The Texas Accent: Bush vs. Perry

An article in the Star-Telegram this week compares the Texas accents of Governor Rick Perry with that of George W. Bush. Apparently, Perry’s accent triggers some negative associations with our last president.

For reference, here’s a clip of Perry speaking:

I’d suggest that Perry’s Bush-esque haircut and furrowed brow are more to blame for the Bush comparisons than his accent. Both men are from West Texas (sort of), but Perry’s relaxed speaking style doesn’t remind me of “W.”  Nevertheless, there have been a flurry of observations of this sort:

“If you close your eyes and listen to him speak, you’d swear it was George W. Bush,” a writer with ABC’s The Note blog wrote. “His accent, cadence and pronunciations are almost identical.”

I don’t agree with that assessment. And turning to an actual academic’s perspective, this quote a few paragraphs later downplays the association:

But overall, Perry sounds more West Texan than Bush, said Lars Hinrichs, an assistant English professor at the University of Texas, who heads the Texas English Project.

He attributes the difference to Bush’s roots in the Northeast and time spent in schools outside Texas.

“Bush’s accent features are relatively light,” Hinrichs said. “Pen and pin sound the same for somebody with a West Texas accent. Perry does that all the time. Bush doesn’t do that at all.”

Bush’s notable lack of the pin-pen merger (most of the time) is puzzling. I usually find the merger to be the tell-tale sign of Southerners without other salient accent features. To take a celebrity example, Courtney Cox, of Friends fame, eliminated most of her Alabama drawl except the pin-pen merger.* Even I, who left Kentucky at the age of two, will occasionally exhibit a slight hint of the feature. Why does this seem to be the one aspect of Texas English that Bush avoids?

But back to the Perry-Bush comparison.  A problem in analyzing Bush’s speech is that our impressions of his accent mostly derive from his time as president. I found him to be a very uneasy commander-in-chief, which seemed to have resulted in his strange, over-enunciated “presidential idiolect.”  (Watching this interview with Bush from last year felt like watching a completely different man).

If I see any similarity between Bush and Perry, it’s in their “voice quality.”  Trying to imitate either of these men, I find that I tend to tighten my jaw and raise my velum (the part of the tongue near the back of the mouth). That is to say, there seems to be something contricted or “tense” about their speech, which may or may not be typical of West Texans.  Outside of this vague impression, however, Perry and Bush merely seem like speakers of the same accent.

Any Texas dialect fans out there to comment?

*I bring this up this random example after watching a Friends rerun in which she repeatedly pronounced the name “Jennie” in a manner homophonous with Northern American “Ginnie.”

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About Ben Trawick-Smith

Ben Trawick-Smith began 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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28 Responses to The Texas Accent: Bush vs. Perry

  1. Maud says:

    Bush’s lack of the pin-pen merger, as you call it, isn’t terribly surprising to me. He was born in Connecticut, raised in Texas, to the extent he was raised in Texas, by Yankee parents, who wouldn’t have said pin and pen the same way. And he went to high school in Massachusetts and college in Connecticut, and he returned to Massachusetts for business.

    For me the pin-pen merger — and saw-sow (as in cow) and are-our and far-fire mergers — persisted for many years, though I left Texas for Miami before the age of three, because the way my (North) Texan mother (and to some degree also my Mississippian father) talked at home reinforced what I learned when I was first beginning to speak: that those words sounded identical when spoken.

    • trawicks says:

      Florida also has the merger as far south as Orlando, I believe, but definitely not in Miami. So yeah, you’re parents no doubt reinforced those pronunciations. I’ve alway been a bit curious about the accent of Miami, btw … so many transplants!

      • Maud says:

        Pin/pen was something I occasionally came across in Gainesville, where I went to school; it was particularly common among my Panhandle friends. And when I lived in Tallahassee, the words were far more frequently merged than not.

        Miami accents! That *is* a fascinating (to me) at least topic! I haven’t lived in South Florida or even visited regularly since the 90s, and I’m no dialect expert, just became obsessed with regional speech markers in early childhood, mostly in the interest of trying to hide what I thought of then as my hickish roots.

