By: Keith Walters

Type: General Entry

Published: 1952

Updated: October 20, 2020

When most Texans think of Texas dialects, they likely think of the speech of an elderly man sitting outside a country store at some rural Texas crossroads or that of some older relative living in a small Texas town. When non-Texans think about Texas dialects, they probably recall stereotypes based on movies or television programs in which actors or actresses speak with what passes for a Texas accent-at least in Hollywood. However, linguists see Texas dialects as a more complex picture. Because their goal is to describe how language is in fact used by speakers, they label any variety of language a dialect, and the term is used descriptively, not pejoratively. Hence, everyone has a dialect, or more accurately, a range of varieties he uses, depending on audience, topic, and context. Dialectologists, those linguists concerned with the regional distribution of speech forms, attempt to analyze settlement patterns and the ways in which those patterns have influenced language in an area. This work often samples speech forms across large geographic areas, especially rural areas, in hopes of gaining insight into how a language has changed over time. The result is a map dividing the area, in this case, the state, into dialect regions. With a slightly different focus, sociolinguists, who are concerned with how and why particular speech forms come to be associated with particular social groups, examine how speakers from different backgrounds use language to establish and reflect their identities as individuals and members of groups. Sociolinguists are likewise concerned with how language continues to change and how social forces might be influencing the courses of change. Although the dialects of Texas are less studied than those of some states and regions, research that has been conducted provides a basis for understanding the nature and significance of dialects in Texas, first, with regard to settlement history and its influence on the state's regional dialects and, second, with regard to social dialects.

No doubt many people-Texans and non-Texans-think of Texas dialects as dialects of English alone, but such a perspective is too narrow. Each group settling in the state has brought its language. If the language continues to be used over time, a local variety of speech develops. In some cases, because of the paucity of speakers, the language dies out locally within a generation or two. The Dutch spoken in some areas of Texas in the last century, for instance, represents such a language. Although a few speakers of Wendish survive in Central Texas, they soon will die, and the Wendish language will become extinct in Texas (see WENDS), though it continues to be spoken in parts of Germany. Such patterns of language extinction are quite common for languages other than English in this country. In fact, immigrant communities often exhibit a "three-generation" pattern with regard to language: grandparents who immigrated to the United States begin life as monolingual speakers of the language of the old country; parents grow up here bilingual, speaking the native language of their parents and English; and the grandchildren grow up speaking only English and perhaps a little of the grandparents' native language. In other cases, languages persist much longer. Even though they are on the decline, German and Czech, for example, continue to be spoken in parts of Texas and have persisted far longer than Dutch did or Wendish will. Texas Czech and Texas German differ in describable ways from the Czech spoken in the Czech Republic or the dialects of German spoken in Germany, Austria, or Switzerland because of their isolation from other communities where the language is used (a situation which gives rise to changes internal to the language), because of contact with English, and because of use in fewer and fewer contexts. Texas German, in particular, has been the subject of scholarly research.

The Spanish spoken in Texas represents a more complex case. Because of the state's history and the large number of speakers of Spanish who are native Texans, the state's proximity to Mexico, and the continuing number of Spanish-speaking immigrants, Spanish continues to be widely spoken in Texas. As dialectologists would expect, Texas Spanish is quite similar to the Spanish spoken in Northern Mexico. At the same time, as a result of prolonged contact with English, it, like other varieties of Spanish in the United States, shows influence of that contact. For example, the meaning of levantar, which means "to pick up, raise, get up," has been extended under the influence of the English figurative use of the verb to include the notion of "give someone a ride" ("Pick me up at eight"). Varieties of Spanish outside the United States would likely use the verb recoger, which means "to gather or collect" in this context. Similarly, varieties of Spanish in the United States have borrowed words like troca ("truck") and parquear ("to park") from English. But more than simply words has been borrowed. Research demonstrates that the verbal system of Spanish spoken in Texas and the United States in general is being influenced by that of English; new Spanish constructions have been produced in Texas and the United States based on English models. Thus, one hears Hablame p'atrás "Call me back" (literally: "Speak+to me to back"). Other varieties of Spanish do not have such phrasal or two-word verbs; instead, they would likely use Llamame de nuevo, literally "Call+to me again." Although purists decry such usages, they are just the sorts of borrowings linguists expect from prolonged language contact.

An especially interesting feature of Texas Spanish and Spanish in the United States is the extent to which its speakers codeswitch, or alternate between Spanish and English while speaking, often within a single utterance. Again, purists (and many speakers themselves) criticize this practice as "bad" Spanish. From a sociolinguistic point of view, however, codeswitching enables speakers to use all of the linguistic resources at their disposal to communicate effectively with a wide range of audiences. Research from around the world also demonstrates that when such codeswitching occurs (and it is common in many bilingual settings), speakers are demonstrating their membership in multiple communities and the complex nature of their identities. Because most non-Hispanic Texans do not speak Spanish and most Mexicans do not speak English, Texas Hispanics who speak Spanish and codeswitch thus use language to establish a unique identity for themselves as a group.

Ultimately, social factors govern the fate of languages, including minority languages. The number of speakers, their attachment to the language as part of their identity, the extent to which they marry within their community and reside in areas where the language is spoken, the functions the language serves in the community (e.g., religious, educational, interpersonal, business), the larger society's attitudes toward the language and its speakers, and the behaviors and laws to which these attitudes give rise influence whether a language survives in a given locale. Anti-German attitudes during the two world wars, for example, largely account for the rapid decline in the number of speakers of Texas German. German speakers were seen as suspect by the larger society, and laws limited the teaching of German and its use as a language of instruction. The future fate of Texas Spanish as well as the languages of recent groups of immigrants to this state from East and South Asia is, therefore, unclear.

