Lars Hinrichs

Photo Credit: Albert Lee | Daily Texan Staff

Although the accents of gubernatorial candidates Wendy Davis and Greg Abbott are different, both of their ways of speaking have been molded by the same demographic: teenage girls. 

According to Lars Hinrichs, English associate professor and director of the Texas English Project, political candidates have tendencies to take on the accent of the location in which they are running. 

The Texas English Project came to its conclusion on the accents and dialects of Davis and Abbott after analyzing YouTube videos featuring the candidates. 

“Since we have two candidates that have to brand themselves publicly — for the first time — we thought we’d look at how they use Texas English,” Hinrichs said. 

The Texas English Project looked for whose accent varied more across different mediums. Essentially, the research was trying to determine who sounded more “Texan.”

“Abbott is closer, on average, to the Texan end of the spectrum,” Hinrichs said. “Davis is more versatile.”

The study found the extent of Davis’ Texas accent depended on where she was speaking.

“In her campaign announcements, she doesn’t sound Texan at all,” Hinrichs said. “She sounds the most Texan at local rallies.”

Through the study, the project discovered Davis is catching on to a new trend in which the “eh” vowel is pronounced at a lower pitch.

“She consistently overshoots the neutral [accent],” Hinrichs said. “[Her pronunciation is] not just mainstream low. [It is] lower than low. She says ‘bad’ for ‘bed’ and ‘taxes’ for ‘Texas.’ It’s a young, feminine style.”

Hinrichs said women are more likely to pick up new linguistic trends, but research has yet to show how they perceive these trends. 

“In perception studies, you see women having stronger opinions about the symbolic value of linguistic forms,” Hinrichs said. “It’s probably not what’s going to make someone decide if they’re going to vote Democrat or Republican, but it can inform how you perceive somebody.” 

Tony Hernandez, government freshman and intern for the Texas Democratic Party, said he thinks people tend to vote for whom they can relate to more, but he personally sees the role of a candidate’s accent as irrelevant. 

“I never pay attention to accents,” Hernandez said. “The most important thing is the points you are discussing.”

Shooter Russell, government freshman and intern for the Republican Party of Texas, said a candidate’s ability to speak well is more important than the accent.

“People tend to vote for the person that sounds more confident,” Hernandez said.

Russell said he believes a speaker who knows his audience has the ability to sway an election in his favor. 

“Being a relatable orator is better than being confident, but the two do overlap,” Russell said.

Politics aside, the Texas English Project is also researching differences between East and West Texas accents and has found that the differences are scarce. 

“We think it might be at the level of speech rhythm,” Hinrichs said. “[Those from West Texas] tend to be more choppy.”

Hinrichs said the project’s study of the gubernatorial candidates is not intended to sway votes one direction or the other.

“It can’t help you make your decision — unless all you want is a straight-talking Texan,” Hinrichs said. 

Talking like a Texan doesn’t sound like it ‘usta’ as Texas English is becoming less distinctive from mainstream American English, according to UT researchers.

English assistant professor Lars Hinrichs compared the pronunciation of central Texans in recent decades, using data collected at UT from 1980 to 1985 against data collected in 2010 and 2011, in a research paper submitted for review in late December.

Hinrichs said the data collected included people reading aloud words similar to “goose” in various American dialects. The data showed that people spoke less often with a Texas dialect than they had in the past. Hinrichs said the changing demographics of the state are impacting the language causing dialect leveling, meaning the characteristics specific to that region iare less noticeable.

“The regional accents are no longer as pronounced and different as they used to be,” Hinrichs said. “The degree of distinctiveness is being lessened and the linguistic local identity is being diluted. There will always be some local form of speech in Texas and it will always be noticeably different from other parts of the country — but not as much.”

Hinrichs said although dialect leveling can be seen in other parts of the country, because Texas urban areas are among the fastest expanding in the nation, the dialect is changing.

“Phrases like ‘might coulda,’ ‘usta could’ and ‘might oughta’ are rapidly dying out,” Hinrichs said. “Every semester I ask my students ‘who knows what a pole cat is?’ and every semester it’s one [fewer] student that knows it. Thirty to 40 years ago you could ask that question in any class at UT and everybody would’ve known that is a skunk.”

Hinrichs collaborated with graduate student Axel Bohmann and Kyle Gorman, a postdoctoral researcher at the Oregon Health and Science University.

Gorman said the data indicated that women tend to use more mainstream English, attributing it to the changing language.

“When there is a new form available, in general women are ahead of men in adopting the new form,” Gorman said. “The language incoming variant that’s more common with women is likely to be more popular.”

Bohmann said the research showed young people are becoming increasingly bidialectal, in which they use their local manner of speaking for casual conversation and a more mainstream American English version for professional or academic settings.

“We see, as a whole, people use Texas English less often, but also what you get with all these different varieties [is that] people tend to become more aware of the way they are speaking,” Bohmann said. “If you want to sound Texan you can switch into Texas English. People are less naive about how they are talking.”

Biology junior Megan Chavana said she has noticed the variety of dialects on campus and is aware of how she speaks in different environments.

“The culture is becoming more diverse with many different people from all over the world coming to Texas, specifically UT, which I think contributes to the loss,” Chavana said. “Since I talk with some Texas twang that is unintentional, I talk differently in a professional setting.”

Published on January 23, 2013 as "Ain't no twang".