Assistant Professor Lars Hinrichs' research on the Texas twang sparks media frenzy
Posted: February 7, 2013
Lar Hinrichs, Photograph by Marsha Miller
There’s just something about Texas that captures the imagination. Something about ten gallon hats and cattle and that Texas twang--the last of which is going the way of the cowboy: off into the sunset. And Lars Hinrichs, Assistant Professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin, has been capitalizing on that larger-than-life appeal with his research for the Texas English Project.
The project, led by Hinrichs and a team of graduate student researchers, formed in 2008 in an effort study both current and past Texas dialects. Those involved with the project strive to chart changes to local language usage, keep a record of past dialects, and study the factors that lead to linguistic change. Their research has covered a broad spectrum of changes to Texas English: the downfall of the word “pole cat” for “skunk,” the fading of the dipthong in words like “trap” (a Texan might have said “tray-up” thirty years ago); and a move towards employing the accent strategically—to seem more personable and friendly; or, conversely, more powerful—rather than using it in every day speech. As Hinrichs wrote in an e-mail, the purpose of the project is “to participate in discussions on possible future developments in American dialects. We know that local dialects won't go away entirely. So it is fascinating to observe and find out where social change, globalization, and similar factors are going to take local forms of English.”
The work of the Texas English Project first garnered attention from the College of Liberal Arts, which covered the story in a lengthy article published (and recently reposted on the COLA website) in the Spring 2012 issue of Life and Letters. This article was later featured in UT’s online magazine Know and, since then, has been snapped up by media outlets around the globe. It has appeared in The Austin American-Statesman, The Dallas Morning News, and other major local and national newspapers; on television reports and radio programs; and, at one point, even hopped the Atlantic to appear in the London newspaper, The Times. After a Daily Texan article covered the story January 23, 2013, the story has, as Hinrichs notes, “come full circle, geographically speaking.”
When asked why he thought his research had sparked so much media attention, Hinrichs pointed to an interest in the wider phenomenon of “dialect leveling,” a move towards more standardized forms of spoken English, which “is something that is happening to local, vernacular dialects everywhere in the world.” In other words, it’s not just the Texas twang that is fading, but local accents around the globe. So why all the buzz about Texas? As Hinrichs describes, this focus is due to the powerful mythos that surrounds the lone star state: “Since Texas is known to have such a strong and independent cultural identity, I think it strikes people as both serious and exemplary. People are probably interested in ‘what happens next?’”
For the Texas English Project, what’s next includes a lot of continued research. Kate Shaw Points, one of the graduate student researchers, is completing a dissertation on language use in East Austin. Meanwhile, Hinrichs is working with a team of scholars, and graduate and undergraduate students to expand the project’s data set in real-time vowel changes. Ultimately, Hinrichs hopes that this media attention will open up a dialogue about these changes to language: “Changes to the local dialect are something that everyone observes in their region, at some level, but which few people have the chance to discuss. I hope that our work provides those who are interested a chance to engage intellectually with ongoing change in the real world.”
After all, what starts here changes the world, y’all.
Links to media coverage of this story:
"Do you speak Texan?" by Jessica Sin, College of Liberal Arts, Life and Letters
"Is the Texas twang history?" by Brenda Bell, Austin American-Statesman
"Texas losing its twang" NBC Nightly News
"Damn Yankees: Is Texas losing its twang?" by J.K. Nickell, Time U.S.
"Texas twang fixin' to ride off into the sunset" by Matt Largey, All Things Considered
"Dr. Lars Hinrichs, The University of Texas at Austin -- Disappearing Texasisms" by Bradley Cornelius, Academic Minute
"Texas talk is losing its twang" by Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times
"UT researchers say distinctive Texas accent is dying in urban areas" by Christine Ayala, Daily Texan
"Texas Accent Loses its potency as the twang is no longer the thang" by Rhys Blakely, The Times
"UT prof: Texas twang is on the wane" by Robert Stanton, Houston Chronicle