Kathleen Phillips hustles around the Donut Chef in Van Alstyne, Texas, on a pair of bad knees, pouring coffee, taking orders, frying eggs and manning the register, much like she’s done for the last 38 years. The hole-in-the-wall joint in this small town north of Dallas has been in the family since it opened in 1974. She greets customers by name with her syrupy Texas drawl and pulls three syllables out of the word “yeah.” When patrons get testy she fires back with her favorite one-liner: “Kiss my grits.”
Phillips hopes the restaurant will stay in the family for another four decades. Even if it survives, however, University of Texas researchers say her Texas accent won’t. Indeed, it may just become something of a social strategy.
(PHOTOS: The Richest Little County)
That famous Texas twang is riding off into the sunset, according to Lars Hinrichs, English professor and head honcho of the Texas English Project at the University of Texas. “Everybody that grows up in the country nowadays has TV and knows how to sound general American, non-region specific,” he says.
Once upon a time the streets of Dallas, Austin and Houston were buzzing with Texans swapping tales about the look on grandma’s “fice” (face) when the “dawg” (dog) snatched the “hayum” (ham) straight from the oven. Or that “Ah” (I) “might could” go to dinner later but I “might oughta” finish some work first.
Now the accent is endangered along with a whole slew of colloquialisms (some already extinct). What’s to blame? For starters, those damn Yankees. “Cities in Texas are among the most rapidly growing metropolitan regions in North America, and that’s mostly because of in-migration from the Yankees, from the North,” Hinrichs says.
There’s also increasing mobility within the state’s borders, and business people are more conscious of the twang when their companies go global. The preeminent factor, however, is that youngsters’ lives are so saturated in mass media that they learn accent-neutral English (usually associated with the Midwest) by default. Thus, when a country boy migrates to the city, he’s already something of a dialect chameleon.
As a result, young people are leading the change, Hinrichs says, especially girls. “It’s a skill, and different people have different skill levels. Typically it’s something that women acquire first before men, because men are a bit sluggish as far as picking up linguistic innovations.”
While Texas boys act tough, play football and lower their voices (sometimes exaggerating the twang) to demonstrate their masculinity, the girls are “stuck with symbolic forms of capital,” says Hinrichs.
Take California valley girls, for example, who, like, totally think that one boy is so “hawt.” These conscious efforts by girls to push stylistic boundaries and assert themselves, linguistic researchers say, are eventually accepted as linguistic norms.
None of this is wholly unique to Texas, of course. Linguistic changes occur constantly around the world. In Pittsburgh, you’re now more likely than ever to hang out “downtown” rather than “dahntahn.” And far more New Yorkers go to “bars” than “bahs” nowadays. But that old Texas twang still offers something unique.
“The Texas accent can contribute to certain ways in which you present yourself, as hospitable, as grounded, as likeable, as authentic,” Hinrichs says.
Actually, not authentic at all, because one of the researchers’ most surprising findings is that people are now using the accent strategically. When a man speaks to an elderly woman, he’s more likely to use “yes ma’am,” or he may suddenly slow his drawl when he chats with the car mechanic. For men, the Texas accent embodies a cowboy code of chivalry, honesty and toughness. A woman, on the other hand, may exaggerate her accent and evoke the southern belle to improve her business persona. Famously, George W. Bush appealed to the everyman with his judicious use of the Texan inflection – despite his northeastern upbringing.
In one research video compiled by Hinrichs’ team, a young cashier at a hip Austin coffee house employs accent-free English until returning a customer’s change, when he suddenly offers a very Texan “thank ya kindly.”
There’s no linguistic shape shifting in the Van Alstyne donut shop, however. The twang is more persistent in rural areas, at least for now, something of which Phillips is proud. “Whenever you go somewhere, everybody always says they can tell you’re from Texas,” she says. “I kinda like that.”
This is a common refrain, according to Hinrichs. “People don’t want to drop their Texas identity,” he says. “There are reasons that make you want to be able to sound like everyone else. That’s a necessary skill, but there’s also a desire to sound different and to have a regional identity.”
It seems that even city slickers aren’t ready to let their accent go the way of the horse and buggy.