Accent

Texans Have A Funny Relationship With The Letter ‘R’

Texas Monthly once described the joke I’m about to tell you as THE TEXAS JOKE because of its staying power over many decades: A married couple from out of state were driving across Texas and saw a sign that said “Mexia 22 miles.” They got into a bit of an argument over how to say the name of the town. He said it was likely “Mex-ee-ah” and she thought it was pronounced more like the country “Meh-ee-co” and would thus be “Meh-hee-ah.” The argument persisted and he said, “We can’t settle this. Tell you what. First place we come to in town we’ll pull over and ask them.” So they did. They pulled in at the first place and went up the girl at the counter and he said, “Can you tell us how to say the name of this place? And say it slow so we can hear it clearly.” The girl thought the request was crazy but she leaned forward and said, “Day-ree-queeeen.”

That’s an old joke, I know, but I use it as a segue to get to where I’m going. Of course nobody says “Meh-hee-ah” or “Mex-ee-ah.” “Muh-hay-ah” is common but so is “Muh-hair.” That’s right, many people around those parts call it “Muh-hair.” Don’t know why. There’s no “r” in the word, but in Texas there’s something about an “r” that we adore.

We do this to Refugio, too. Again, there is no second “R” in Refugio. It’s a Spanish word, Refugio, meaning refuge, but we find it dialectically comfortable to exchange the “g” for an “r.”

There’s a well known and much traveled street in Houston that everyone pronounces as “Kirk-in-doll.” There is no “r” in the word at all. We could send in crack troops on a search and rescue mission and they’d never find an “r”. We just throw one in there for the hell of it, I guess.

And if we are not adding an “r” we simply move it to where it’s more convenient for us. In the Hill Country, it is a river named the Pedernales River. Again a Spanish word, Pedernales. It means flints. We could just anglicize it to Pedernales but we find that “r’’ to be inconveniently located so we move it up front where we can keep an eye on it and make sure it doesn’t get away from us. We say, “Perdenales.”

Go on down south of Refugio about 100 miles you will come to Riviera. Well, that’s the way it ought to be pronounced because it is spelled just like the Riviera in France, for which it was named — perhaps just an attempt at good marketing. True, it has a few million less people, no rivers, no film festival and no world class beaches. But it’s not pronounced the same either. It is pronounced “Ra-veer-ah.” So the “r” is still there but we get rid of that annoying detour caused by the unwanted “i” and replace it with an “e” to compliment that other “e” – to streamline our way to the “r.” Much better. Otherwise we might sound French. It’s a confusing adjustment because mostly we Texans have never met a diphthong we didn’t like, but in this case we seem in a hurry to get to the “r” so we straighten out the approach.

Though not a place, we do something similar with “Brahmer.” It’s Brahman, of course, technically, but we like the aesthetics of the word better if we exchange the “n” for an “r”: “That’s a beautiful Brahmer bull you got there.”

And we must include “Whataburger,” too, often pronounced “Water-burger.” Gotta get in the extra “r”.

And many of us do it with prostate, saying prostrate cancer instead of prostate cancer. Extra “r” slipped in. I think that “r” is borrowed from the notion of lying prostrate.

Yes, something about an “r.” We put ‘em where they’re not. We move them within the word. We streamline our way to them and make exchanges that better suit our Texas style, irregardless (there’s another one) of what may be thought of as formally proper.

Might Oughta Talk About Texas Grammar

In Texas we are mighty big on the word “mighty.” Mighty is used as a ubiquitous adjective. Mighty pretty, mighty ugly, mighty expensive, etc. The word “might” (mighty’s cousin) is popular, too. It is used in place of maybe. Instead of saying, “maybe I can help you Sunday,” we say, “I might be able to help you on Sunday.” “Might” works with verbs to give us an impressive menu of options for conditional expressions like might could, might would better, might oughta, might’ve used to, and even the steroidal conditional tense: might woulda had oughta.

Taken out of context they can sound odd and even wrong, but when heard in conversation, they come to life and seem, well, mighty normal to many of us. I want to point out that Texas is a diverse state of varied dialects. Many Texans would never use this folksy grammar, but there are many who prefer it’s adorned utility. And there are many who would never talk this way at work, but slip into these comfortable rhythms when they get home. Some of us are bi-dialectal.

Let’s begin with “might could.” It is often used to answer a question:

“Would you go with me to the movies Friday night?” “Might could.”
“You figure you can fix the starter on my truck?” “Might could.”

“Might would better” has a good deal of appeal. It is used often as a command. You hear it in Western movies:

“Sherriff, you might would better think long and hard ‘fore you pick up that gun.”

Or you can use it as a self-directed, thinking out loud, suggestion:

“Well, I might would better get on to bed. Long day tomorrow.”

“Might would better” is also a future tense conditional verb, something that might be done differently in the near future.

“On second thought, I think they might would better drive on down here Friday night.”

“Tell you what, she might would better just divorce that man.”

“Might oughta” is often used in kind of shaking one’s head over poor choices:

She might oughta thought about those bills before she quit a job without havin’ another.
He might oughta known not to tease a rattlesnake, especially with a short stick.

For an uncertain memory, we have, “might have used to.”

“I might have used to stay there when I was in Dallas, but I can’t say for certain. “

Or:

“I’m sure I might have used to know how many feet was in a mile, but now that you ask, I can’t recall.”

And here’s the mighty king of the conditional tense: might woulda had oughta. Linguists call this modal stacking, like verbal legos – just keep piling on verbs to see how high you can stack them. “Might woulda had oughta” is way outside the bounds of standard English.
When my wife, an English prof and proud member of the Grammar Police, hears such verbal anarchy, she wants to call in the swat team. But I find “might woulda had oughta” admirably creative. It’s like watching Lebron James fly to the basket and do a mid-air spin to reverse dunk between two defenders. Magic.

In redneck culture, it’s comfort grammar. Here’s an example:

“They might woulda had oughta sold that house about ten years ago before it fell apart on ‘em.”

“They might woulda had oughta listened to me when I told ‘em not to buy a used pickup that was owned by a teenager.”

The famous southern linguist Jeff Foxworthy has pointed out how useful “used to could” is in Southern speech. He says people ask, “Do you dance?” Some respond: “Used to could.” Even “used to could” is used in modal stacking. “Might have” often precedes it. “You know how to program the TV remote?” “Might have used to could, but not anymore.” See? Saves you from unwanted work. Here’s another instructive example: “Can you tune up my 98 GMC Z-71?” Well, I might have used to could, but mighty doubtful about it now.”

I’m W. F. Strong. These are Stories from Texas. Some of them are mighty true.

Trying to Talk Texan? Let Your Words Lean Into Each Other

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.

Lowtalkers

Everyone has an accent, especially Texans. But some people also have an extra layer of unique speech: the lowtalkers. They were the inspiration for Typewriter Rodeo’s Sean Petrie as he wrote this week’s poem.

Texas Standard: April 6, 2016

A Texas trump thumping, as the state that gave the world the cheesehead hat gives Ted Cruz a boost…but is it enough? Also what if Mexico really did pay for Donald Trumps wall? Now that there’s a plan on the table…some foreign policy experts say this is no joke. We’ll hear why. And leaving money on the table? Why some of Texas’ top brands are just saying no to franchising. Plus how to hack an election: what sounds like hyperbole may very well be the dark secret of democracy these days. And is there really such a thing as a Texas accent? Y’all don’t go anywhere cause the Texas Standard is on the air: