from Houston and Dallas.” Years ago, people in the Texas boonies “sounded country” because they were from the country. But today, Johnstone notes, “‘sounding country’ is less about geography and, more and more, about creating rural identity through speech.” People miffed about urbanity, Johnstone adds, use drawls and monopthongs to reject the homogeneity of the suburbs, and to proclaim sympathy with “traditional rural attributes such as political conservatism, religiousness, and family values.” Texas talk, according to this theory, has become the oral equivalent of a Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche bumper sticker or a WWJD bracelet. PROFESSIONAL TEXAN So is Lone Star speech just a postmodern backlash? Or can today’s Texas accent also poke fun at troglodytes? It certainly can in the mouth of journalist-cumhumorist Molly Ivins. These days, Ivins is one of the nation’s best-known Lone Star liberals. Her voice is also a paragon of drawling, gravelmouthed Texas talk. Yet Ivins’ accent is mostly performance. She’s not even a na tive Texan: her parents were from Illinois, and when Molly was a young child, the family lived in California. After moving to Houston, they took up residence in that city’s poshest neighborhood, River Oaks, and Molly went to an exclusive private school. Later, she attended Smith College in Massachusetts, then studied in Paris and at Columbia University. This is hardly the background of a redneck. Yet as part of her celebrity persona, Ivins is a “professional Texan,” according to Barbara Johnstone and her colleague Judith Bean, at Texas Women’s University. Both researchers have spent a lot of time analyzing famous Texan women’s speech everyone from the late Barbara Jordan to Ivins. Johnstone and Bean note that as an Eastern-educated, staunch liberal in a state ruled by Aggiebooster conservatives, Ivins could easily come off sounding like an egghead outsider when she jousts with local rightwingers and Jesus mongers. Instead, from her base at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Ivins stages a veritable Texas-accent drag show to mock her opponents, simultaneously positioning herself as a good ol’ girl who can denounce the yokels without sounding unacceptably Yankee. “There’s nuthin’ you kin do ’bout bein’ barn liberal,” she drawls on the books-on-tape version of her best seller You Got to Dance With Them What Brung You. Ergo, Ivins adds, it’s hard for liberal authors like herself “to wrahht about [Phil] Gramm without soundin’ main.” Playing with this ironic rhetoric, Ivins shows that “sounding country” in Texas can signal both yahooism and its polar opposite. Of course, sounding country also tells the world that you’re Anglo. The Texas accent of folklore, tourist PR, and Ivins shtick is actually a white phenomenon. The vast majority of the state’s native blacks and Chicanos avoid the twang, the drawl, the monophthong. Good ol’ white boys abound. But buen ol’ muchachos are relatively scarce. And you’d be hard-pressed to find an African American who says Wico for Waco. APRIL 28, 2000 My nickname meanss “skeeny” SE HABLA TEJANO Linguists studying African-American pronunciation say it has hardly changed over the past century, nationally or in Texas. About the only evolution is with the “r” sound: fifty years ago, southern blacks still dropped it when saying words like “bird” and “hurry” all else remains the same. In contrast, linguists have long been aware that Mexican Americans in Texas have a variable accent. One of its most notable features is the Spanish-derived tendency even among Latinos whose families got here generations ago to say “s” in words where Anglos say “z.” The English word “his,” for example, is written with an “s,” but Anglos virtually always pronounce that consonant as a “z” so that the entire word sounds like “hizz.” Not so with many Latinos, who say “hiss.” For these same people, “raisin” sounds like “race in,” and “jazz” is “jass.” In addition, Texas Latinos even those from longtime Texan families can still be affected by Spanish vowels. The Spanish “baile” dance in English has the same diphthong as the English “buy.” But while Anglo Texans often turn “buy” to monophthongal “bahh,” Mexican Americans keep it as it is in the rest of the United States. That’s probably not TV talking, though. Instead, it’s influence from the Spanish language, which can affect even people who don’t speak it. A telling example: the heavily Latino border from Brownsville to El Paso is the only part of Texas where Anglos tend to use diphthongs instead of monophthongs when they say words like “my.” The influence of Spanish pronunciation has even shaped the way Border Anglos speak English. Still, Mexican Americans in Texas do not all talk alike. Their THE TEXAS OBSERVER 17
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