The idea that spoken English dialects are becoming more similar is a persistent myth in American culture. Although American English dialects have certainly changed over the last century, there is still a lot of linguistic variation (e.g., differences in accents, vocabulary, and grammar)—variation both between different dialects and between different speakers of a single dialect. The dialects of Texas English show both these kinds of variation. Texas English, as reported in the Atlas of North American English, remains distinct from other dialects of American English, including the general “Southern” dialect with which Texan English is often grouped (see Figure 1). Furthermore, Texas English encompasses a wide range of dialect variation across different regions and ethnic groups around the state.
Early work on American English focused on dialect variation as a regional issue only—over time, different places developed different dialects. But recent research has shown that dialect variation is also a social issue. We now know that dialect variation (for example, whether or not a speaker pronounces pie as “pah”) are based not only on where a speaker is, but also on who a speaker is— dialect differences can correspond to a speaker’s sex, sexuality, class, or ethnicity, and these differences in dialect can even be related to a speaker’s attitudes—including attitudes about certain topics, people, and even other dialects.
The Texas English Project, which began in 2008 at the University of Texas at Austin, aims to discover and understand how these kinds of dialect differences work in Texas. Our work combines social and linguistic theory with innovative digital research technology to create a repository of data, findings, and reports on Texas English. When completed, the Texas English 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.
Our research has begun with Caucasian and Mexican-Americans emerging adults living in Austin, Texas. Eventually, the Texas English Project will expand our research beyond Austin to include additional field-sites like Dallas, El Paso, Houston, as well as smaller towns like Marfa, Lockhart, and Edinburg. We will also expand our research among different ethnic groups by incorporating and collecting data from African-American and American Indian communities and expand our research among different age groups to begin investigating language change within Texas English.
The Texas English Project takes three broad views towards dialect variation in Texas:
• First, we want to understand “Texas English” as something that speakers can actively perform to elicit certain responses and attitudes from their audience.These three overarching views are not entirely separate and are often intertwined in interesting ways. It is our hope that by focusing our studies within these boundaries, we can begin to understand the social significance of “a Texan way of talking” for all the peoples and cultures that make up the Texas landscape.
• Second, we want to understand how “Texas English” varies across the different ethnic groups of Texas, including Caucasian, Mexican-American, African-American, and American Indian communities.
• Third, we want to understand how “Texas English” is different between urban Texans and rural Texans, especially regarding how urban and rural Texans feel about and use Texas English.
Talkin’ the Twang
In the 1990s, Austin’s population grew by 48% and between 2000 and 2006 it was rated as the 3rd most rapidly growing city in America. This rapid growth is expected to continue in the coming years and can be seen simply by comparing the skyline of Austin in 2002 (Fig. 2) to the projected skyline of 2012 (Fig. 3).
Attitudes towards this expansion vary widely and pilot studies by the Texas English Project have found that these attitudes are often reflected in speakers’ choices between a more standard dialect and a dialect that is more closely associated with Texas speech. Thus, an Austinite with negative attitudes towards the influx of speakers from other areas in the country may embrace the native “y’all” as a sign of local solidarity, whereas those who embrace the influx may switch to the non-local and increasingly standard “you guys”.
In an effort to give back to the community and increase public awareness regarding dialect diversity, the Texas English Project at the University of Texas at Austin has begun producing its first major outreach project, Talkin’ the Twang, a documentary on language and culture in Austin, Texas. Focusing on speakers’ attitudes towards the expansion of Austin, their feelings about Texas English, and their use of local “Texan” or “Austinite” dialect features, our work asks: in a modern, expanding, and metropolitan setting like Austin, who uses Texas-accented English, and when? By 2015, the landscape of Austin will have changed dramatically and the Texas English Project will have been there to document those changes and aid in the preservation of Austin’s unique cultural heritage.
In the production and methodology of Talkin’ the Twang, we combine the needs of providing superior-quality professional-level linguistics research data with the humanizing and often amusing side of watching people as they use and produce dialect-specific language. In our research methods, we compare the speech of service workers in three different settings: during interviews with us, as they in interact with the public while at work, and as they perform speech elicitation tasks in the Calhoun Phonetics Laboratory at UT—including a performance of their own notions of Texas English while acting out the story of Arthur the Armadillo (an adaptation of the widely-known dialectology reading passage, Arthur the Rat).
This documentary represents the public side of the Texas English Project’s pursuits. Talkin’ the Twang will be accessible on the Texas English Interactive website in both the regular “movie” format and in longer “rough cut” segments which will be annotated to highlight particular dialect features and further engage the viewer. Through its focus on local life, language, and culture in Austin, our film bridges the gap between public interest and theoretical work in the humanities. Both local residents and others interested in Austin, and Texas more generally, will be able to explore the ways that Texas English is used for stylistic and strategic purposes.
Here are some rough-cut clips from Talkin' the Twang along with videos produced by students at the University of Texas at Austin working alongside the Texas English Project.
Aaron James - Interview & Arthur the Armadillo — Filmed as part of the Talkin' the Twang documentary in 2008, in these clips we see Aaron James -- a 26 year old straight male, born in Dallas/Fort-Worth who had been living in Austin since 2007.
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Luke Malone at Bouldin Creek Coffeehouse — Also filmed as part of the Talkin' the Twang documentary, here we see Luke Malone-- a 25 year old straight male, born and raised in Austin. In this clip, we see Luke's use of the particularly Texan "thank ye kindly" while he's working behind the counter at Bouldin Creek Cafe.
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"Bilingualism in Bayside" — A student-produced film by Kimberly Dahl, Jennifer Lang, and Shawn Warner. This is a short documentary about language in Bayside, TX (pop. 360). © 2008 by The Texas English Project, University of Texas at Austin.
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"Latino English in Austin, Texas" — A student-produced film By Patrick Schultz and Arturo Nevarez. This is a short documentary about the English of Latinos in Austin, TX. © 2010 by The Texas English Project, University of Texas at Austin.
The Texas English Project is supported by the following grants:
University of Texas at Austin ~Fast-Tex program at the Division of Instructional Innovation and Assessment (DIIA)
University of Texas at Austin Liberal Arts Instructional Technology Service (LAITS)
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Giving to Research on Texas English
You can invest in the Texas English Project and provide opportunities to students and faculty through either planned giving or outright gifts that often carry special tax incentives. Of course, we welcome the opportunity to meet with you and seek your guidance in assisting the Texas English Project. Please write to Professor Lars Hinrichs at firstname.lastname@example.org to get in touch, or call him at 512-471-8755.
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Texas English in the News!
The following is a list of media outlets that have carried stories on Texas English and the Texas English Project. Click on the links:
Because the Texas English Project is research-based, we often get the chance to present our work at academic conferences. The abstracts and slides from two of these presentations are available here:
Ethnicity & the Meaning of Sound Change in Central Texas
(2010, November). Panel: Variation and Change in Texas English. New Ways of Analyzing Variation (NWAV) 39, San Antonio, TX.
SUMMARY: In Austin, Texas, variation in the GOOSE vowel is linked to speaker ethnicity and used surfaces in conversation as an index of local identity.
Apparent-Time Low Vowels among Mexican-Americans and Anglos in Austin, Texas.
(2009, October). New Ways of Analyzing Variation (NWAV) 38, Ottawa, Canada.
SUMMARY: The TRAP, LOT, THOUGHT, and PRICE vowels are investigated among Mexican-Americans and Anglo-Americans in Central Texas. We find sound changes among these vowels are being led by both ethnic groups, depending on the particular vowel.
Yall come back now!
This page maintained by Douglas S. Bigham; last updated: 28 September 2012.