Widely reported back in January, for instance in this Los Angeles Times story, “Texas talk is losing its twang: Fewer Texans are speaking in the traditional dialect, as urbanization, pop culture and an influx of newcomers have conspired to displace the local language” (by Molly Hennessy-Fiske, 1/27/13). My interest here is the use of twang.

AUSTIN, Texas — Don Graham, an English professor at the University of Texas at Austin, likes to tell the story of a student who once worked as a cowboy. “Wore hat and boots,” Graham says. “He was the real deal.”

At the end of the academic year, the student told Graham, “You were the only professor at UT I ever had who spoke English.”

“What he meant,” Graham says, “was I was the only one who spoke his language.”

And by language, the student meant talking Texan — the distinctive twang and drawl that becomes almost an attitude, from the first “howdy” to the last “thank you, kindly.” Conversation can be as extreme as the landscape in Texas, where locals will tell you it gets hotter than a stolen tamale and the wind blows like perfume through a prom.

… The uniquely Texas manner of speech is being displaced and modified by General American English, the generic, Midwestern dialect often heard on television. That’s surprising, given the Texas accent’s enduring nature.

The Texas accent “has great symbolic value. It has a local identity versus, say, Arizona English. That makes Texas English more resilient,” said Lars Hinrichs, an English language and linguistics professor at UT Austin. [photo of Hinrichs!]

There are many aspects to “talking Texan”: pronunciation, cadence, syntax, not to mention vocabulary. And, technically, there are several Texas accents — the drawl of East Texans like Matthew McConaughey, say, or the nasal West Texas twang of Laura Bush. [note: folk terminology drawl and nasality]

By interviewing and monitoring scores of Texas speakers, then measuring sound waves when they speak, Hinrichs and a team of researchers at UT Austin’s 5-year-old Texas English Project hope to gauge the degree to which Texas accents and dialects have changed.

Texas accents are traditionally considered variants of Southern American English, spoken from southern Maryland to eastern New Mexico, noticeable in words like pie (pah) and my (mah). [monophthongization of /aj/ to [a:]]

But in Texas that pronunciation varies, especially when the vowel is followed by a consonant, which some Texans pronounce as a diphthong, or two-part sound. [terminological confusion here: /aj/ is a diphthong by just about anybody’s definition] Examples of Texified diphthongs: “TRAY-up” (trap), “FAH-ees” (face) and “KAY-ut” (cat). [diphthongization of /æ/ and /e/, now being lost]

[other innovative features in Texas, making Texas speech more like “General American”: loss of the cot/caught distinction, fronting of /u/]

(Traditional dialect distinctions are being preserved in some places, leveled in others — while in still others, new dialects are developing.)

Roger Lass on the Variationist List on 1/18:

Somebody ought to tell the journalist who wrote this piece that diphthongs are by definition monosyllabic. Are there no literate copy editors left?

Another thing worth examining (or maybe someone has done it) is to look at the various uses of the word ‘twang’, and what it means. In South Africa, among black L2 English speakers, it means sounding L1 English rather than L2. Or more specifically, sounding white. There’s a very good University of Cape Town dissertation that explores the sociolinguist properties of the ‘twang’, which is not nasal, or anything weird, but closer to RP in some ways (except for extreme fronting of GOOSE) than anything else.

And Uri Horesh:

Just a quick note about ‘twang:’ I moved to southeast England four months ago. My English is a non-native mid-Atlantic American variety. On several occasions English people told me they were surprised I wasn’t American because I had ‘that American twang.’ Prior to coming here, while living in the States, I had only heard ‘twang’ being used to refer to Southern US accents.

I’m sure there are other cases where twang is used for a variety notably different in phonology from your own. Well, ordinary English has no word for this, and in fact there’s no standard linguistic term either. So people adapt as best they can.

From NOAD2, with the the generalized use of linguisic twang:

a strong ringing sound such as that made by the plucked string of a musical instrument or a released bowstring.

• a nasal or other distinctive manner of pronunciation or intonation characteristic of the speech of an individual, area, or country: an American twang.

Bonus feature: “Plunk your magic twanger, Froggy!” From Wikipedia:

Andy’s Gang was a children’s television program that ran on NBC from August 20, 1955, to December 31, 1960. It was hosted by actor Andy Devine and was the successor to the radio and television programs Smilin’ Ed McConnell and his Buster Brown Gang, later shortened to Smilin’ Ed McConnell and his Gang. Devine took over the television program when Ed McConnell died suddenly from a heart attack in 1954. He inherited a number of the characters on the earlier show and the sponsor, Buster Brown shoes.

… The green puppet, Froggy the Gremlin, appeared in a puff of smoke (“Hi Ya, Kids, Hiya, Hiya, Hiya!”) and was always interrupting the story and causing trouble.

On the original programs, Smilin’ Ed McConnell started the show with “Hiya kids” followed by the audience singing the sponsor’s song (Buster Brown Shoes) “I got shoes, you got shoes, everybody’s got to have shoes, but there’s only one kind of shoe for me-good old Buster Brown shoes!” Then Ed said “Thank you buddies and sweethearts. Good old Buster Brown shoes are on the air out here in Hollywood for another good old Saturday hullabaloo.”

… The most popular segment was the visit from Froggy the Gremlin who would appear when Smilin’ Ed yelled his famous catch-phrase, “Plunk your magic twanger, Froggy!” This same phrase was later used by [cowboy actor] Andy Devine [who took over the show in 1955].

At least some of the time, Froggy became visible in a cloud of smoke, accompanied by a twanging sound.

From the same show, a Buster Brown shoe commercial that is stuck in my mind forever, with the catchphrase:

I’m Buster Brown, I live in a shoe. That’s my dog, Tige, he lives there too!” (or “Look for him in there too.”) (link)

(The shoes had a sticker in the insole with a cartoon of Buster Brown and Tige on it.)


3 Responses to “twangs”

  1. Bob Richmond Says:

    Memory may be faulty – I was 8 or 9 years old – but I think Froggy the Gremlin also lived in the “Let’s Pretend” radio story hour in 1948.

    Most of the early “Texians” (as they called themselves then) came from western North Carolina and east Tennessee, and I thought that’s where the accent came from. I don’t remember the word “twang” being commonly used to describe it when I grew up in San Antonio around 1950. Regional accents vary considerably across the broad expanse of Texas.

  2. On Politics and Language Says:

    Reblogged this on On Politics and Language.

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