These Days, the Twang Ain’t No Thang
When you think about Texas and what makes a Texan, one of the first things that comes to mind is probably the twang. But linguists say that decades from now, talking Texan may sound a whole lot different than it does today.
Laurel Robertson was watching an old black-and-white film, a 1962 documentary about her family in Amarillo, and listening to how her family talks.
Back then Laurel’s sister had this deep Texas twang.
“It’s hysterical,” Robertson said. “And she doesn’t talk like that anymore. She still has an accent, but it’s not like it was when she was a kid.”
In fact, Laurel says, no one in her family talks like that anymore.
“Believe it or not, my twang is not as bad or as good as it used to be,” she said.
Turns out, the same goes for more and more Texans. The twang might be fading.
“What’s changed over the past few decades is that you don’t automatically have a twang because you’re from here,” said Lars Hinrichs, a linguistics professor at the University of Texas. He leads the Texas English Project, and he has a German accent. He’s been comparing recordings of the way Texans used to talk to how they talk now. He’s got hundreds of them.
“About 1984, my colleague Gary Underwood had his students in our American English class go out and record speakers of Central Texas English,” Hinrichs said. “Everybody read the same passage, and it was a passage that had a lot of ‘I’ vowels — you know, Tyler, five, Whitehouse. And the issue back then was to study how many and how frequently speakers turned that ‘I’ vowel into an ‘ah’ vowel, so the ‘ah’ is the more traditional Texas pronunciation.”
That “ah” is pretty well defined in many of those old recordings.
“And then my students in 2010, 2011 had the same assignment,” Hinrichs said. “Go out and interview two speakers of Central Texas English and start out by having them read the passage. And the changes are quite striking.”
And it’s not just the “ah” vowel. Hinrichs says other parts of the twang are getting used less, too.
“For example a more old time pronunciation of face would be faice.” he said. “A more old-time pronunciation of goose would be gewse.”
Both of those pronunciations are getting used less, too, at least here in Austin. But the twang isn’t the only accent seeing changes. In a place about as far from Texas as you can imagine, the same thing is happening: New York City.
“I revisited a neighborhood in Manhattan that was studied in the 1960s by another linguist named William Labov,” said Kara Becker, a linguist at Reed College. What Labov found back in the ’60s was that people on the Lower East Side of Manhattan were using parts of their accent more and more. Really iconic parts.
“One is the vowel in the word like ‘coffee’ or ‘dog’ and in New York it gets pronounced like cawffee or dawg,” she said.
Or instead of “father,” it’s “fathah.”
But when Becker went back to the neighborhood a few years ago, she found things had changed.
“Younger speakers that were born and raised on the Lower East Side are not producing the coffee talk that their older counterparts are producing,” she said.
Now it’s “coffee” and “dog.” But why? Of course there’s the media and migration and all that. But then that’s not all.
“What we like to say about New York is that its speakers have a fairly high rate of linguistic insecurity,” Becker said. “Which means that they’re sort of aware that other people don’t like their accent and they might themselves not be so excited about their accent.”
So they might be consciously trying to stop doing the coffee talk. And Hinrichs says the same goes for the twang when people move to the city.
“A lot of my students, for example, say they can speak in a Texas twang-y way, they just don’t all the time,” he said. “they don’t at all times want to sound like they have a strong Texas twang.”
Laurel Robertson was one of them. “I can remember when I moved from Amarillo to Austin to go to UT that I had to consciously change the way I said a few things,” she said.
People would laugh at her. “I said SEE-ment. I said UM-brella, you know, put that accent on the first syllable,” she said. “And I had to consciously learn not to do that.”
But, paradoxically, Texans are also really proud of the twang. And even if they don’t use it all the time, they do use it when they feel like it’s more appropriate. Get a few drinks in some of them, or around their family or old friends — out comes the twang.
“Yeah, that’s a classic,” Hinrichs said. “Setting matters; who you’re talking to has to be familiar and an appropriate addressee. Your emotional state, you have to be comfortable with them.”
Hinrichs doesn’t think the twang is going to die out or anything. But like a lot of regional accents, it’s changing. And that change is happening faster now.
“If you look at a deeper time, you become aware that it’s changing all the time,” he said. “And I’m curious about what the Texas accent is going to be in 20 more years.”
As more and more people move to Texas, bringing their own linguistic peculiarities with them, you can be sure that the twang won’t sound quite the same as it does today.