Hey Y'all

I remember first moving to Texas from Toronto, when I was a pre-teen. I had to ask everybody at school to repeat everything twice, or more, because I could not understand what the heck they were saying.


If you ever find yourself in a group of Southerners and want to spot the Texan in the bunch, listen hard for the y'alls. Most of them will surely use the expression--a contraction of "you all"--to refer to a group of people ("Are y'all goin' to the store?"), but the Texan is more likely to employ it to refer to a single individual as well.

That's just one of the unusual discoveries made by two linguistics professors at the University of Texas-San Antonio who are studying Texas Twang, the distinctive dialect of English proudly spoken by natives of the Lone Star State--and sometimes ridiculed by the rest of the country.

The husband-wife team, Guy Bailey and Jan Tillery, are fixin' to complete the last of their research this summer. When they're done finished with their work, which is underwritten by the National Geographic Society, they might could write the definitive guide to what they lovingly call TXE, or Texas English.

"Texas is different--it's the only state that was its own country at one time and has its own creation story," said Bailey, a native of Alabama and provost and executive vice president of the university. "Out of that has come a sense of braggadocio and a strong desire to hold on to a unique way of speaking."

Y'all is a case in point. Use of the term is spreading beyond the South throughout the U.S., Tillery noted, largely because it fills a linguistic need: It's a clearer way to denote the second-person plural than the existing--and confusing--"you."


Most native Texans, for example, use a flat "i", saying "naht" for night and "rahd" for ride, and they don't make any audible distinction when pronouncing such words as "pool" and "pull" or "fool" and "full." Midwesterners, by contrast, exhibit their own characteristic linguistic quirks, such as something experts call a fronted "o" in words like "about."

The researchers have found that some distinctive Texas speech patterns, such as saying "warsh" instead of "wash" and "lard" instead of "lord," are beginning to disappear as younger generations abandon them.

Also vanishing is much of the traditional regional vocabulary, such as "light bread" for white bread and "snap beans" for green beans.

But in other ways, Texas English is expanding. Newcomers to the state soon begin sounding like Texans, Bailey noted, tossing around y'alls and saying "Ahma fixin' to" (generally defined as "I will do it if I get around to it").

The infamous double modal ("might could," "may can," "might would"), a hedging construction denoting less certainty than "might" alone, remains more elusive, however.

"It's very easy for people who move into Texas to pick up `y'all,'" Bailey said. "It's a little bit harder to pick up `fixin' to.' But `might could' is another matter. We have found that unless you're born and raised in Texas, you don't pick up the double modals."

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This page contains a single entry by Seth A. published on January 6, 2005 8:56 AM.

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