Monday, December 6, 2010

‘How kin yew tell?': the Texas Accent

I've been stumbling on various articles lately about the Texas accent. It seems that every few years it pokes up out of the ground to call attention to itself in popular discourse. One example would be George Bush's drawl, and it's perceived indication of or at least gesture towards anti-intellectualism. Another example was the Coen Brothers film No County for Old Men, in which the villain Anton Chigurh's distinct lack of any accent at all (see above), in a West Texas setting aurally thick with drawl, was precisely what made him so spooky.

Although it seems many in America consider the way Texans speak to be unique and special, it turns out that empirical arguments suggest it isn't. According to a 2003 Texas Monthly article by Pamela Colloff, linguistic research considers the accents of Texas to be a subset of Southern American English. Reseachers working with National Geographic and professors at U.T.-San Antonio, also found that increasingly urban populations have adjusted their speech to sound like rest of Americans (though it's unclear which Americans they mean...Mid-western? Northeastern?). At the same time, rural populations have preserved their accent, such that the gap between urban and rural is far stronger than it was twenty years ago. This, of course, has something to do with populations from outside the state moving to Houston, Dallas, and Austin in larger numbers than the rural areas. The evidence collected by Guy Bailey and Jan Tillery suggested that while urban accents were more "cosmopolitan," words like "fixin' to" and "ya'll" were actually spreading in cities.

But empirical arguments don't capture the interplay between the accent's symbolic power and popular purchase. Reading through various articles on the subject, I'm consistently amused by the small and casual speculations of the linguists and the journalists who write about them.
Bailey, for example:

“The Texas identity is threatened,” he said. “There was a large influx of people who moved here in the seventies. Oil was big, and the auto industry and the Rust Belt were on the decline. Suddenly, in the seventies, Texas attracted many new residents from outside the state. The arrival of so many outsiders can make people circle the wagons, linguistically.”
He continues to tell Texans about themselves:

“If you like Texas a lot, you might wear a pair of boots,” Bailey observed. “You might drive a truck, and you might learn how to two-step. Language is another kind of accoutrement.”

Finally, as Tillery and Bailey tried to understand why a new dialect of Southern American English was emerging in the West Texas plains, they, analytically speaking, just gave up. "This is Texas," they wrote, "and things are just different here."

I'm realizing that this will be a continuing theme on this blog. The idea of Texas as "just different" and a place imbued with the iconography of "circling the wagons," two-stepping, and trucks. Bailey's comments seem so easy to digest until one imagines someone making the same argument for any other region of the country.

Certainly the idea of linguistically reacting to the influx of outsiders has some merit. Although I'm embarrassed to admit it, I began to say "ya'll" much more frequently while living in New York. Surrounded by non-Texans, I suddenly felt much more keenly aware of my place of heritage, and I wanted to wear it on my sleeve just as I wore pearl snap shirts and played a telecaster guitar.

Yet my personal explanation only goes so far. It is an entirely different argument to explain the spread of certain features of the Texas accent (and not others) with a cheap reference to reactionary conservative politics. Bailey's assumption that Texans "circle the wagons" because they want to solidify their identity against outsiders is an assertion that could be made without any study having been done at all.

Bailey himself is from Alabama, speaking with what Colloff describes as "soft lilting drawl." One could postulate that Texans with which he spoke "accommodated" (a term from socio-linguistics, not far out philosophy) to his accent by sharpening or softening their voices in specific ways. Or perhaps because they knew he was conducting an "academic study," and was not just any interlocutor, they adjusted to sound more or less "Texan"? What if "ya'll" and "fixin' to" are spreading in usage because of some popular cultural referent? Bush's overly performed southern accent? Or more recently, Obama's lack of a southern accent?

It seems at this point that the problem is not one of individual researcher tendencies, orientations, practices, or biases, but is rather instructive in terms of how certain ideas about Texas get passed around. I'm not so much indignant as I am perplexed by the ease with which a circular argument for a Texan identity gets reproduced. Do Texans react to the idea, by outsiders, that they distrust outsiders, by enacting that distrust in language and accent? How would we ever know? Do Texans react to being told that Texas is "just different" by feeling less tethered to national trends and political pressures? Does it begin here or outside? If language does play a role, where does it fit in? It seems like there is a lot of thinking to be done here, and merely empirical research hasn't been very satisfying.