“I want enough accent to have an origin story, but not so much that I am judged”
This is a transcript of a Subtitle podcast episode
Patrick Cox: A few years ago, I interviewed Icelandic comedian turned politician Jón Gnarr. He’s a household name in Iceland — against all the odds, he’d been elected mayor of Reykjavik. By the time I talked to his term as mayor was over. He’d written a book. And he was at a loose end. I asked him, “What’s next?”
Jón Gnarr: I will definitely go to Texas.
Patrick Cox: That took me aback.
Jón Gnarr: But I’m not sure what I’m going to do there.
Patrick Cox: On the face of it, Gnarr is about as un-Texan as they come. His issues are anarchism, pacifism and climate change. He likes making big bold statements — ah, there’s the Texan in him. Another Texan trait: fighting the government: His dispute with the Icelandic government over his name: — Gnarr isn’t traditionally Icelandic and he’s not allowed to use it on his passport — this dispute has lasted so long with so many bitter turns that today it might count as a saga.
Jón Gnarr: I have noticed that many of my followers on Facebook are from Texas. So I’ll definitely have to go there and talk to the Texans.
Patrick Cox: And of course, he did that. Jón Gnarr became a writer-in residence at Rice University. He did something else in Texas too. He finally got his name officially changed. It required an FBI background check to make sure he wasn’t trying to conceal a possibly criminal identity. He was just a little crestfallen to hear that he had no criminal record. But in celebration of the Texas court’s decision, he got a new tattoo on his right forearm: a geographical outline of his favorite US state.
Jón Gnarr has left Texas now. And become a vegan. I don’t know if there’s a connection.
It’s not just Icelandic mayors with big personalities who are fascinated by the Lone Star state. People all over the world are. In fact the word, Texas, it pops up in a bunch of languages. Like in Norwegian.
Woman (speaking in Norwegian): Helt Texas.
Patrick Cox: Helt Texas. Completely Texas. Which is used when you want to convey that a situation is totally chaotic and out of control.
Reza Jamayran (speaking in Persian): Inja Texas nist.
Patrick Cox: This is Persian. It means, “it’s not Texas here.” Meaning, there are rules here, you need to observe them, it’s not the wild west. If you call a neighborhood Texas, you’re calling it unsafe.
Reza Jamayran: You could be dead any time. You should be very careful, you should not mess with scary dangerous people.
Patrick Cox: This guy, by the way, he’s called Reza Jamayran. Just like Jón Gnarr, going to Texas for the first time was a big deal for him. When he got there he called his family back in Iran to say — you know — I’m in Texas for real..
Reza Jamayran: I wanted to see what would be their reaction. Would they be like, be careful?
Patrick Cox: They were fine, as it turned out. Even back in Iran, they knew the real Texas wasn’t as dangerous as the imagined one. So what is the real Texas? And how much of that comes across in the way Texans speak? Is the Texan accent the most authentically American one? Or the most inauthentic one?
Today we have the final part in our series, We Speak, about accents and identity and bias. As well as talking Texas, we’ll also hear about ways of overcoming speech discrimination, so that, say in a job interview, someone from San Antonio stands as much chance getting the job as someone from Greenwich, Connecticut.
First though, native Texan Tina Tobey.
Tina Tobey: What most people know of the Texas accent, they got from TV.
J.R. Ewing (Dallas clip): Oh. I’d like to Dave, I really would, but somebody’s gotta mind the store. You see, my daddy and I handed the reins of Ewing Oil over to an amateur once before, and almost lost the whole shootin’ ranch.
Tina Tobey: The 80s TV drama Dallas brought the Ewing family all over the world. J.R., Bobby, Daddy and Miss Ellie flooded the airwaves with family rivalries, cattle ranching and a lot of drinkin’ and fightin’. In 1991 I travelled to the Soviet Union. When my host family found out I was from Texas, the only things they wanted to know were how big my oil fields were, the name of my horse and all about tumbleweeds. I don’t know anything about tumbleweeds. I grew up in the suburbs of Houston. Only reason I had ever been on a horse was because of summer camp. I was not a TV Texan.