        But as a complete amateur who’s deeply interested in the subject: through the 80s and mid-90s, I’d say the prevailing Non-Latino dialect was an uncomfortable mixture of: (a) the old Florida Cracker accent (sometimes called Florida mushmouth); (b) the hard, nasal characteristics of New Yawk speech (many of my friends whose parents were NYC expats said Flahrida, for instance); and (c) among younger Miamians, as I was then, a clumsy nod to Cuban pronunciation and speech patterns, accomplished by cutting off air through the nose and speaking in a slightly higher, more nasal register than usual. It’s hard to describe, but this last characteristic is what usually enables me to identify an Anglo Miamian. (Because of my parents’ Texan/Mississippi backgrounds, I was more a + c, but many of my Anglo, Italian, and Jewish friends were more b + c.)

        Obviously the true prevailing accent citywide is far, far more Latin than this, but I suspect an expert would detect these influences even among longtime residents who only speak Spanish. I certainly hear them in the speech of my Cuban, Dominican, Venezuelan, and other Latin friends who grew up down there.

        When I lived in Miami, I thought the accent was distinctly unsouthern, and my southern relatives thought so too, roundly and enthusiastically deriding my sister and me as Yankees. But when I visit now, after eleven years in Brooklyn, I can hear the southern influence much more clearly, even among all my Latin friends. And I’m sure that the accent has changed, what with the influx of Caribbean, Argentinian, and Russian immigrants….

        • trawicks says:

          So Anglo Miamians have some Cuban prosodic features? Interesting. I’ve noticed a similar situations among white English speakers in New Mexico and parts of Greater Los Angeles …

    • Grayson says:

      I don’t think the “are-our merger” is unique to Texas. I believe it’s found everywhere English is spoken actually, when it comes to those 2 words at least, which I think is what you meant.

      • Maud says:

        Perhaps it is found elsewhere — I didn’t intend to imply that it was limited to Texas — but I have been asked many times to repeat myself in the Northeast when pronouncing “our” as “are” and didn’t even realize what was causing the communication breakdown, and in fact was not even aware that I did this, until a professor pointed out the merger to me.

        • Grayson says:

          I think the majority of native speakers of English say “are” the same as “our” (professors being the exception as always), so I wouldn’t worry about that. That’s what I was trying to say.

      • dw says:

        You can probably divide native English speakers into three groups:

        A. “hour”, “our” and “are” are homophones.
        B. “hour” = “our”, but “are” distinct
        C. “are” = “our”, but “hour” distinct.

        In my experience, most Americans are in group B while most English non-rhotics are in either A or C. (A could be a result of a complete merger of the relevant lexical sets due to smoothing, leading to “tower” = “tar”, etc.)

        • Maud says:

          So interesting! I used to fall into the third category, and still probably do when I drink or get tired, though I’ve trained myself in recent years into the second.

        • Grayson says:

          In my experience, most Americans (and native speakers of English) are in group C. I guess we’ve had a different experience. It could be that you are in group B so you hear a distinction between “our” and “are” where one doesn’t exist when you listen to other people talk.

        • dw says:

          @Grayson:
          It could be that you are in group B so you hear a distinction between “our” and “are” where one doesn’t exist when you listen to other people talk.

          Indeed! It could also be that you are in group C so you hear a distinction between “hour” and “our” where one doesn’t exist when you listen to other people talk.

          :)

          FWIW, I’m a bit like Maud. I grew up (in England) with “are” = “our” but have subsequently migrated somewhat toward “our” = “hour”. So it’s possible that I’m more sensitive towards “our” = “hour” in the US (where I now live) and this has influenced my own speech.

        • Grayson says:

          Indeed! It could also be that you are in group C so you hear a distinction between “hour” and “our” where one doesn’t exist when you listen to other people talk.

          Except I don’t hear a distinction between “hour” and “our” and I never said I did :)

          You migrated to somewhere where “are” also = “our”, but you’re expecting it to be different here (as it often is) when it isn’t in this particular case.

        • Grayson says:

          …and your expectations are influencing what you hear.

        • dw says:

          @Grayson:

          My earlier reply was in jest — but have you ever considered the possibility that maybe your expectations could also be influencing what you hear?

        • Peter S. says:

          How about all three distinct? I grew up pronouncing our like are. After moving to New England, I’ve started pronouncing our /aʊr/ with one syllable (although not consistently). I use two syllables for hour and all rhyming words. It seems to me that I very rarely hear people pronouncing our with two syllables, even when it’s pronounced /aʊr/, while hour is commonly pronounced with two syllables.

