Talking Texan

« previous post | next post »

According to John R. Hanson ("'Talking Texan' could mean trouble for Perry", The Houston Chronicle 9/29/2011):

Gov. Rick Perry's performances in the three recently televised debates of the candidates for the Republican nomination for president have prompted much criticism and in some cases alarm from national pundits, not only for their content but also for their lack of verbal fluency.

Prof. Hanson attributes this to a regional difference, which first struck him when he moved to Texas in 1973:

I appreciated the plain-spokeness, but noticed that, typically, utterances were not only simple and straightforward, but also strikingly spare and uncomplex compared with what I had known before. Linguistic flair and embellishment, highly valued elsewhere, were normally and notably absent. […]

Rick Perry [is] talking Texan to pundits who have much different attitudes and abilities with respect to the use of language.

Juanita Jean, writing from Richmond TX at The World's Most Dangerous Beauty Salon, Inc., took these as fighting words:

Professor John R. Hanson II can kiss my butt.  I am a fifth generation Texan, totally educated in Texas public schools and universities, and I’ll take on all comers with Shakespeare or Aristophanes.  I know the poetry of Dante and Willie Nelson.   We are not some hick outpost.  Nor have we developed some kind of language that only twins understand.

She's unimpressed with Prof. Hanson's thesis that "Rick Perry [is] not doing well on the national stage because Rick speaks Texan and the rest of the country doesn’t."

That’s pure unadulterated Caca de Toro.

Rick Perry is not doing well on the national stage because he’s an undereducated idiot.

Like many Texans all across the political spectrum, Juanita Jean herownself is an inexhaustible source of "linguistic flair and embellishment".  Here's what she has to say about web-site comments:

This is NOT a blog. This is a professional political organization so there are a few rules. […]

No one is allowed to comment as “Anonymous” because it’s very confusing when I try to figure out who to call an idiot. It does not take a triple digit IQ to come up with a handle. Hell, truckers can come up with a handle. Don’t make me come over there and slap ya.

Now to the fun stuff. If I know you, you can comment without me reading it first.  If I don’t know you, you can’t. I have to approve it and I’m a busy woman. Being the Texas Chainsaw Manicurist takes time out of my day, so you might have to wait to get your comment approved. That’s what you get for not knowing me. It’s a tough price to pay.

We talk about local politics here mainly, but all politics are local. I will throw in some state and national stuff as the mood hits me. The last time I was in a good mood was 1954. Get used to it.

Update — I should note that there's definitely a certain amount of anti-Texas ignorance Out There. See "Annals of Linguistic Prejudice", 12/18/2009.


  1. Leonardo Herrera said,

    October 4, 2011 @ 8:58 am

    I know the poetry of Dante and Willie Nelson.

    What a great quote!

  2. suntzuanime said,

    October 4, 2011 @ 9:32 am

    Her sentences seem pretty short, on average. If I were trying to come up with a simple metric for "linguistic flair and embellishment", I would start with sentence length, on the idea that longer sentences tend to be more complex. Sentence length is perhaps a noisy proxy for complexity and complexity a noisy proxy for linguistic flair, but I bet they're correlated enough to draw conclusions.

    [(myl) I don't think that sentence length is a good proxy for the type of rhetorical effectiveness that Prof. Hanson was talking about. Staying within Texan rhetoric, consider Ann Richards' speech at the 1988 Democratic National Convention, which Wikipedia says "has been cited by rhetorical experts as a historically significant speech" — but its sentences are mostly relatively short, including in her famous opening:

    I am 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.

    Twelve years ago, (former Rep.) Barbara (C.) Jordan, another Texas woman, made the keynote address to this convention – and two women in 160 years is about par for the course.

    But, if you give us a chance, we can perform.

    After all, Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels.

    There are other famously effective speeches with relatively short sentences — Winston Churchill's peroration:

    We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France. We shall fight on the seas and oceans. We shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air. We shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches. We shall fight on the landing grounds. We shall fight in the fields and in the streets. We shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender.

    Or Ronald Reagan's 1987 speech at the Brandenburg Gate:

    General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!

    I could go on, but sometimes less is more…]

  3. Mr Fnortner said,

    October 4, 2011 @ 9:43 am

    Ditto: "Nor have we developed some kind of language that only twins understand." BTW, Dante wrote poetry?

  4. Faldone said,

    October 4, 2011 @ 10:19 am

    Dante wrote poetry?

