At the same time, the speech of rural and urban Texans is diverging, Dr. Bailey said. Texans in Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth and San Antonio are sounding more like other Americans and less like their fellow Texans in Iraan, Red Lick or Old Glory.
Indeed, Dr. Tillery and Dr. Bailey wrote in a recent paper called “Texas English,” a new dialect of Southern American English may be emerging on the West Texas plains. It is not what a linguist might expect, they wrote, “but this is Texas, and things are just different here.”
The changes are being tracked by researchers for the two San Antonio linguists, who are working with scholars from Oklahoma State University and West Texas A&M in Canyon, outside Amarillo, under the sponsorship of the National Geographic Society. They divided Texas into 116 squares and are interviewing four native Texans spanning four age groups— from the 20′s to the 80′s, in each…
Dr. Tillery and Dr. Bailey warned that it was possible to exaggerate the distinctiveness of Texas English because the state loomed so large in the popular imagination. Few speech elements here do not also appear elsewhere.
“Nevertheless,” they wrote in their paper on Texas English, “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.”
Perhaps the most striking finding, Dr. Tillery said, was the spread of the humble “y’all,” ubiquitous in Texas as throughout the South. Y’all, once “you all” but now commonly reduced to a single word, sometimes even spelled “yall,” is taking the country by storm, the couple reported in an article written with Tom Wikle of Oklahoma State University and published in 2000 in the Journal of English Linguistics. No one other word, it turns out, can do the job.
“Y’all” and “fixin’ to” were also spreading fast among newcomers within the state, they said, particularly those who regard Texas fondly. Use of the flat `I,’ they found, also correlated strikingly to a favorable view of Texas.
But they found some curious anomalies, as well.
One traditional feature of Texas and Southern speech — pronouncing the word “pen” like “pin,” known as the pen/pin merger — is disappearing in the big Texas cities, while remaining common in rural areas, Dr. Tillery said. Texans in the prairie may shell out “tin cints,” but not their metropolitan brethren…
Other idiosyncrasies have all but vanished over time. Texans for the most part no longer pray to the “Lard,” replacing the “o” with an “a,” or “warsh” their clothes. How the interloping “r” crept in remains an especially intriguing question, Dr. Bailey said. Trying to trace the peculiarity, he asked Texans to name the capital of the United States, often drawing the unhelpful answer “Austin.”
The opposite syndrome, known as r-lessness, which renders “four” as “foah” in Texas and elsewhere, is easier to trace, Dr. Bailey said. In the early days of the republic, plantation owners sent their children to England for schooling. “They came back without the ‘r,’ ” he said.
“The parents were saying, listen to this, this is something we have to have, so we’ll all become r-less,” he said. The craze went down the East Coast from Boston to Virginia (skipping Philadelphia, for some reason) and migrating selectively around the country.
Is this theory of the origin of r-dropping generally accepted?
(As for “No one other word, it turns out, can do the job”—what about youse?)
A brief summary of a Texas Monthly article on their research is here:
Our research is ongoing and we hope to find out why the Texas accent actually seems to be growing in use,” said Tillery. “It seems more and more Texans are holding on to their heritage through language.”
So far, their research has indentified the monophthongal (or flat) “i” as the key component of a Texas accent. This flattened vowel is the sound that makes “night” sound like “naht.”
The full article requires registration (or the use of Google cache).
Update. As I suspected, the idea that r’s were lost in English schools is nonsense; see Geoff Pullum’s blast over at Language Log. See also Mark Liberman’s followup, with its investigation of the allegedly Texan (19th-century) greeting “How does your copperosity sagaciate this morning?”
Further update. Mark Liberman has an entry quoting Guy Bailey’s response to Mark’s asking him about the article; as Mark says, “a combination of journalistic focus and editorial compression led to Guy being quoted in a way that doesn’t accurately reflect what he knows and what he thinks.” Read the entry for details (on the history of r-dropping). One thing that puzzled me: it was clear from Bailey’s description of his talk with the reporter (“When asked about the origins of r-lessness in the U.S., I offered two or three different theories… The comment on fixin to was also part of a much longer explanation”) that his extensive, learned remarks were bound to be inaccurately reported. I would have thought “well, academics aren’t used to reporters,” but he followed up with this:
One thing we as linguists probably need to do is to figure out how to make technical linguistic descriptions easily available to a public which has a more general education. Interestingly enough, as an administrator, I always try to give reporters sound bites that reflect the message UTSA wants communicated; as a linguist, I never do.
Well, why on earth not? Here you have a rare chance to educate the immense readership of the NY Times about some interesting bits of language history, and you bore the reporter with a complex series of alternative theories better suited for a seminar. Prepare those sound bites, linguists! “Dropped r’s? They got ‘em from slaves!” is just as colorful as the boarding-school theory, and has the added advantage of possibly being right.