Lars Hinrichs: So in the entire American South, you can ask anybody what the biggest stereotype of their dialect is and they will say the same two things anywhere you go and it’s y’all and fixin-to.
Tina Tobey: This is Lars Hinrichs. He is the Director of the Texas English Language Lab and Associate Professor of English and Linguistics at the University of Texas. He’s also not a TV Texan but a transplant from Germany.
Lars Hinrichs: I got my degree at the university of Freiburg, including my PhD, but I did do a year abroad as a Fulbright student at the University of North Carolina. And then also as a junior in high school, I spent one year in Alabama. So every time I went abroad to the U S that I ended up in the South, you know, I always put in the questionnaire, where would you like to go? And I always like, everybody else has said New York, Florida, California. And then they always place you in Alabama.
Tina Tobey: When the job at the University of Texas opened up Lars’s knowledge of the U.S. South and his interest in dialect research made him the perfect fit. And his first day on the job he got a note from a retiring colleague in the linguistics department.
Lars Hinrichs: He emailed me and said, I left some stuff for you in my old office. It was hundreds of old tapes, reel to reels and cassettes and stuff. And some of them had paperwork, others didn’t and gramophone records. So it was like a collection that had been passed on through generations of linguists. And so now I was sitting with it. It fell on me to take it into the next century and start digitizing because they don’t last forever.
Tina Tobey: The result is The Texas English Linguistics Lab with over hundreds of recordings dating all the way back to 1934. The bulk of the recordings were collected by another linguist, Rudolph Willard.
Lars Hinrichs: He drove around Texas, which was a lot harder in the thirties. With his, must’ve been a huge, clunky bit of equipment and he recorded in churches. He recorded choirs, and people in their homes. As well as asking people if they can read a passage.
Reader 1: Horace was twenty years old. He hadn’t attended school since he was 10 …”
Tina Tobey: “The Story of Horace” was written specifically to highlight the different ways people talk.
Reader 2: Horace didn’t know much about literature, but he liked poetry. He enjoyed reading Milton out loud.
Reader 3: He particularly liked Omar. He used declaim verses like the following “The bird of time has but a little way to flutter and the bird is on the wing.” (fade under)
Tina Tobey: There are recordings from German immigrants who left Europe in the late 1800’s. They were looking for a better quality of life and following the promise of land grants.
My favorite are a series of recordings from Texas Baptist churches in the 1940’s.
Rev Sellars: Have mercy upon the human race, my Father. Melt down the stoney hearts…
Tina Tobey: The recordings sound sweet, down home, but to my ears they’re not nearly as Texan as the voices I grew up with on TV. People like Texas Governor Ann Richards.
Ann Richards: I’m delighted to be here with you this evening because after listening to George Bush all these years, I figured you needed to know what a real Texas accent sounds like (cheers).
Tina Tobey: Richards was on the national stage, but there were locals that stuck with me even more.
Mattress Mac: At Gallery Furniture we’re Houston proud…
Tina Tobey: Mattress Mac was known not only for his cheesy furniture commercials but his charity work. He was one of many outsized TV personalities from my childhood.
Marvin Zindler: Fajita’s meat was off the required temperature.
Tina Tobey: Marvin Zindler was on Channel 13 for decades.
Marvin Zindler: And the buffet did not have a sneeze guard to protect food against contamination.
Tina Tobey: Zindler broke up the Chicken Ranch brothel in the 70s, but most memorably for me was his “Rat and Roach Report.” Any restaurants that failed health inspections made it into his report. And, I loved it when he would sing out
Marvin Zindler: …and there was slime in the ice machine!
Tina Tobey: So where does this leave me? Since my early years in Houston, I haven’t lived in Texas much. Massachusetts has been home for more than 20 years. I’m not sure I have, or really ever had a Texas accent.
