Skip to comments.Se Habla American? Texican as she is spoke
Posted on 12/06/2003 9:13:07 AM PST by quidnunc
At last, a scientific study of the lingo spoken on the other side of the river (Sabine or Red, as the case may be) is in the offing. "Speech study explores distinctions of Texas twang," said a headline in last Saturday's paper. According to the story under it, a couple of linguists out of San Antone Guy Bailey and Jan Tillery are working up a new study of what they call TXE, or Texas English, which they class as a subdialect of American Southern English. (It will no doubt surprise Texans to discover that they're sub-anything, even after this year's oh-so-satisfying Arkansas-Texas game, in that 38-28 order.)
This scholarly study of the Texican lingo, sponsored by the National Geographic Society as part of its interest in the exotic, may not prove as comprehensive as Vance Randolph's classic work on the language of the Ozarks. That life's work was so complete that H. L. Mencken, in his own masterful The American Language, said that Vance Randolph had "written so much and so well about the Ozarks since 1926 that he has converted them into his private preserve ."
Among the Arkansas folklorist's more notable if now obscure discoveries was the verb, Arkansaw, meaning "To murder in what is regarded as an unfair way." Years ago in Missouri, up in Boone County to be exact, which was still known then as Little Dixie, we learned that the proper term for that sort of bushwhackery was to Jayhawk, though Kansans may take exception. (The War goes on, leaving its residue in our languages, and only someone as naive as Howard Dean would dare make light conversation about the Rebel/Confederate flag.)
But we digress, or rather meander, which is the proper Texican/Arkansawan term. For meanwhile, back at the (Texas) ranch, linguists Bailey and Tillery are deep into the hallmark of Texas speech, the flat I as in naht for night, rahd for ride, and raht for right. Why, shore. Just like raht cheer in Arkinsaw. Perhaps someone in Texarkana on State Line Avenue could conduct a survey to determine what if anything differentiates the speech on one side of the avenue from the other.
And don't forget all for oil. In the Ark-La-Tex, that pronunciation is compulsory; making a diphthong of the I by adding that y-sound to it in oil and night and ride and so harshly on, as in General American, marks one as a stranger in these extensive parts, podnuh. If you want to fit in, you kinda just glide over your I's. No need makin' 'em so sharp they'll stick out like a sore thumb, or a red-headed stepchild, or well, supply your own idiom.
To no one's surprise, the linguists have discovered that TXE has its own subdialects, and that city people denizens of Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, San Antonio speak differently from folks in Waxahachie, Mexia (pronounced Mehey-a) and Marlin.
The scholars sum up Texican as basically Suthuhn with an admix of other languages, notably Spanish. As in rodeo, arroyo and hoosegow. Comprende? Though we imagine Cajun plays a part in the kind of Texican heard down around Beaumont and Port Arthur near the Louisiana line, and some German influence comes in around New Braunfels and Kerrville. (Years ago we broke down outside Kerrville and had to converse with the only mechanic around in pidgen Deutsch. Being German, he got us back on the road in no time. And you knew that whatever part he'd installed would outlast the car.)
Anyway, these distinguished linguists found that Y'all was ubiquitous in Texas, as it is becoming elsewhere, mainly because no other term will do when you wish to address a group or inquire after a collective. The bland, vague You is too indeterminate in number, and Youse Guys clearly sounds furrin. That usage also has the sound of a challenge like You People rather than a friendly greeting, as in Y'all Come! Although we notice an' them is rapidly replacing Y'all when the inquiry is about family or friends, as in "How is Aunt Martha an' them?" We regret to report that the unisex Guys has now spread throughout the South like a verbal infestation, threatening to rival the boll weevil in terms of sheer damage and just plain irritation, especially among the younger generation. (Young waiter: "What do you guys feel like having this evening?" First time we were exposed to that barbarism, we thought our waiter was snubbing the girls.)
This latest linguistic study reveals some of the subtleties of Texican and the Southern tongue in general. For example: A drought is worse than a "dry spell" or "it haddn in a long time." (The Texan, like the Arab, is something of an expert on the various degrees of lack of rain.) And Texans wait "for" somebody who's coming directly, meaning in a while, but they wait "on" somebody who's about to get here as in as soon as she puts on her make-up upstairs. Doesn't everybody know that? It's instinctive in these parts.
We're happy to note that double auxiliaries remain a standard part of TXE, as in I might can, I might could, I used to could, it might would, he ought to could, and she may can. All of which strike us as perfectly grammatical even though they put the teeth of syntactical purists on edge for no good reason except euphony. To us, they sound like archaic Latin conjugations whose careful distinctions, like the finer points of the Roman Empire itself, have been lost in this, less subtle age. That we shun them is a sign of the modern inability to make small but critical distinctions. That we consider them incorrect or lower class is not only a sign of our snobbery but our ignorance.
Lovers of the language will also be pleased to note that the verb form Fixin'-to remains firmly a part of the Texican lexicon, and continues to expand even beyond, often preceded by Ahma, as in Ahma fixin' to, meaning either "I'm about to," or "I'll do it when I'm good and ready," depending on the mood of the speaker.
We'll never forget the teenager from Pine Bluff we once took on a visit to New York who couldn't quite maintain the hectic pace. When asked and asked again for her credit card at Bloomingdale's as a whole line of customers behind her waited to pay up, she responded, searching through her purse at a leisurely Southern pace, with the most sincere Ahma fixin' to! we've ever heard.
The presumptuous lady well, clerk behind the counter responded with only a perplexed look, looking around as if wondering what appliance this young lady intended to repair.
Recommended reading: The Regional Vocabulary of Texas, E. Bagby Atwood, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1962 if you can still find a copy, and if you ever wondered about the difference, if any, between snapbeans, green beans and string beans. Or chiggers and redbugs. Or lightning bugs and fireflies. Or a bureau and chifforobe. Hint: It all depends where you're from.
Hey, what a country: One nation divisible by a common language. Go figure.
Those would be second generation Tejanos. "Texicans" are the Gringo decendents of the likes of Stephen Austin, and some slightly more recent German, Czech and other European immigrants, plus a few Russian Jews whose boats fortunately for them landed in Galveston instead of on Ellis Island.
Where I live in San Antonio, we Gringos are in the definite minority. I was eating with my wife, daughter and her in-laws up near New Braunfalls last week. I looked around at all the blond hair and blue eyes and told my wife "there's too many Gringos in here, makes me nervous" Our waitress looked like she'd just stepped off the boat from Bremershaven or Hannover. Which reminds me, you can hear the german influence on the spoken language in many areas of Texas, even after several generations. A couple of times I'd swear a guy was immigrant, but it turned out that it was his grandfather or greatgrandfather who'd shipped over from the Fatherland. (I'm at least 1/4 Kraut myself, but my ancesters settled a mite farther north, due north in fact)