In this month’s installment of Texan Translation, Texas Standard looked at the well-known speech by former Texas Gov. Ann Richards at the 1988 Democratic National Convention, with the help of Lars Hinrichs, professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin. Hinrichs is also director of the Texas English Linguistics Lab at UT.
Richards’ speech is known for its witty and often biting one-liners. But Hinrichs focused on the nature of Richards’ Texan accent, and how she used that accent to make a larger point about political and cultural divisions. Richards gave the speech when she was not yet governor of Texas, but state treasurer. Here’s the first line:
“I’m delighted to be here with you this evening, because after listening to George Bush all these years I figured you needed to know what a real Texas accent sounds like,” Richards said, to raucous applause.
Hinrichs said her Texas accent is easy to recognize, and it would likely sound much different than the way the majority of the national TV audience spoke. But she used that difference to draw people in.
At one point in her speech, she talked about growing up in a small town in Central Texas:
I can still hear the sound of the dominoes clicking on the marble slab my daddy had found for a tabletop. I can still hear the laughter of the men telling jokes you weren’t supposed to hear. Talking about how big that ol’ buck deer was, laughing about momma putting Clorox in the well when the frog fell in. They talked about war and Washington and what this country needed. They talked “straight talk,” and it came from people who were living their lives as best they could.
Hinrichs said in that excerpt, Richards’ accent has strong Texas English features, including the way she said “sound” and “found.” She didn’t shy away from her natural way of speaking to appeal to a broader audience.
“Politicians often use vernacular speech when they address the public. But normally, they do that intentionally to their constituents to show, I’m one of you; I speak like you,” Hinrichs said. “She’s really addressing the whole country, and making herself intentionally distinct. The message here is … we can be different and yet be one country.”
That message of unity and inclusion mattered because Richards came from a Southern state where there’s often mistrust of mainstream politics.
Here’s what Richards said about that division:
We’ve been told that the interests of the South and the Southwest are not the same interests as the North and the Northeast. They pit one group against the other. They’ve divided this country, and in our isolation we think government isn’t gonna help us.
Hinrichs said Richards’ accent is strong, again, in that excerpt, in the way she said “South,” “divided” and “isolation.” It all played into what he considered the point of her speech: that many Americans had been forgotten or left behind, but that their differences are intrinsically American – in other words, what makes us distinct makes us fit in.
“The premise of her speech is many Americans … have the same worries, no matter where they’re from,” he said. “They have a shared humanity, and they need a government that recognizes that.”
Web story edited by Caroline Covington.