Erica Brozovsky: When you said those words, you definitely had a little bit of a Texas accent going on. For sure. I think also when you say Texas, you say Texas instead of Texas, like you’re, it’s a Z instead of an S at the end, which sounds pretty Texas to me. And, apparently, I am mistaken. And it’s not just my speech that belies my birth. When I asked where I’m from, I’ll say Massachusetts but then quickly follow up that I was born in Texas.
Erica Brozovsky: People think of Texas first before they think of the United States because it is so ingrained in who they are as a person.
Tina Tobey: Erica Brozovsky is an associate linguist at the University of Texas in Austin. She’s from Massachusetts, not too far from where I live now. She and I switched places. I came north for college, and have never left. She ended up in Texas for university and fell in love with Austin.
Erica Brozovsky: I have never seen so many state flags before, as I do in Texas. Like I would never wear the Massachusetts state flag. Like you don’t wear that, but Texas it’s like everywhere.
Tina Tobey: Now I don’t wear the flag, but I do have one hanging in our garage. I have Texas kitchen towels, Texas signs on my office wall and a Texas shaped cast iron pot. You can take the girl out of Texas but you can’t take the Texas out of the girl. But if you’re not from there, is it really a big deal?
Erica Brozovsky: Texas is not studied enough in my personal opinion. And also my professional opinion.
Tina Tobey: And there’s a whole lot to study. While Mexico and the Spanish language have long influenced Texas and the Texan accent. But over time, Texas existed under six flags in its recorded history: Spain, France, Mexico, the Republic of Texas, the Confederate States of America, and the U.S.A. That of course doesn’t include the Native Americans who lived in the state before all the others laid claim to the land. There’s a wide German influence that’s evident in town names like Pflugerville and Fredriksburg. The Czechs brought my favorite breakfast treat, the kolache. Given the chance, I highly recommend you stop in the town of West to try them out. There’s more. Erica, for example, is researching Taiwanese Texans at UT. and says:
Erica Brozovsky: Everything is coming together in Texas and people are mixing together here in a way that they aren’t in a lot of regions. And yes, there is still some like division in some areas, but you are seeing, it’s like a melting pot of a lot of the things going on and it’s honestly, it’s fascinating. So I think, I think it’s cool.
Tina Tobey: OK, so Texas is massively diverse. It’s also just plain massive. Three Texas cities make the U.S. top 10 most populous list. But 83% of the state is farmland. I have directed more than one friend to the movie Bernie when trying to explain the regional differences in Texas. The dark comedy is set in the small town of Carthage.
Bernie clip: Carthage is in East Texas and that’s totally different from the rest of Texas which could be fivedifferent states actually. You got your West Texas out there with a bunch of flat ranches, up North you got them Dallas snobs with their Mercedes. And then you got the Houston, the carcinogenic coast is what I call it, all the way up to Louisiana…
Tina Tobey: You’ve got money and international business in the cities, and farms and ranches in the country.
Bernie clip (cont’d): Then down south, San Antonio is where the Tex meets the Mex, like the food. And then in Central Texas you got the People’s Republic of Austin with a bunch of hairy legged women and liberal fruitcakes. Of course I left out the panhandle, and a lot of people do but Carthage this is where the South begins. It is life behind the pine curtain. And truth be known it’s a good place…
And the Texas accent is diverse as the state itself:
Erica Brozovsky: Even within Texas, there’s a lot of variation. So like East, Texas has more of like a soft drawl and then North Texas is more like that, that Twain you’re kind of like, like the nasal, um, West Texas has like the Southwestern influence. And then, you know, the Valley there’s a huge Spanish influence in the Valley. So there’s a lot going on just in Texas language-wise. So I think when people, people think of Texas, they’re just like Cowboys, whatever, y’all Cowboys done. They think of Southern accent as being Georgia, South Carolina kind of deal.
Lars says it’s all about the vowels in the traditional Texas accent.
