UT researchers say distinctive Texas accent is dying in urban areas


Christine Ayala

Talking like a Texan doesn’t sound like it ‘usta’ as Texas English is becoming less distinctive from mainstream American English, according to UT researchers.

English assistant professor Lars Hinrichs compared the pronunciation of central Texans in recent decades, using data collected at UT from 1980 to 1985 against data collected in 2010 and 2011, in a research paper submitted for review in late December.

Hinrichs said the data collected included people reading aloud words similar to “goose” in various American dialects. The data showed that people spoke less often with a Texas dialect than they had in the past. Hinrichs said the changing demographics of the state are impacting the language causing dialect leveling, meaning the characteristics specific to that region iare less noticeable.

“The regional accents are no longer as pronounced and different as they used to be,” Hinrichs said. “The degree of distinctiveness is being lessened and the linguistic local identity is being diluted. There will always be some local form of speech in Texas and it will always be noticeably different from other parts of the country — but not as much.”

Hinrichs said although dialect leveling can be seen in other parts of the country, because Texas urban areas are among the fastest expanding in the nation, the dialect is changing.

“Phrases like ‘might coulda,’ ‘usta could’ and ‘might oughta’ are rapidly dying out,” Hinrichs said. “Every semester I ask my students ‘who knows what a pole cat is?’ and every semester it’s one [fewer] student that knows it. Thirty to 40 years ago you could ask that question in any class at UT and everybody would’ve known that is a skunk.”

Hinrichs collaborated with graduate student Axel Bohmann and Kyle Gorman, a postdoctoral researcher at the Oregon Health and Science University.

Gorman said the data indicated that women tend to use more mainstream English, attributing it to the changing language.

“When there is a new form available, in general women are ahead of men in adopting the new form,” Gorman said. “The language incoming variant that’s more common with women is likely to be more popular.”

Bohmann said the research showed young people are becoming increasingly bidialectal, in which they use their local manner of speaking for casual conversation and a more mainstream American English version for professional or academic settings.

“We see, as a whole, people use Texas English less often, but also what you get with all these different varieties [is that] people tend to become more aware of the way they are speaking,” Bohmann said. “If you want to sound Texan you can switch into Texas English. People are less naive about how they are talking.”

Biology junior Megan Chavana said she has noticed the variety of dialects on campus and is aware of how she speaks in different environments.

“The culture is becoming more diverse with many different people from all over the world coming to Texas, specifically UT, which I think contributes to the loss,” Chavana said. “Since I talk with some Texas twang that is unintentional, I talk differently in a professional setting.”

Published on January 23, 2013 as "Ain't no twang".