A story in today’s NY Times by Ralph Blumenthal reports on the research of linguists Jan Tillery and Guy Bailey, who are working on a National Geographic Society survey of Texas speech.

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.


  1. You’ns make a nice read now’n’agin.
    There was an album of field recordings I can’t recall who by, it wasn’t Lomax pere or fils, from the aforesaid Lone Star state, there was a song on it from the last turn of the century in an oompah modality, but still fixed American rural folk country, and to my untrained but straining ear there was the flat Teutonic diction in the singers’ accents you could trace through a few more decades of mingling to the Texan drawl, as distinct from the francophonic Looziana drawl, the distinction the German in it, and then read somewhere later that late 19th c. German influx was large in Texas, while not so in the other southern states.
    “You’ns” is a West Virginia-specific derivation of the broad second person plural.
    I think, but then I’m no linguist, that for those not born to it, using “y’all” is like cowboy-hatted coked-up stock traders riding mechanical bulls back in the hey-day of that particular cultural aberration.
    Youse are entitled to yuh own opinion, however bogus.

  2. I only use y’all in a more or less impudent context. In neutral context I say “you guys”, which has been unisex around here for at least 3 decades. I don’t know what I’d say in a formal context. I’m very successful in avoiding these.

  3. Regarding Texas English, I’m of the opinion that it’s growing in popularity because it’s commonly associated with idiocy (football, jingoism, our president) and idiocy has gained a large constituency in this country–idiots and people who deliberately set out to SEEM idiots, in order to tick off “Liberals”. Liberalism, of course, has to be defined as it is by commentators such as Rush Limbaugh, to mean anyone who prefers illusion over reality, legalism over common sense, and the word over the deed. In a sense, the country as a whole is embracing the Will Rogers line: “`I am just an old country boy…” in the hope of being seen to embrace the rest of Rogers’ populist philosophy.

  4. I grew up in Chicago saying “you guys” (not “youse guys”–that’s uneducated), but have happily thrown it over in favor of “y’all,” which is more euphonious and can be redundantly pluralized as “all y’all,”–handier than you might think.
    The existence of Texan English as something distinct from Southern English could only be news to someone who’s never been to Texas. The accent is distinct.

  5. Last line of first ‘Texas English’ comments entry should have read:
    “Youse ah entoitled t’yuh pinyin in d’matta, hawevah buggis id iz.”

  6. Let’s not forget the Pittsburg “yins“.

  7. Or “you’uns”, which I still like better than “y’all”. “You’uns” has the disadvantage of drawing funny looks outside areas where it’s part of the dialect, however. 😉

  8. Mitch Mills says

    I’m pretty sure the growth in the popularity of rap/hip-hop music over the last two decades has played a role in spreading the use of “y’all”. I know of examples of New York rap groups making heavy use of “y’all” at least as far back as the late 80s.
    What I don’t know is how widespread use of “y’all” was in New York, at least among African American communities, prior to this. The migration of southern Blacks to northern cities would seem an obvious route of transmission, but this migration began in earnest much earlier, around the time of the first World War.
    The growth of a national audience for Country and Western music may also have played / be playing a role in the spread of “y’all” to regions outside the south.

  9. “”You’ns” is a West Virginia-specific derivation of the broad second person plural.”
    You’ns is not West Virginia specific (at least around here) but from my experience comes from Pennsylvania. The only people I know who say ‘you’ns’ are from southwestern PA, while my friends (from all over WV) use “y’all” or “you all” (or the horrid you guys).
    (And since this is my first appearence, Language Hat, I like your blog. Thanks!)
    from West (by God) Virginia

  10. Take that, msg! And much obliged for the kind words, Michelle.

  11. Hmmm. By saying that Texas English is associated with idiocy above, Nick J unfortunately highights the assumption that led me, as a native Texan (and natural blond, which carries its own stigma of airheadedness) to suppress my natural accent for years. I agree that the unelected prez does not help matters, but I do like to point out that he was born, NOT in Texas, but Connecticut, and received most of his education OUTSIDE the state. Much of his west-Texas cowboyism, is in fact, greatly exaggerated behavior. His swagger is an affectation, and I find it unnattractive and often downright infuriating. Ann Richards, on the other hand, who spoke of George Bush Sr. being born “with a silver foot in his mouth”–now there’s a Texan English to aspire to. I’ve learned to love the sound of Texas English, while still remaining wary of the prejudices held by some–yes, perhaps even MOST–people who speak it.
    Y’all might also like this article by Molly Ivins that I recently posted to my site: http://www.thenation.com/doc.mhtml?i=20031117&s=ivins