Lars Hinrichs: The conservative Texas accent of English has a lot of markers of Southern American speech. I’m a vowels guy. So I notice features such as the way that the I vowel turns to, “ah.” You know, “nice white rice”. Then you have features such as the oo vowel and words like food and move and goose is fronted.
Tina Tobey: Now, I can avoid over pronouncing nice, white and rice. I can hear that. And I know that talkin’ that way would put a finger on my birthplace. But not all vowels are as easy to manipulate. Erica again.
Erica Brozovsky: There are some, like, there are some features that people still do, that I think of as being part of the Texas accent. So when you think of the words pin, like the head of a pin and pen, like you write with a pen some people say them the same, so it’s called a pin pen merger. So you would just say pan for both pin and pen
Tina Tobey: This is my biggest tell. Just last week I was reading a book to my daughter. In it a main character is given a “tin” airplane. I blew through the sentence quick and Maddy stopped me cold. She was blown away that the boy got ten airplanes for Christmas. It took several minutes for me to explain the difference. One is a metal, one is a number. Finally she agreed she understood. However, throughout the day she repeatedly asked how many tin planes the boy got for Christmas. Trying to say them differently gives me a bit of a headache.
Erica Brozovsky: Yeah, for me they are very different like, I say tin, ten no tan.
Tina Tobey: So I still have, and will always have indications of my Texas upbringing in my accent. But both Erica and Lars think that the Texas accent is changing.
Erica Brozovsky: It’s going away. Eventually it’ll be gone, I’m sure at some level, but I don’t think that’ll happen in our lifetimes. Not that everybody’s going towards the same basic boring mainstream American accent, but it kind of is happening.
Tina Tobey: Immigration, travel, and just exposure are leading us to softer versions of our regional accents. And language is all about being understood, so naturally:
Lars Hinrichs: When you’re Texan and you’re in Houston and you’re on a business call with Michigan you don’t want to sound just completely different. You want to sound maybe distinct and you want your own identity, but there’s a lot of psychological and social advantages in not sounding too crassly different from the other person. We kind of pick up each other’s symbols and reuse them because we’re creating a shared space and a space of interaction.
Tina Tobey: This feels like my journey. I want enough accent to have an origin story, but not so much that I am misunderstood or judged for my speech. And, like manyTexans, I know that a bit of a drawl can charm a crowd and make a whole lot of friends.
Lars Hinrichs: Southerners are typically evaluated as kind a warm-hearted, but good people, right, good to be around. And then northerners they’re the ones you would leave your money with, I guess, but not stay for the barbecue.
Tina Tobey: So from the Texan, y’all are welcome to the BBQ anytime. Just don’t bring sweet tea. Sugar in tea is not a Texas thing. But, I suppose that is for another episode.
Kavita Pillay: OK Patrick, so here we are at the end of this mini series on accents and identity and discrimination. I feel like I have a handle on the identity side of this — that how we sound can be tremendously misleading. And we shouldn’t determine who we are — who others are — based on how we sound. But the discrimination side of it, I’m not so clear on that…
Patrick Cox: Yeah, me too. And it may be because the law isn’t so clear. It really isn’t. I checked in with someone who works in this area of US law.
Melinda Koster: My name is Melinda Koster, I’m an employment discrimination attorney at Sanford Heisler Sharp.
Patrick Cox: That’s a New York City firm. I asked Melinda about what it takes to prove that accent discrimination has taken place. And she told me that to win an accent case what you have to do is prove that another form of discrimination has taken place. Maybe it’s race-based, maybe it’s gender, maybe it’s disability, maybe it’s national origin — that’s the most common, national origin. Melinda told me about a case from a few years ago at a Chevrolet dealer in Phoenix, and a Nigerian employee there who was told to go to speech therapy.
Melinda Koster: He had been told to go test for speech therapy, even though as far as I understand it, he spoke English fluently and clearly. And when he was denied a promotion, that decision was announced in a meeting of about 40 to 50 people. The person who he sought the promotion from in the context of a work meeting announced that this person wouldn’t be getting the promotion. Instead, the promotion was going to someone who was not Nigerian. And the person announced in this meeting that the Nigerian immigrant employee needed to talk more like an American.
