Twangs vs. Drawls

A Banjo

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I would like to discuss a pair of very unscientific words that describe accents or dialects of English: twang and drawl.

Both words are associated with the accents of the American South; one often hears of the “Texas twang” or the “Mississippi drawl.” But what exactly do these words mean? And is there a difference between the two?

Let’s take a look at their strict definitions, from Merriam Webster:

drawl:to speak slowly with vowels greatly prolonged; a drawling manner of speaking

twang: nasal speech or resonance

The above definition of drawl makes sense to me. The one for twang, however, I find peculiar. There are many nasal accents out there accents referred to as nasal–Liverpool, Michigan, Long Island–that are rarely referred to as “twangs.” There’s no doubt the fine folks at Merriam-Webster have researched this point, but I find this definition of “twang” too broad.

Perhaps, then, it’s better to look at how people actually use these words to deduce their specific meanings. I hear “twang” and “drawl” used in three different contexts:

1.) They refer to separate regions of the American South. I usually hear “Drawl” used in relation to the Coastal/Deep South, and hence the (often non-rhotic) accents of states like Louisiana, Alabama and South Carolina; “twang,” on the other hand, often references the Mountain or Inland South.

2.) These words describe any accent that is a bit “slower.” For example, I’ve heard people mention the “Australian drawl,” which is probably because the vowels in Aussie English are longer than those in British English.

3.) “Twang,” more generally, can distinguish an American accent from other accents. As an American, I only think of Southerners having a “twang,” but I’ve heard people from other countries use it to mean “American accent.” For example, I was working on a play a few years back with two Irish actors, one of whom said to the other, “I’m surprised you’ve lived in the States so long. You don’t have the twang at all.”

I’ve personally used these two words in an entirely different way, however. This is entirely my own subjective association, but when I think about the “twang” and the “drawl,” I think of two different accent features.

“Drawl”, for me, has the same definition that Merriam-Webster identifies above: an accent where the vowels are “drawn out.” Hence it makes sense to me why American Southerners and Australians are said to have drawls.

But “Twang”, to me, suggests an accent that specifically features something called vowel breaking. This term refers to the tendency (usually among American Southern accents) to turn a monophthong (a single sound) into a diphthong or tripthong (i.e. multiple vowel sounds). For example  somebody from Texas might pronounce trap as something like “tray-up” (i.e. IPA tɹæjəp).

 

I like “twang” in this context because the word also refers to the plucking motion used when playing a banjo or similar instruments. Likewise, vowel breaking sounds a bit like a vowel is being “bent” or “pulled” in some way. Very unscientific, I know, but a fun way of visualizing it.

 

Of course, none of this is the kind of thing linguists write about. You probably won’t find any academic papers about the fine distinctions between the “Tennessee Twang” and the “North Carolina drawl.” Still, as these words are often used when discussing accents and dialects, they’re worth looking at, even if there’s no way of finding a concrete meaning.

 

How do you use “twang” and “drawl?” Am I missing any nuances in these two words?

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About Ben

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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22 Responses to Twangs vs. Drawls

  1. Marc L says:

    Ben:
    As a native-born New Jerseyan, I, of course, grew up thinking I had no accent (universal delusion). But I’ve often heard of the New Jersey twang. I think what it boils down to, and I’m from central New Jersey, is an accent closer to the dictionary definition, as opposed to turning monopthongs into diph- or tripthongs. I hear it in words like corner (cawner) and quarter (cawter). Both of these examples end up with internal non-rhoticity, and there are many more examples of the same. I remember my father referring to a local town, Carteret, as Cahtehret. Much of it has to do with forming the vowels well back in the mouth, and certain consonant clusters also have a nasalized quality, such as thi-nk-ing. Some of this is influenced by the New York dialectal region, but central New Jersey has its own distinct diaslect. And no, I never say “I’m from Joisy!” No one does. In the latter case, what you DO hear within the state is the Jersey City pronunciation, which is closer to Juhsee, close, but not the same as Staten Island and Brooklyn.

    • David says:

      Is/was your father from Hudson County (practically the only area of not only North Jersey, but also New Jersey in general that has historically shared (and largely still shares) the same non-rhotic accent with (neighboring) New York City? Or from New York City (itself)? Or maybe Newark, which literally straddles the New York City dialect region and the region with the actual New Jersey accent (the latter within which the rest of Essex County falls, IINM)? Because that’s the only explanation that I can come up with for his pronunciation of “corner” and “Carteret.” Central Jersey and most of North Jersey (the latter meaning North Jersey outside of Hudson County collectively have their own distinct dialect. As does South Jersey and one Central Jersey county–Mercer County–both of whose residents speak in a Philadelphia-influenced or straight-up Philadelphia accent.