  12. Take that, Nick J! And you’re quite right about the UnPrez, shanna. I like your attitude.

  13. Well I never.
    Long after the lights have dimmed on this small portable stage, a would-be orator hems and haws, harrumphs mightily and…
    Well anyway.
    My grandma was born and raised in Texas.
    The best employer it was ever my good fortune to work alongside was a man from West Virginia, born and raised. And “you’ns” (pr. yoonz, stress at beginning) was as automatic to his everyday speech as dude was to mine as a teenager, on the beaches of California in the 60’s.
    I pompously overstepped my bounds geographically and lexigraphically though I will admit. Somewhat.
    Now that all this panhandle dust has settled back down.
    Happy Trails there, pard

  14. Well, if the gentleman in question was from Wheeling or those environs, then that could explain it, since Wheeling is located in the northern Panhandle, and in many ways shares more with southwestern Pa than the rest of the state.
    Does that help?
    (Being raised in a state about which so many presumptions and jokes are made, gives one an almost knee-jerk reaction for correcting anything, anyone, says about the state that is not correct. So, sorry if I overreacted.)

  15. Wheelin’s close ’nuff. It’s them damn lines they drew, all round the hills of home.
    So little in the geography is humane, so much artifice.
    You did fine there, with a firm comeuppance, the words on the page seem harsher for their lack of tonal nuance.
    It was that ‘take that!’ and ‘that!’ that got my goat, if truth be told. Not your valiant defense of the home place, ma’am.
    That moderator’s immoderate incitement, more.

  16. Hey, nothin’ I like better than stirrin’ up a little trouble… nothin’ except seeing folks resolve their differences all peacable-like! And I totally agree about the damn lines.

  17. Well, I’m glad no feelings were harmed in the making of this comment.
    As far as strange boundary lines, I do have to say that there is something about living in a state where you can make a rude American gesture to show people where you live. (I live near the pointer finger knuckle.)

  18. I live almost precisely on the elbow of California. Pleased to make your acquaintance.
    My people came here early relative to most, though safely after the Donner Party and its travails, and after the eradication of the bears(grizzlies), mostly.
    The difficulty in claiming a home place, aside from the exponential growth of ancestry, is they were moving the whole time. My (maternal)grandpa’s name was Stout, from Kansas. In fact his name was Kansas Stout. His wife was from Texas.
    But those were just way stations on the trek from Scotland, through Ireland and on into the deja highlands of Appalachia, passing to the south of you there, and of course in those early days diffuse, exponentially, a little tribe of forbears concentrating their genes, the broadening band of descent being a kind of opening out going backward through time.
    And you know, ultimately Scotland itself had to be a stop on the journey from who knows where hmmm?
    My dad, between tales of Long John Underwear and odd poetic riffs on current events told me that the Scythians were the proto-Gaels and -Celts, driven from the steppes by westering Mongols, fierce as asiatic tigers of Hyrcania, then into an already populated Europe, thus quickly hop and skip to sparsely settled pictish Britain, and on up and in, to clan-friendly pre-roman Caledonia.
    Then coracle and curragh, pitch and bent wither, taut skin, rough sea, Hibernia.
    Wide with trees, warmer and still more verdant.
    Or more bitterly, cleared out and taken in creaky little ships to Belfast, Coleraine, Limerick, Drogheda, and Dublin.
    With maybe an infusion from legendary Karelia here and there along the way.
    A mythic heritage I preserve from co-existing truer threads even now.

  19. It all boils down to one thing y’all, the boys go where the girls are.’Tis that simple. Language is only a means to an end. Have good holidays, eat and be merry and I’m sure many linguabloggers will like to be toboganing down the hills with you LH with favo(u)rite dictionary quoting “ET tu LH”.
    from the wrong side of the tracks.

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