In Texas

Posted: Dec 02, 2003 12:00 AM

Well, I swan -- which means "I swear," but you have to keep in mind this is Texas, and we Texans tend not to talk like other Americans -- especially New Yorkers.

So little do we tend to talk so, avers the New York Times' Ralph Blumenthal, that the National Geographic Society is helping investigators learn about "a mythologized and sometimes ridiculed mainstay of Americana: the Texas twang."

I always cock an ear for condescension when the folkways, and folktalk, of the South and Southwest are aired in Yankee (formerly damyankee) publications -- especially the Times. Oddly enough, I find no condescension in the article in question. I find honest curiosity.

Curiosity about what? About expressions such as "y'all" and "fixin' to." About the supposedly flat "I" ("naht," for "night," reports Blumenthal). About "nyewspaper" for "noosepaper." About "waddn" for "wasn't."

I'll tell you what in the end it's all about. Distinctiveness, that's what -- the untamed, unroped, uncorralled flow of consonants and vowels in ways and combinations distinct from the flows in which you drown, spluttering and gasping, elsewhere. New York, for instance.

Dadgum it, the Yankees like, or sort of like, the way we talk -- enough to come down here and study it, with the help of Texas-based researchers. In the great undeclared war against sameness and uniformity, you can't exactly call this Gettysburg or Midway, but I wooden underrate it. "Wooden" is how we pronounce "wouldn't," by the way. Why, I don't know.

Texans there are who try, both here and up North, to lose their accents in order to sound -- oh, more mainstream. They end up sounding not unlike the grotesquely talking Americans whom A. Conan Doyle stuck into the Sherlock Holmes stories for comic relief or something.

Regionalism -- not to mention localism -- needs as much support as it can get. It seldom gets much. The two terrible "t's" -- television and travel -- regularly take a heavy toll on distinctions among Americans.

Likely the worst offense for which the two terribles are responsible is the introduction and spread down here of the ghastly phrase "you guys." I remember how 40 years ago Texans used to mock Yankees by slowly intoning, with appropriate grimaces, "Jeeeeeez, guy-eeees" as if no more ridiculous phrase had ever been coined, which was certainly possible.

Then, mysteriously, "you guys" caught on with waiters. ("Can I get you guys some water"?) So one of you doesn't happen precisely to be a guy in the strict, anthropological sense. Tough. What you guys want to eat tonight?

The abomination spread. Spread needlessly, because Texans already were habituated to the perfect plural form -- "you all." Or "y'all." (One of my high school classmates used "y'all" to express perplexity or rebuke. "Y'all!" she would exclaim. That was it. The exclamation point carried the meaning.

Brother Blumenthal of the Times informs us that, in fact, a you-guys backlash is under way. "Y'all" is evidently "taking the country by storm." I hadn't heard that, but it's good news, you guys.

Texanisms in fact enjoyed a vogue during the Lyndon Johnson years -- the very early Lyndon Johnson years, prior to "Hey, hey, LBJ ... !" The presidential historian Michael Beschloss recently retailed an LBJ-ism about the effects of a dose of salts, well administered. He confessed to not originally knowing the meaning, but then, he lacked the advantage of Texas birth.

Gov. Ann Richards, perhaps to expiate her political sins, also increased the celebrity of Texas talk. "That ole dog won't hunt," Ms. Richards was fond of declaring. Never had, as long as the varmint had been around, and never would, as she could have explained if asked.

"Fixin' to" (i.e., "getting ready to") I had about stopped saying, for reasons I can't recollect. I am fixin' to reconsider, now that we Texans again are in vogue, irrespective of our Texan president's standing with The New York Times et al.

Sorry about that, you guys.