Terrell Native Jamie Foxx Skillfully Adapts His Way Of Speaking To His Environment

What we think of as mainstream African American English has its roots in Texas and the American South.

By Michael MarksMarch 27, 2020 12:58 pm,

In this month’s Texan Translation, Texas Standard is parsing the speaking style of one of the most famous Texans in show business – actor Jamie Foxx. Foxx is from Terrell, Texas, east of Dallas.

In the video clip below, Foxx talks about the character he plays in the recent film “Just Mercy.”

I remember when we had to shoot those scenes in the jail cell, just, like, getting the cuffs on really put me in the mindset of, Wow, this person’s life is put upside down. His family, everybody’s affected.

Lars Hinrichs is a professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin, and the director of the Texas English Linguistics Lab. He says Foxx’s voice is distinctive, but it’s also familiar.

“Foxx’s speech is mainstream African American English,” Hinrichs says. “What’s distinct about it is [that it’s] not necessarily Southern or Texan.”

Mainstream African American English has its roots in the history of the Southern United States and Texas, but it has found its way into other parts of the country over the past 150 years.

“African American English is itself tied to Southern and Texan history,” Hinrichs says. “Southern mainstream English and African American English go back to the same roots, from before the Civil War. But ever since, it has spread around the country with the Great Migration, and become part of the big cities of the north. And through that process, African American English has become more of a dialect of its own.”

Like many of us, Foxx sometimes finds himself speaking differently depending on where he is and who he’s with. He talked about meeting Barbra Streisand in the Hamptons on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.”

I got a chance to actually sing with Barbra Streisand in concert because I met her at the Hamptons. I talk different when I’m at the Hamptons: “Oh! I was at the Hamptons; I saw Barbra there. ‘Hi Babs, how are you?’” You know what I’m saying? You act differently!

Hinrichs says Foxx “really threads the needle with his linguistic style – it’s a skillful use of different markers.” When talking about meeting Streisand, Foxx pronounced all of the R’s in his words, for example.

Hearing Foxx in a context outside of talk shows paints another picture of the way he speaks, as in a message Foxx recorded for the teachers of Terrell Independent School District.

Thank you so much for doing the job. Sometimes it can be thankless. For doing the job, sometimes people don’t get you and understand what you’re trying to do for their kids. Thank you so much for doing that, man, because I’m going to tell you something, out of all of those kids, if it’s just a handful that really goin’ and do something special, I’m telling you, you gonna make all of those kids, man, feel like life is worth living.

Hinrichs says Foxx is “speaking from the heart.” He’s using a number of clear markers of African American English, including phrases like “just a handful.” Hinrichs calls that “an African American existential construction.”

“This is really hometown directed,” Hinrichs says. “It makes it feel really heartfelt.”


Digital story edited by Shelly Brisbin.