Just as the Spanish spoken in Texas has been influenced by English, the English spoken here has been influenced by Spanish in at least two very different ways. First, some monolingual speakers of English, nearly all of whom are Hispanic, speak a variety of English that is clearly influenced by Spanish, especially at the level of phonology or accent. This variety of English, which is variously termed Spanish-influenced English or Chicano English by researchers, represents an ethnic variety of English. It is analogous to the speech of some Texans who speak varieties of English that sound "Black" or "White" to various listeners. Further, all Texans who speak English use words borrowed from Spanish. Some, such as tamale, bronco, and lariat, have national currency. (Lariat is an interesting case because speakers of English borrowed both the Spanish article and the noun, la riata and collapsed them into one word.) Other borrowings, such as arroyo, pilón, and llano, are far less widely known and are in many cases limited to the English spoken in parts of the state where there has traditionally been a large Spanish-speaking population.

Such a distribution of words demonstrates the validity of the importance dialectologists have long attached to settlement history as a determinant of regional dialects. Thus the research of E. Bagby Atwood, the Linguistic Atlas of the Gulf States, and Craig Carver analyzes the regional distribution of linguistic forms, especially words. Carver offers detailed discussion of the settlement of the state and its influence on language in it. He notes the early Hispanic settlers in two distinct areas of the state and the waves of English-speaking settlers moving to Central Texas in the 1820s from what many dialectologists term the Midland dialect region (including the Appalachians and southern Ohio River valley). With the English-speaking populations and especially the settlement of East Texas came slavery and African Americans. The 1830s brought the beginning of European immigration to Central Texas and the Hill Country, as well as continued immigration from various parts of the Upper South and the Gulf South. West Texas was settled much later. Since the time of settlement, the demographics of these various regions has continued to shift. African Americans, for example, were once concentrated in East Texas. Although many continue to live in small towns and rural areas in that part of the state, far larger numbers live today in the state's largest cities. Carver uses the metaphor of layers to describe the changing regional dialects of Texas. Consequently, he illustrates the extent to which dialects of Texas English exhibit Southern dialect features that extend into East Texas and Midland dialect features that stretch to the central Eastern seaboard, on the one hand, as well as the dialects of English that stretch into the Southwest, on the other. These layers reflect the provenance and migration patterns of the various groups of English speakers who settled the state and those who continued moving westward. In addition, Carver delimits two dialect regions within the state itself: a South Texas layer that runs by-and-large along the Texas-Mexico border and reaches up to San Antonio, and a Central Texas region that includes the areas where large numbers of speakers of German and other European languages settled.

The work of sociolinguists complements work that divides dialect regions on the basis of lexical items (words). Sociolinguists often consider urban as well as rural varieties of speech and generally offer analyses of the quantitative differences between the speech patterns of various groups. For example, most Texas use ain't when speaking in certain contexts, but members of various social groups, whether defined by region, class, age, ethnicity, sex, or some combination of these, use it more frequently than others. Similar kinds of quantitative differences can be documented for the pronunciations of many sounds, such as the i in might, the aw in hawk, or the r in forty. Sociolinguistic research generally attempts to illuminate the changes in Texas speech brought about by social changes that have taken place in the state since World War II. These social changes include the great influx of non-Texans, the growing availability of education for the majority of Texans, and increasing urbanization. Some of the sociolinguistic correlates of these changes include the development of new urban varieties of speech. Although these are characterized by the loss of some features associated traditionally associated with Texas speech, especially the speech of rural Texans, they remain distinct from urban varieties of English in other parts of the country. Such changes are occurring in the speech of Anglos, Hispanics, and African Americans, with the speech of these ethnic groups converging in some respects but diverging in others. Thus, although Texas dialects of English continue to change, there is little chance that varieties identifiable as Texan will likely disappear. Texans are, with rare exception, proud of their identity as Texans, a fact that is reflected in their speech. Despite the fact that certain features of Texas dialects of English are sometimes stigmatized by speakers from other areas as hicky or "incorrect," Texans will continue to use them, partly because people who live in Texas wish to distinguish themselves from other Americans. Language is a particularly appropriate medium for marking this sort of difference. Such uses of language, clearly symbolic in nature, illustrate a basic fact about language and about dialects: Speakers use language to communicate information not only about the world but also about themselves and the groups to which they belong or do not belong. To use a particular dialect is to lay claim to an identity. Hence, even as Americans from other parts of the country and immigrants from around the world continue to move to Texas in large numbers, they become part of the development of dialects in Texas. Newcomers to the state inevitably pick up such traditional Southernisms as y'all. Those who are not already from the South sometimes begin saying fixin' to and might could as the natives do. In this way, language enables Texans, native or naturalized, to identify themselves as such.

See also CZECHS, GERMANS, MEXICAN AMERICANS, POLES, and other articles on ethnic groups.

Elmer Bagby Atwood, The Regional Vocabulary of Texas (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1962). Guy Bailey, "Directions of Change in Texas English," Journal of American Culture 14 (1991). Craig M. Carver, American Regional Dialects: A Word Geography (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1987). Glenn G. Gilbert, Linguistic Atlas of Texas German (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1972). Heinz Kloss, The American Bilingual Tradition (Rowley, Massachusetts: Newbury House, 1977). Lee Pederson et al., eds., Linguistic Atlas of the Gulf States (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986-). Joyce Penfield and Jacob L. Ornstein-Galicia, Chicano English: An Ethnic Contact Dialect (Amersterdam and Philadelphia: J. Benjamins, 1985). Keith Walters, "Dialectology," in Language: The Socio-cultural Context, ed. Frederick J. Newmeyer (Cambridge University Press, 1988).


  • Peoples
  • Germans
  • Wends

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Keith Walters, “Dialects,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed September 22, 2021, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/dialects.

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October 20, 2020