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Are Texan twangs all the same?

By Nancy Kolsti, News Promotions

According to the perceptions of many residents of states other than Texas and natives of other countries, all Texans speak the same way, with their speech filled with drawls and twangs and expressions like “Howdy, y’all.”

Recent university research, however, suggests that Texans don’t view their state as a homogeneous speech community. Instead, they very easily distinguish between areas of the state with “normal Texan speech,” “country speech” and Spanish-influenced speech, and areas where people drawl and twang in their speech.

Patricia Cukor-AvilaPatricia Cukor-Avila, left, associate professor of linguistics, and one graduate student and two undergraduate students are investigating Texans’ perceptions of their own accents and other Texans’ accents through random surveys at shopping malls and other public places. Survey participants were presented with various maps of Texas and asked to indicate where on the maps that they thought people in Texas spoke differently. They were also asked to write down their perceptions of that way of speaking.

The surveys have targeted residents of Amarillo, Austin, El Paso, Houston, Lubbock and other parts of the Panhandle, San Marcos, Wichita Falls and a few towns in East Texas. This fall semester, Cukor-Avila and the student researchers plan to go to Brownsville, Corpus Christi, Longview, Midland-Odessa, Mount Pleasant, Tyler and other cities to gather more data.

Cukor-Avila said that nearly one-third of the almost 400 people who have already been surveyed said that Texans in different parts of the state either “drawl” or “twang.”  However, “the perceived geographical boundaries where people drawl and twang are not as clear-cut as what we found for perceptions of Spanish/Spanglish,” Cukor-Avila said.

The comments written on the maps, she said, “lend support to the stereotype that Texans drawl in the Panhandle and Big Bend West and twang in East Texas and the Piney Woods,” but Texans also perceived speech in the Panhandle as “twangy,” and many respondents said people drawl across the Hill Country and along the Gulf Coast region from north of Houston down into the upper Rio Grande Valley.

Zak Shelton, a senior linguistics major and a student in the Honors College, said he didn’t realize until he began working on the project that Texas residents tend to separate accents with a drawl and accents with a twang. Shelton, who was raised on a cattle ranch outside of Corsicana, said that although many of his family members speak with a heavy drawl, he credits his “non-thick drawl” to his mother, who was very strict about his grammar.

Texas geographical regions“When I go home, however, my accent becomes thicker, and I start sounding more ‘Texan’ and using colloquialisms,” he said.

The student researchers also discovered that most respondents said “normal Texas speech” — meaning, speech that doesn’t have drawls or twangs to the ears of the listeners and doesn’t sound “country” — is found in the North Central region, particularly in and around the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex, and along a southern corridor in Austin. A small number of respondents who lived outside of these regions said speech was “normal” where they live.

In other findings:

  • “Country” speech was perceived by most respondents as occurring in and around Amarillo, and in East Texas. It wasn’t associated with major cities outside of the Panhandle.
  • 70 percent of the respondents labeled an area of Texas as “Spanish” or “Spanglish."

Cukor-Avila said the students will continue to analyze the data gathered last spring and this fall to correlate the responses on the surveys to the respondents’ age, gender, education level and identification as Texans. Most respondents had lived in Texas at least 15 years, she said.

The students will determine how much these factors influence people’s ideas about speech in different parts of the state, Cukor-Avila said.

“Our first analysis was to determine the regions of the state that were most identified with certain speech features. But there are many factors that determine how someone personally identifies them,” she said.

The project was presented last spring at both the UNT Honors College Scholars Day and the University of Texas at Austin’s 20thSymposium About Language and Society-Austin, and this summer at the 7th Congress of the International Society for Dialectology and Geolinguistics in Vienna. Cukor-Avila and her students hope to present the demographic analysis at the annual conference of the American Dialect Society, which is scheduled for January 2013.


Posted on: Mon 10 September 2012

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