  2. Andrej Bjelaković says:

    I am pretty sure it has never been scientifically proven people with Southern accents actually speak slower. But I can’t seem to find anything online at the moment.

    Well, this LL post sort of touches on the matter:

  3. trawicks says:

    @Marc,

    “New Jersey twang” doesn’t sound quite right to me, but as I mention, there are a lot of different ways the word is used. Although New York/New Jersey accents have some vowel breaking of their own, as the vowel in CAUGHT often has a pronounced off-glide.

    @Andrej,

    Exactly the reason I put “slow” in quotation marks. American Southern English definitely has longer vowels for some phonemes (particularly in traditionally short vowels like those in STRUT or FOOT). But I’ve met any number of Southerners who actually speak faster than most Northerners.

    • Leo says:

      “American Southern English definitely has longer vowels for some phonemes (particularly in traditionally short vowels like those in STRUT or FOOT)”

      I’ve heard the same said of American English in general when compared to RP.

      • trawicks says:

        Indeed. American vowels tend to be of a more even length than in UK accents. In traditional RP, the vowels in KIT, TRAP, STRUT and the like are extremely short, while the vowels in CAUGHT and GOOSE are extremely long. In American English, most vowels are of similar length, and fall in between these two extremes. I’ve founds that’s another thing American actors stumble over when trying to do a British accent–we have a bit of a hard time understanding length distinctions.

  4. I might also point out that in most of its uses, “nasal” is an equally unscientific description of dialects. “Nasal” means something quite particular to a linguist, specifically, speech produced with the velum lowered, allowing air to pass through the nasal cavities. I don’t know of much research on dialects which are wholly nasal, or more nasal than others.

    I don’t know about Liverpool, but when people talk about how nasal the Inland North, or Long Island is, they’re usually just talking about the raising and tensing of short-a. In most dialects, short-a is raised and tensed only before nasal consonants, like /m/ and /n/, but in Long Island (and NYC generally), it raises and tenses in many more environments, and in the Inland North, short-a is universally tensed and raised (I believe you’ve already blogged about that).

    But, when a New Yorker says “bad” with a raised and tense short-a, or a Michigander does the same in “cat,” the vowel is not nasalized. It just exhibits some properties which are restricted to just pre-nasal for most people, but to call these tokens “nasal” isn’t quite right.

    • trawicks says:

      That’s a good point, and I should have been more clear that “nasal” is a subjective descriptor when it comes to accents. That being said, since “twang” and “drawl” are also highly subjective terms, it’s worth noting where these non-scientific judgments overlap (or don’t) in the public imagination.

    • Leo says:

      “In most dialects, short-a is raised and tensed only before nasal consonants, like /m/ and /n/, but in Long Island (and NYC generally), it raises and tenses in many more environments, and in the Inland North, short-a is universally tensed and raised (I believe you’ve already blogged about that).”

      True, but it’s my impression that there are different degrees of raising of /æ/ before nasal consonants, and that this varies regionally and, possibly, socially. For example, while I may raise the vowel in man slightly, my cousin from Chicagoland raises it noticeably higher. Same with my neighbor from Boston (I know American linguists would say the two places have different short-a systems, but that’s not what I’m talking about here). I still wouldn’t call their speech “nasal”, however. I just think they raise /æ/ higher than I do before nasal consonants. I know the main point you were making was that linguists use “nasal” in a different way from most people and I agree with that. I tend to go off on tangents though 🙂

  5. Cclinton says:

    Now ah know what terms to use for mah wonderful Okie-lect!

    I personally connect “Drawl” with southern vowel breaking for the vowel certainly seems longer. I don’t really think “Twang” is a term I would use for the south. Then again both can can go to [heəl] as far as ah’m concerned.

  6. m.m. says:

    Josef Fruehwald nicely explains the case with nasal, which falls with twang and drawl.
    And definitely, the way people use ‘nasal’ has nothing to do with actual nasality. Also, the fronting of /ɑ/ to [a] is also sometimes referred to as more ‘nasal’ sounding.

    And indeed:

    “Of course, none of this is the kind of thing linguists write about.”

    Nasal, twang, and drawl are the typical words laymen use to describe accents. In my experience, the words mean nothing more than “sounds different”, with nasal usually used in a more negative connotation than twang or drawl, which I’ve never encountered used to mean different things, although it’s been argued to me once that they were different. Linguists have actual sets of words with extractable meaning.

    I side with Cclinton, in that for me, Drawl = Southern breaking.