Kavita Pillay: So what if there’s no other form of discrimination you can piggy-bank onto — if you’re not foreign-born — or if race or disability or gender isn’t part of the case?
Patrick Cox: It’s much trickier. I gave Melinda a hypothetical of a case like that to see what she thought.
Patrick Cox (from interview): If I have a rural mid-Texas accent and I apply for a job in a big city on the east coast, and I don’t sound the way that a lot of the people sound. And I believe that I don’t get the job — or I don’t get a promotion because I kind of sound hick, if I then go to you and say ‘Do I have any recourse here?” What would you say?
Melinda Koster: Well, based off of what you have shared so far, I don’t see a case.
Kavita Pillay: Accent discrimination is so intertwined with so many other things, and that seems like part of what makes it so hard to pin down…
Patrick Cox: Maybe it’s also tough to pin down because we don’t know that much about how accent bias works. Which is why I was excited to hear that this is being studied right now in the UK. The project is called Accent Bias in Britain and the focus is job interviews. So the researchers selected more than a thousand people — of all different all races, regions, social classes, ages. And these people were asked to listen in on mock job interviews.
Erez Levon: They were told that they were hearing candidates who were applying for jobs in a major corporate law firm. They were told that the candidates were equally qualified for the post.
Patrick Cox: This is Erez Levon, he’s a sociolinguist at Queen Mary University of London, and he’s the principal investigator of Accent Bias in Britain.
Kavita Pillay: So the only difference between the candidates was how they sounded?
Patrick Cox: Yes, they had one of five accents — some considered higher status than others.
Kavita Pillay: OK, so what did the researchers find out?
Patrick Cox: Well they discovered the assessments from these survey respondents, the people listening in on the interviews depended on their age.
Erez Levon: And we find the younger respondents don’t actually make any distinctions between the 5 accents. So beneath the age of 40 or 45 there’s no real differences of perceptions of evaluations of the 5 accents. Basically we’re not seeing any evidence of bias among these younger respondents. As soon as we get above the age of 40 and certainly 45, that’s when these bias effects start to appear, so it’s among the older repondents that we find this significant downgrading.
Patrick Cox: So at least according to this piece of research, the older you are, the more likely you’re going to be biased against lower-prestige accents.
Kavita Pillay: Doesn’t the fact the younger people were found to be less biased — doesn’t that suggest we’re getting over our accent biases….that younger generations don’t care so much about accents as older people?
Patrick Cox: That’s what I thought too. But Erez says probably not, not when you take into account similar research from the past.
Erez Levon: It’s not that attitudes are changing but it’s that when you hit 40 or 45 you become more conservative and more judgmental about these accents. And that appears to be a stable pattern that has existed for the past 40 or 50 years. So rather actually it being good news that things are becoming more positive, it seems the opposite and it seems to be more about people deciding that there is a way that you need to speak.
Kavita Pillay: Ah, that’s depressing.
Patrick Cox: Yeah it is. But it’s not all bad news. Erez and his colleagues did another survey where the participants weren’t a cross-section of society but just lawyers. And in that case, almost none of the lawyers — old or young — showed any bias — they didn’t care about accents.
Kavita Pillay: So what’s up with lawyers?
Patrick Cox: Well the researchers think it’s because lawyers are trained to listen to words and arguments. They block everything else out. So accent doesn’t matter. And so the thinking is if lawyers can be trained to do this, well, so can job recruiters, human resources people, anyone who’s going to have a say in who gets a job.
Kavita Pillay: And how does that happen? How do you overcome your own accent bias?
Patrick Cox: Erez says that’s also been studied — and he says it may not be as hard as we think to train job recruiters.
Erez Levon: For 30 seconds you explain to someone or have them read a short document that talks about the fact there is accent bias, sometimes people are unfairly judged purely on how they speak as opposed to what they are saying. And we showed in controlled experiments that that reduces the difference in judgements that people give across accents.
