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Friday, January 7, 2005

By Steven Taylor @ 7:54 am

Along the line of the discussion over the “Yankee v. Dixie Quiz” comes the following via the Chicago Tribune/Yahoo: Y’all listen up!

If you ever find yourself in a group of Southerners and want to spot the Texan in the bunch, listen hard for the y’alls. Most of them will surely use the expression-a contraction of “you all"-to refer to a group of people ("Are y’all goin’ to the store?"), but the Texan is more likely to employ it to refer to a single individual as well.

That’s just one of the unusual discoveries made by two linguistics professors at the University of Texas-San Antonio who are studying Texas Twang, the distinctive dialect of English proudly spoken by natives of the Lone Star State-and sometimes ridiculed by the rest of the country.

The husband-wife team, Guy Bailey and Jan Tillery, are fixin’ to complete the last of their research this summer. When they’re done finished with their work, which is underwritten by the National Geographic Society, they might could write the definitive guide to what they lovingly call TXE, or Texas English.

“Texas is different-it’s the only state that was its own country at one time and has its own creation story,” said Bailey, a native of Alabama and provost and executive vice president of the university. “Out of that has come a sense of braggadocio and a strong desire to hold on to a unique way of speaking.”

What? Texans have an attitude? Not that I have ever noticed…

I plead guilty to “y’all” (I also say “howdy” on occassion). “Y’all” is no doubt a most useful contraction and rolls off the tongue far better than “you guys” (which I noticed was the prevalent second person plural formulation in Southern California when I moved there in High School -and during which time I initially acquired the nickname of “Tex"-so I guess I sounded different to them as well).

Amusing that one of the researchers is from Alabama and that he notes that the Texas accent is different than that from the Deep South.

Now, back to y’all:

But Texans, in a kind of defiant counterreaction to the mass appropriation of their beloved term, now also use it to refer to one person as well as many ("Y’all are my beautiful wife"), Tillery said. That, of course, is precisely the kind of confusion that y’all evolved to clear up in the first place.

I ain’t done never used y’all like’n that. In fact, I don’t recall ever hearing it used as such.

On the topic of pronounciations:

Most native Texans, for example, use a flat “i", saying “naht” for night and “rahd” for ride, and they don’t make any audible distinction when pronouncing such words as “pool” and “pull” or “fool” and “full.” Midwesterners, by contrast, exhibit their own characteristic linguistic quirks, such as something experts call a fronted “o” in words like “about.”


The infamous double modal ("might could,” “may can,” “might would"), a hedging construction denoting less certainty than “might” alone, remains more elusive, however.

I plead guilty to having done the pool/pull fool/full thing, although I think that I have at lest some difference in the way I say those words-although I certainly have heard Texan compadres who pronounce them identically. I would say ennuciate “night” and “ride” suffciently as not to fall into the “aht"/"ahd” category.

Of course, I don’t think I have an especially strong accent. It depends on what I am saying, and to whom. I have noticed that when tired or angry it often pops up a tad more. Of course, the accent is often in the ear of the beholder: some people think I have no accent at all, others claim it is quite distinct. Who can say?

Now, if I want an especially strong accent, I can certainly generate one…

In terms of vocab:

Interviewees are asked 250 questions to check unique Texas pronunciations and determine whether they use certain words and phrases, such as “polecat” for skunk or “snake feeder” for dragonfly. Some of the terms are used elsewhere across the Southern U.S. as well, but many combinations are distinctively Texan.

I am familiar with “polecat” but have always used “skunk” (come to think of it, I think I know “polecat” mostly via Yosemite Sam). I am unfamiliar with “snake feeder".


The infamous double modal ("might could,” “may can,” “might would"), a hedging construction denoting less certainty than “might” alone, remains more elusive, however.

“It’s very easy for people who move into Texas to pick up `y’all,’” Bailey said. “It’s a little bit harder to pick up `fixin’ to.’ But `might could’ is another matter. We have found that unless you’re born and raised in Texas, you don’t pick up the double modals.”

I have been known to employ “fixin’” but not all that much. I am fairly certainyl I have said “might could” but it is hardly something I frequently employ (I never really thought about that one too much before now).

To conclude:

When all is said and done, do Texans sound funny?

“Not to Texans,” Bailey said, “and not really to other people in the South.

Which, of course, stands to reason. (And, to be honest, lots of folks from the Midwest, North and Northeast sound a but funny to me at times).

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  1. Texas is NOT the only state to have been an independant country.

    Comment by Gary and the Samoyeds — Friday, January 7, 2005 @ 8:10 am

  2. When I moved to Texas the first time (Houston, 1979), I lived next door to a wonderful young couple and their little boy, “J.F.” It took me several weeks to realize that their son’s name was actualy “Jeff", but that his mother managed to get two syllables out of it.

    On the other hand, I left Texas having firmly adopted “y’all” as the 2nd person plural that English lacks, and my then-infant daughter, Bethan-having learned to speak during our two years in Houston-carried more than a hint of South Texas in her speech until well into her late teens. ..bruce..

    Comment by Bruce F. Webster — Friday, January 7, 2005 @ 8:59 am

  3. I get sick and tired of the talk about Texas accents. I was born, raised and live in Texas and rarely ever say ya’ll, ain’t, fixin, etc. I’ve been to several areas around this country and no one has once asked me if I’m from Texas without looking at my driver’s license or license plate.

    Contrary to the author’s belief, most native Texans do not have a Texas twang. Those that do usually reside outside of the four large cities.

    Comment by Chad Evans — Friday, January 7, 2005 @ 10:09 am

  4. Chad,

    One thing I would note: the article seems to focus on what I would consider more East Texas-jut look at the “vocab” words at the end of the article.

    Comment by Steven Taylor — Friday, January 7, 2005 @ 10:17 am

  5. Chad,

    I’ve lived in se texas and DFW, and I don’t think you are standing on solid ground with that comment that “most texans” don’t have a Texas twang: even in the more-than-four large cities (Fort Worth is large, as is Arlington, and get pretty upset when you lump them in with Dallas).

    Comment by bryan — Friday, January 7, 2005 @ 11:14 am

  6. Southerners do not use the word y’all in the singular. A southerner would never say “y’all are my beautiful wife” unless he is a bigamist. This misconception exists because when there are only two southerners together and one leaves the other he will often say, “y’all come see us.” Yankees assume that the first southerner is referring to the second southerner alone with the term y’all. In reality, the first southerner is referring to the second southener and the second southerner’s wife, children, mother, father, extended family and dog. Really love the blog Dr. Taylor. Glad to see things are still going well at TSU.

    Comment by Adam Jones — Friday, January 7, 2005 @ 3:43 pm

  7. Well Adam stole my thunder about the ‘Y’all go with us/stay with us’ bit but there remains this question of the lovely professors’ TXE. If Texans don’t sound funny to the rest of their Southern brethren - indeed my northwest Alabama family use the double modals and everything else in the piece (sans snake feeder) it isn’t really a uniquely Texas thing.

    Also, the stars at night are big and bright, deep in the heart of dixie.

    Ahem. Sorry.

    Comment by Kenny — Saturday, January 8, 2005 @ 12:53 pm

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