A nice lady wrote to me not long ago and said that she was happy to have a son with a good, solid, two-syllable Texas name. “His name is ‘Ben,’”she wrote.
I loved that. We do that, don’t we? Well, many of us do, anyway. There are 30 million Texans so there are many dialects out there. But in the traditional or classic Texas dialect, we tend to convert one-syllable words to two-syllable words. Ben becomes “Bey-uhn.” Jet becomes “Jay-ut.” Mess is “May-us.” This is what I call the Texas Diphthong.
In the traditional or classic Texas dialect, we have a tendency to stretch our vowels and put a lilt into them:
Dress becomes “Dray-us”
Grass becomes “Grah-us”
Dance is “Day-unce”
We do it with the first syllable of many two-syllable words, too. Tasty becomes “Tay-uh-stee.” Or we can do it on the last syllable of a two-syllable word. Denise becomes “De-nay-us.”
And believe it or not, some of us are so talented we can create triphthongs out of a one-syllable word. We can squeeze three into one. Ham becomes “Ha-uh-um.” This talent has been particularly mastered by televangelists who really like to elongate those vowels with words like hell – which becomes “hay-uhl-ah.” Sounds more frightening that way. When they say it like that it doesn’t differ from the hail that falls from the sky – so I’m not sure whether they are talking about fire or ice.
And that is something typical of us Texans. We make no distinction between some sounds that people up north make a big distinction between. We make no distinction between the pen that we write with and the flag pin we wear on our lapels. Up north they say Bic pen and flag pin. Pen and pin. We say Bic pen and flag pin the same way. Perfect rhyme. Up North they say beer and bear differently. Some Texans make no distinction between the bear they run from and the beverage they drink to celebrate getting away.
I got many of these examples from my friend, Dr. Lars Hinrichs, who is a professor of linguistics at the University of Texas at Austin; he’s a word doctor. For years he has been studying Texas English and he told me that Texans also reverse this diphthong process. We will sometimes convert what would be a diphthong into a monophthong. For instance, how do you say these words: nice, white and rice? If you say them like this – nice, white, rice, then you have a strong Texas accent, and also a southern one. Not much difference between the two, Hinrichs says, except for some differences in speech rhythm and some local expressions. For instance, he says, only in Texas can you feel “as sore as boiled owl,” or refer to a skunk as a “polecat.”
Hinrichs has been studying the Texas dialect for a long time. And he tells me that in the I-35 corridor we are seeing a leveling of the accent. This means that all the newcomers mingling their accents with ours is causing phonetic hybrids to emerge. So the classic Texas dialect, in the corridor, is not quite as strong as it was 20 years ago. It is evolving. East Texas and West Texas is leveling at a glacial pace compared to the corridor. Also, y’all will be happy to know that “y’all,” Hinrichs says, is not receding. It is perhaps proliferating because it is so grammatically efficient. All y’all newcomers are pickin’ it up. Some linguists say that even the Californians and the New Yorkers have started to use it.
Hollywood has had its struggles with the Texas accent, often hiring dialog coaches for authenticity. When Michael Caine came to Texas to film “Secondhand Lions“, he was struggling with the Texas accent and he said his dialog coach taught him that Texans let their words lean up against each other. He said that he realized that the British English is clipped, crisp and precise. Texas English is relaxed and each word leans into the other and just keeps things goin’ along smoothly. He learned to spread out his vowels and let his consonants lean up against each other. That’s it. That’s the secret. I won’t say he mastered it, but I will say “Secondhand Lions” was fine Texas film.
So the Texas accent is in no danger of dyin’ out. But I do think we should make an effort to keep it from becoming endangered. Wouldn’t want to have to start a Foundation for the Endangered Texas Accent, or FETA. So we can prevent that by all y’all makin’ sure you use “y’all” a dozen times a day and always be fixin’ to do somethin’. Get relaxed with your language. Let your words lean up against each other. And make sure you use your Texas diphthong every chance you “gee-ut.”
W.F. Strong is a Fulbright Scholar and professor of Culture and Communication at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. At Public Radio 88 FM in Harlingen, Texas, he’s the resident expert on Texas literature, Texas legends, Blue Bell ice cream, Whataburger (with cheese) and mesquite smoked brisket.