Jewish World Review Dec. 11, 2003 / 16 Kislev 5764

Paul Greenberg

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Texican as she is spoke | At last, a scientific study of the lingo still spoken in an exotic empire is in the offing. "Speech study explores distinctions of Texas twang," said the headline in The New York Times.

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 sub-dialect 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.)

But I digress, or rather meander, which is the proper Texican term. Meanwhile, back at the (Texas) ranch, linguists Bailey and Tillery have been 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.

And don't forget all for oil. In the Ark-La-Tex, that pronunciation is compulsory; making a diphthong of the I by adding the 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 sub-dialects, and that city people - denizens of Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, San Antonio - speak differently from folks in Waxahachie, Mexia (pronounced Me-hey-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?

I 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 An' them is rapidly replacing Y'all when the inquiry is about family or friends, as in "How is Aunt Martha an' them?"

I 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?" On first being exposed to this yankeefied barbarism, I thought the 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: just as soon as she puts on her makeup upstairs. Doesn't everybody know that? It's instinctive in these parts.

Lovers of the language will be pleased to note that the verb form Fixin'-to remains firmly a part of the Texican lexicon, and continues to expand even beyond The Lone Star empire, 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.

I'll never forget the teenager from litle ol' Pine Bluff, Ark., 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! you 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.

Hey, what a country: One nation divisible by a common language. Go figure.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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