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Is the Texas Twang Dying Out? A Q&A with Linguistics Researcher Kate Shaw Points

By Jessica Sinn
Published: May 10, 2012 

Kate Shaw PointsGo to any small Texas town and you’re likely to get an earful of “y’alls,” “might-coulds” and “fixin tos.” But in big cities like Austin, Dallas and Houston, Texans are sounding a lot less like cowpokes and more like other Americans.

With a surge of newcomers, rapid urbanization and new technology, the Lone Star State’s iconic accent is changing at an exponential rate. According to new research from the English Department’s Texas English Project, the linguistic hallmarks of Texas’ cowboy culture have significantly diminished since the 1980s.

So is the Texas twang fixin’ to die out? Not necessarily, says Kate Shaw Points, a linguistics graduate student at The University of Texas at Austin. From her research, she discovered the Texas twang is alive and well in the East Austin Latino community. But whether they choose to speak the twang depends on the topic of conversation.

We sat down with Points to learn more about the shift in Texas’ regional dialect, what it says about our culture, and why Texans will continue to use their twang in the right situation.

While interviewing Latinos in East Austin, you found they tend to have two competing accents. What’s causing this?

It all depends on the topic of conversation. I found that when they are talking about gentrification or changes in their community, they speak with a more traditional Hispanic accent. I think this is a way for them to distance themselves from developers taking over their neighborhood.

The other accent – the Texas twang – tends to come out when they’re talking about matters close to their heart, like food and family. It’s a way for them to show pride in their heritage and point out their identity as Texans.

Why do you focus much of your research on women?

The theory is that women, primarily Anglos, are more attuned to language prestige, meaning they are the first to adopt prestigious features of speech. Women are interesting because they are the first to adopt a new dialect features, but they will use their twang in certain situations. For example, they’ll use their twang to their advantage when they want to seem to exude an air of Southern hospitality. Men, on the other hand, tend to go the other way. They’re more likely to speak the twang, the language of “the working class,” because they want to sound more masculine.

 Why is it important to study language change?

Languages change naturally over time. The way we speak English today is different from how Shakespeare spoke English. It's not a bad thing that language changes; it's a natural evolution. Sometimes the reasons for change are "language-internal," meaning there's something to do with the structure of the language that is facilitating the change (whether it's a sound, grammar or meaning).

When we have "language-external" causes for change, something is happening that is outside of the actual structure of the language. This could be like one nation conquers another, and eventually the conquering nation's language would likely become the main language of the country - this happened with the Norman conquest of England in 1066.

Language change also stems from changes in society.  One example would be an in-group vs. out-group situation, where subtle differences in language use can represent group membership.  Over time, those subtle differences might get perpetuated and become part of the language overall - unrelated to group membership.

What does this say about our culture?

The fact that language is related to other things in life, tells us that language and culture are intricately linked. Many indigenous people feel that losing their language is akin to losing their culture. Using language to help differentiate group membership is an aspect of culture. The culture of ranching in Texas, for example, has different words, sounds, aspects of grammar, etc. than the culture of say, fishing in the Gulf.

How does this research increase tolerance of other cultures?

Appreciating that different groups of people have different linguistic patterns, and that none of these patterns are a priori "better" than others, could lead to increased understanding and perhaps tolerance. The more you know about how a different ethnic group uses language, you are better prepared to accept their culture.

About the Texas English Project: Created in 2008, the Texas English Project examines and documents dialect differences in Texas. Directed by Lars Hinrichs, assistant professor of English language and linguistics, the student researchers collect interviews with native Texans and analyze the various factors that influence how they speak. When completed, the project will provide both an interactive public showcase for video and audio documentaries about Texas English dialects and a professional digital archive for linguistic research.

For more details about The Texas English Project, read the full feature story.