Kavita Pillay: OK, that’s kind of amazing! Because when it comes to overcoming something like racial bias, it takes a lot more than 30 seconds for people to get it! But it makes sense that it’s easier for people to admit to their own accent biases than their own racism, it’s less fraught. So bring on more awareness about how we speak.
Kavita Pillay: Patrick, if someone had been doing this series 60 or 70 years ago, they’d have spoken in an old timey Radio Announcer accent Now see, accent bias is a form of discrimination…
Patrick Cox: Wow, never thought about that….makes you wonder how our counterparts in the future might present how we speak. And of course the anxieties we have now about speech and bias and identity — they’ll be replaced with a new set of anxieties.
Kavita Pillay: It makes me think about how my own particular accent preferences and prejudices reflect the time and place in which I live.
Patrick Cox: I guess you and I are just a bit more aware of all of this because we’ve just reported a series on it. We’re hyper aware.
Kavita Pillay: Yes. But remember, accent bias is not happening in a vacuum; it’s intertwined with race, ethnicity, class, the workplace, all of our ideas about who belongs in a given setting, and who doesn’t.
Patrick Cox: And that changes over time too. But one thing I hope we can all agree that accents themselves aren’t evil! We love accents, don’t we?
Kavita Pillay: Right. Who wants food that’s just seasoned with salt and pepper? And who wants a world in which there are only a few acceptable accents?
Patrick Cox: Yeah, not a good idea to try to suppress your accent.
Henry Higgins (My Fair Lady clip): Miss Doolittle.
Eliza Doolittle: Good afternoon, Professor Higgins.
Patrick Cox: Aargh! There’s no getting away from My Fair Lady. I love this scene from the movie. After Professor Higgins believes he’s successfully coached Eliza Doolittle to suppress her cockney accent. “The rain in Spain” and all that. So here he is showing her off to some of his well-to-do friends. At first it goes well, she sounds posh, the coaching seems to have paid off. But not for long.
Eliza Doolittle: My aunt died of influenza, so they said. But it’s my belief they done the old woman in.
Woman: Done her in?
Eliza Doolittel: Yes, Lord love you. Why should she die of influenza when she come through diphtheria right enough the year before? Fairly blue with it she was. They all thought she was dead. But my father — he kept ladling gin down her throat.
Kavita Pillay: Poor Eliza! It’s this great reminder that there’s so much more to how we speak than our accents. It seems fitting that she’s played by Audrey Hepburn, because imagine if we said, We should all aspire to look like Audrey Hepburn! We’ve evolved a whole vocabulary and resources and curricula to talk about the fact that we shouldn’t force people to all look one particular way. So, what if we made more room for people to speak in different ways? The Eliza Doolittles and everyone?
This episode of Subtitle was reported by Tina Tobey and Patrick Cox. Editing by Julia Barton and Patrick Cox.
Subtitle’s sound designer is Tina Tobey.
This is the last episode of this season of Subtitle. We’re extremely grateful to everyone who has partnered with us: The Linguistic Society of America, the Hub & Spoke Audio Collective, and public radio shows The World, Here & Now and Weekend All Things Considered.
Thanks to: Tinku Ray, Kate Ellis, Michael Bell, William Troop, Ashley Cleek, Jeremy Helton, Traci Strain, Carol Zall, Rupa Shenoy, Phillip Martin, Alina Simone, Nina Porzucki, Jennifer Goren, Alyson Reed, David Robinson, Lydia Emmanouilidou, April Kalix-Catell, Kirk Chao, Joshua Dees, Bertille Baron, Jenna Moniz, Dohra Ahmad, Barbara Bullock, Lynne Murphy, Jacqueline Toribio, Jackie Mow, Nola Cox, Sauli Pillay, Julie Sedivy, Isabel Hibbard, Sam Fleming, Paul Peterson, Wade Rousch, Tamar Avishai, and Zachary Davis, and the PRX Podcast Garage.
Subtitle is funded by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.