics at UT and director of the Texas English Project. "If you pronounce things the new way, you have power; you're hotter. The more popular girls lead the way."

That social dynamic is part of what drives the Texas English Project, which documents how Texans speak and what factors influence their use — or abandonment — of native dialect: age, sex, class, ethnicity, social situations and their own attitudes.

Researchers have found that people may turn dialect on or off depending on whom they're speaking to, what the conversation is about and whether it triggers a need to identify themselves as Texan.

Such an ethnographic approach leads them to believe that in some cases, Hispanics and African Americans who want a separate identity are also leading the trend away from traditional Texas speech.

"How specific is the cultural meaning attached to it? What speakers think about their language is a valid field of inquiry," Hinrichs said.

Those cultural elements are abundantly in flux in Central Texas, a demographic crossroads where the early immigrant population of largely Southern, Mexican and German ancestry has been diluted by a steady influx of migrants from Northern states. Yet linguistically speaking, Texas is one of the least-researched areas of the country.

"Central Texas to me is one of the most vibrant places to study dialects," said Hinrichs, whose research has explored the use of Caribbean creole languages in North America and English spoken by Hill Country residents of German descent. "It's like a laboratory of mixing; you've got modernization and changing language patterns while holding on to the old mix of cultures and dialects."

Rural areas and small towns remain bastions of the fading Texas accent. But young, urban Texans typically don't speak with a strong accent, and when they use traditional features of speech, it's often intentional. Sometimes they're being playful or ironic or they may be demonstrating they're part of the local "club."

Talking Texan

Though the current version of the Texas English Project began in 2008, Texas dialect has long been studied at UT. In 1962, the late E. Bagby Atwood, a linguistics professor, published "The Regional Vocabulary of Texas," a compendium of words and phrases that were still in common usage. Now much of it reads like an archaic lexicon from the state's agrarian and ranching past.

True, terms like "cup towel" (dish towel) and "lightning bug" (firefly) are still in use. Southern standbys such as "y'all" and "all y'all" have not only endured but spread beyond the South because, said Hinrichs, they're useful and more adaptable than "you guys."

But others such as "yonder" (some distance away), "drouth" (drought) and "snap beans" (green beans) have all but faded away in the intervening 50 years. Hinrichs said when he asked some of his students what a polecat was, most thought it was simply a derogatory term for a human being. Only three knew it was a skunk.

Atwood's book mostly deals with word usage, not the way the words are spoken. What makes Texans actually sound like Texans?

Linguists say there's no single defining characteristic. "Few things are exclusive to one place; it's the mix that makes the dialect," says Hinrichs.

For the most part, however, Texas accents — there are West Texas, East Texas, South Texas and Central Texas versions — are variants of Southern American English, which is spoken from Appalachia to eastern New Mexico.

It's in the vowels

One of the best-known markers of Southern English can be heard in words like "pie" and "my." In Northern states, the vowels at the end of those words are pronounced as diphthongs — vowels that have two parts, but which the brain hears as a single sound.

All through the South, the same vowels are pronounced as monophthongs — vowels that have only one part. They sound a bit flattened, something like "pah" and "mah." But in Texas that pronunciation can vary, especially when the vowel sound is followed by a consonant, when some Texans pronounce it as a diphthong, said Points.

One of those Texans is former first lady Laura Bush, with a distinctive accent forged in Midland and Austin. Yet when she says the words "rice" or "high" or "life," the vowel sound is a distinct diphthong — more like standard English than the Southern stereotype ("nahs whaht rahs" or "nice white rice").

More markers of both Texas and Southern accents: The vowel sounds in "pen," "pin," "ten" and "tin" are all the same, but the vowel sounds in "caught" and "cot" are different. It's the opposite in general American English.

In fact, one sign of encroaching standardization in Texas speech is that the vowels in "cot/caught," "Don/dawn" are pronounced alike. Younger Texans can no longer tell them apart, just like their counterparts in, say, Michigan.

"Who's picking up on this new transition? It's not the old people. It's the young people doing it," Hinrichs said. Young white females are the earliest adopters.

And like other adaptations that are steadily transforming the Texas accent, it emerged first in Dallas and its suburbs. Then it spread to Houston, then on to Austin and San Antonio, he said.

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