  7. MT says:

    I’ve never associated ‘twang’ with any particular phonetic properties of an accent, just a word that encompasses all the particular qualities of an accent i.e., a Texan twang is simply the set of things that makes an accent recognisably Texan. Maybe this is simply from analysing ‘twang’ as similar to ‘tweak’? I guess a suitable follow-on question, then, is: why, in this analysis, are some accents twangs but not others? I cannae think of anything other than simple collocation.

  8. trawicks says:

    @leo,

    In accents with raised /æ/, the degree of raising varies tremendously. Even in single speakers: look at one of William Labov’s acoustic analyses of the “tense lax split,” for example, and you’ll see that /æ/ is all over the map. In the Northern Cities Vowel Shift, it can range from a slightly raised [æ̝] to the extreme [ɪə].

    @m.m,

    People probably associate “nasal” with certain acoustic features, such as the loudness or higher pitch of an accent. Of course, the nasal cavity is also one of the most important resonators in human speech, but I know far too little about acoustic analysis to say if some accents use it more than others (or if you could even determine that).

  9. boynamedsue says:

    Yorkshire dialect uses the word “twag” to describe any accent that is neither RP nor Yorkshire. e.g. “She’s got a right scouse twag on her.” or “He had that much of a twag, I couldn’t understand him.”

    Could it be that the term “twang” was imported to the Americas as a term meaning accent, and only later found itself associated with certain accents in competition with the innovative “drawl”?

    Several of the examples in your post may owe their origin to alliteration rather than any features of the dialect in question (“Texas Twang”, “Tennessee Twang”)

  10. Carl McMahan says:

    As a native speaker of a subdialect of Appalachian (Isothermal North Carolinian) and a semi-trained linguist, I can shed some light on the distinction.

    Although all Southern, Appalachian, and South Midland dialects have a tendency for creating dipthongs and tripthongs (what you call vowel breaking), there is a marked difference between the dipthongs and tripthongs used or acceptable within the dialects thatI couldn’t understand until I moved to Turkey and began studying Turkish. Then the difference became instantly recognizable. Drawling dialects (Lowland Southern and most Appalachian ones) harmonize the vowels in their dipthongs and tripthongs while Twanging dialects (mostly South Midland derived, but including Texan) do not. This means that all vowels in a dipthong or tripthong in a Drawl will be of the same type (e.g.: lowland Southern and Appalachian “Taught” has a dipthong where the vowels move from low mid relaxed to low front tensed). All “vowel breaks” I could think of in those dialects keep the vowels in a dipthong in the same basic (high mid low) area of articulation. Even more interestingly, the dipthongs in SAE or RP that use non-harmonized vowels (eg: coil, flour) are pronounced in Drawling dialects with harmonized vowels (something like ko-uhl and fla-er respectively). This feature, combined with a few others (metered stress-timing, consonantal harmonization within words) are what give Drawling Appalachian dialects their musical quality.

    And that accounts for much, but not all, of the difference between a “North Carolinian Drawl” and a “Tennessee Twang”.

  11. alan grady says:

    Hey Carl thanks for sharing. I’m from eastern North Carolina and I think your explanation puts the whole issue in more precise terms than I’ve ever seen it. But when you say: “all vowels in a dipthong or tripthong in a Drawl will be of the same type” what types are there?
    I know my grandparents always pronounce ‘oil’ with a long harsh stressed middle like ough’l.
    Any idea how the drawl was introduced into the southern dialect?

  12. Olga says:

    Still unclear what the difference between the two is. I think they’re two are practically to describe the same thing. You wrote “drawl” is “drawing out vowels”. Correct. Then you wrote that “twang” is making multiple vowels from a one. But, drawing out vowels is practically making two or three from one, most of the times by adding a schwa. Say, what’s the difference between a Texas speaker pronouncing “trap” like “træəp” and a Mississippi one saying it like “træəp” too? Is it that drawl and twang are just two words to refer to the same phenomenon?

    • Cathy4017 says:

      A one-syllable word like “trap” drawn out to “tray-up?”

      Seriously? As a 4-th and 5th generation native West Texan, we never talked like that! Neither did my grandparents on either side.

  13. Meade says:

    Most people use the word “twang” just to describe an accent- not necessarily a nasal accent. At the same time, most people seem to recognize and accent different than their own and interpret as “nasal”.When it fact, its not that- but a different placement in the soft palate. Southerners tend to have less nasal voices in general than those in the Northeast or upper Midwest But the best way to tell is Southern drawl= North and South. Mouth is wide open. Twang= East/West. The mouth extends to the side rather than opening up. Causing a more pinched vocal sound. Also, people say all Country singers are twangy- when that is only one style of Country singing. Many are actually purer in tone than in Pop singing

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