        • Egad says:

          Well and for what it’s worth, I, who was born in Cochise County, AZ in 1945 and lived there until going to college, of a blue-collar but somewhat lower-middle-class family, am a strong B. My parents were also from the El Paso – Bisbee axis, so I suspect they also were Bs.

          I say

          hour = our = ow-er
          are = “r” or “ahr”

  2. Maud says:

    Returned to Massachusetts for business school, I meant to say.

  3. dw says:

    It’s not surprising that Courtney Cox still has the pin-pen merger, but it is somewhat surprising that Bush didn’t acquire it.

    In his brilliant discussion of “altering one’s accent” (perhaps my favorite section of that wonderful book) Wells mentions that it is far easier to acquire a merger than to lose one. Bush, should he have wanted to acquire the pin-pen merger, would simply had added a late realization rule to his existing accent.

    Cox, however, would have had to split her merged pin-pen lexical set. This would have required a sustained conscious effort on her part — she would have been lucky that in this case the spelling provides a reliable guide to whether a word belongs with “pin” or “pen” (with very few exceptions, such as “women” which belongs with “pin”).

    I myself grew up with a non-rhotic accent, but, having living in the US for over a decade, I’ve taught myself to speak rhotically, using spelling as a guide where necessarily. (Interestingly, the hardest thing for me is getting rid of “intrusive R”).

    • trawicks says:

      “This would have required a sustained conscious effort on her part — she would have been lucky that in this case the spelling provides a reliable guide to whether a word belongs with “pin” or “pen” (with very few exceptions, such as “women” which belongs with “pin”).”

      I always figured as a Northerner that this would be fairly easy, but after talking to several Southerners about, it’s apparently a surprisingly arduous task to make the split!

      I have a friend who employed an interesting strategy (I’m guessing) for softening the pin-pen merger. She lowers the pin/pen vowel so that “pin” actually has a lower realization, somewhat like California English. She says that she has an extremely hard time distinguishing between the two. Rather than actually mastering the split, she seems to just shifted both phonemes toward something closer to GenAm DRESS.

      • dw says:

        I always figured as a Northerner that this would be fairly easy,

        Phonemic distinctions acquired as a child are always “easy”, and those not so acquired are always “hard”:)

        I find it hard to imagine that people would have trouble distinguishing Mary-marry-merry, or cot-caught. But I know that many do.

        My Hindi-speaking in-laws can’t believe that I have difficulty disinguishing between [ɗʱ] and [d̪ʱ], which are different phonemes in that language.

        • Egad says:

          Yes. One of my favorite exercises is to get an Anglophone American to listen to another say “mesa” and then to a Spanish speaker saying it. Generally they can’t hear any difference at all, and I confess it took me quite a while before I got it. Even today I’m sure I mess up the pronunciation of “e” in Spanish, though I can hear the distinction.

  4. Marc L says:

    Based on Bush’s birthplace, social class, exclusive private and Ivy League education, I always assumed that he put on the Texas accent for an “Aw shucks, I’m jest a down-home boy” effect on the voters. I’ve heard him speak before and after his presidency. I don’t buy his accent for a minute.

    • dw says:

      Sure. But, even assuming that Bush was just “putting on” his Texas accent, it’s surprising that he didn’t adopt the pin-pen merger, which would have been a pretty easy thing for him to do.

      I’m an native RP speaker, but I could pretty easily put on a fake southern accent. For “pin”-“pen” I would just say the same sequence of vowels as in “idEA” and nasalize it.

  5. antar says:

    Watch to the videos of Bush running for gov of Texas against Anne Richards in the 90s; yule hear no Texas dialect!

  6. Yarborough says:

    Whether Bush was trying to emulate a West Texas twang or a Houston drawl (and they are distinct), his accent has always sounded fake to me (a 5th generation Texan). His snarky chuckle in particular seems more East Coast frat boy than Texas oilman. Perry sounds like he’s from west Texas, because he is.

  7. Charles Sullivan says:

    When I was a youngster in school in Pittsburgh many of my fellow students who were African American had the pin-pen merger, but not the white students.

  8. Julie says:

    I grew up in a small town on the Northern California coast and about half my classmates had a pin-pen merger, a mere suggestion of their parents’ Oklahoma roots.

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