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Texas Twang Fixin' To Ride Off Into The Sunset

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When most people think of Texas — and what makes a Texan — one of the first things that might come to mind is the way Lyndon Johnson or the late Gov. Ann Richards spoke.

But these days, "talking Texan" sounds a whole lot different than it did just a few decades ago.

Just outside Austin, Laurel Robertson is watching a 1962 NBC documentary shot in Amarillo about her family. Back then, her sister had a deep Texas twang, leaving her sounding a bit like this:

"Thees room is on top of the din, and it was beelt the same tahme the din was beelt," she says, describing the room above the den in the house.

"It's hysterical. She doesn't talk like that anymore," Robertson says. In fact, she adds, no one in her family talks like that now.

A Twang On The Wane

As it turns out, the same goes for a growing number of Texans. "What's changed over the past few decades is that you don't automatically have a twang because you're from here," says Lars Hinrichs, a linguistics professor at the University of Texas who leads the Texas English Project.

Hinrichs has been comparing recordings of the way Texans spoke decades ago with how they sound now. He has hundreds of tapes, created when students went out and recorded native Texans in the 1980s.

Each recording starts with the subject reading the same passage, containing words full of "I" vowels, like Tyler, five and Whitehouse:

I've lived in Texas all my life. I was born in Titus County. And when I was 5 we moved to a farm near Whitehouse, which is southeast of Tyler.

"The issue back then was to study how many, and how frequently, speakers turned that 'I' vowel into an 'AH' vowel," Hinrichs says — the "AH" sound being the more traditional Texas pronunciation.

So over the past few years, Hinrichs sent his students to record native Texans reading the same passage. Not only is the "AH" pronunciation fading — other typically Texan sounds are fading, too.

"For example, a more old-time pronunciation of face would be "faice" ... A more old-time pronunciation of goose would be "gewse," Hinrichs says.

Other accents are experiencing changes, as well.

Several years ago, Kara Becker, a linguist at Reed College, went to New York City's Lower East Side, where residents have their own linguistic quirks. Becker points to "the vowel in the word like coffee or dog. ... In New York it gets pronounced like cooauffee or dooaug."

Think Mike Myers on Saturday Night Live's "Coffee Talk" sketch from the '90s.

Becker found that those pronunciations are also falling out of use — in entirely different corners of the country.

Changing On Purpose?

But why? There's the media and migration, of course, but Becker says some New Yorkers also have what's called "linguistic insecurity."

"Which means that they're sort of aware that other people don't like their accent, and they might themselves not be so excited about their accent," Becker says.

In other words, New Yorkers might be consciously trying to stop doing the "Coffee Talk."

And the same goes for some Texans. Back at Laurel Robertson's house, she says people laughed at her when she moved from Amarillo to Austin.

"I said see-ment. I said um-brella," Robertson says. "You know, put that accent on the first syllable. And I had to consciously learn not to do that."

At the same time, Texans are also proud of the twang — it's part of them. And even if they don't use it all the time, Hinrichs says they do use it when they think it's more appropriate — around family or friends.

In other words, he says, he doesn't think the twang is going to become extinct. But, like a lot of regional accents, it is changing. Especially in Texas, where more than 1,000 new people move to the state every day.

Copyright 2012 KUT-FM. To see more, visit http://www.kut.org/.

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