    Umm… yeah.

    Unless you're thinking of the one in Sheldon. He draws.

  5. Joe said,

    October 4, 2011 @ 10:48 am

    Even plain-spokenness can be an affectation.

  6. SimonMH said,

    October 4, 2011 @ 10:50 am

    Perhaps it's appropriate that Ms. Jean should be acquainted with Dante: If I owned Texas and Hell, I would rent Texas and live in Hell.

    [(myl) That's "rent *out* Texas and live in hell", at least in the version attributed originally to General Sheridan (the military governor of Texas after the Civil War), and repeated by many others since then, including Rick Perry in his 8/11/2011 interview with Mark Halpern:

    Halperin: Tell me what being a Texan means to you.
    Perry: (Laughs.) Man, the history of the state is a very compelling story—a place that was carved out of rather hard, harsh geography and climate. I think it was General Sheridan who said, “If I owned Hell and Texas, I would rent out Texas and live in Hell.” This is a harsh place originally, and still can be. [It was] 107 degrees yesterday. I talked to my folks and [there’s a] very dry, very brutal drought going on—but we always have a rather cheery optimism about ourselves as my father is prone to say. It’ll rain, it always does. That’s the classic faith of a dry-land cotton farmer. And I think it’s the faith that Texans—when you get at their gut-level—[have]. Now Texas has become this incredible melting pot. But people who come here—and they become Texans—they desire to become Texans, they want to be a part of this thing, they want to get a Texas flag and put it on— whether it’s on their vehicle or flying from their house, or what have you. So, for me, the essence of being a Texan is, these are people who can sustain through hard times, but they’re people who always think that better days are ahead.


  7. SimonMH said,

    October 4, 2011 @ 11:17 am

    Rent *out* Texas, yes. Serves me right for cutting and pasting without checking. In BrE of course it would be *let* Texas… In any event, I'm sure that had Dante known of Texas, it would have given him much useful material.

  8. Janice Byer said,

    October 4, 2011 @ 11:17 am

    Born and reared in Montana of Norwegian parents, my dad was a great father, loving and kind, but in the over half-century we shared on this planet, I don't think he said more than a hundred words total in my presence. This, imo, is very western, as well as Scandinavian-American, an ethnicity more common in Texas than elsewhere in the South. (A perception of tallness there is no optical illusion).

    Foremost, my paternal forebears appear to consider it inconsiderate to "go on and on". Many were the times my dad said of someone, "She's a nice gal, but she talks too much". This of neighbors, whom we might call good story-tellers.

    I'd better shut up now.

    [(myl) There are similar stereotypes about New Englanders — in a post from 2004 ("Construal in Houston", 5/31/2004) I repeat a story about "Silent Cal" Coolidge returning to his home town in Vermont after the end of his presidency; going to the local store, selecting a few items, and bringing them to the cash register, without saying a word; the storekeeper ringing up the purchases, also in silence, taking payment and making change, and then closing the encounter by saying

    "Been away."

    to which President Coolidge responded


    and left the store.]

  9. Andy Averill said,

    October 4, 2011 @ 1:21 pm

    Well, American voters can't be all that Texaphobic, we've elected two presidents from there in the last 50 years. (Three if you count George Bush I.) That's more than any other state except California.

  10. Daniel Buck said,

    October 4, 2011 @ 1:24 pm

    Profesor Hanson is rather off the mark: Governor Perry's debate performances were not criticized because his utterances were "simple and straightforward." Quite the contrary. His remarks often wandered off into complex rotundities, words piled upon words. Which is to say, he doesn't talk Texan at all.

    Daniel Buck

  11. Mr Punch said,

    October 4, 2011 @ 1:53 pm

    Might as well award Bush I to Texas. By birth he was from Massachusetts, making the Bay State the only one with two presidents in the past half-century (51 years by election date) – and that's ridiculous.

  12. Ralph Hickok said,

    October 4, 2011 @ 2:56 pm

    I don't think Perry's miserable debate performance has anything to do with "talking Texan." His problem is that he fumbles for words and quite often seems to have no idea what he wants or how to say it.

  13. TexasTrailerParkTrash said,

    October 4, 2011 @ 4:49 pm

    Juanita Jean is one of my favorite bloggers. She cuts to the chase and doesn't waste words when something is as obvious as "the balls on a tall dog" (a quote from another Texas legend, Molly Ivins.)

    For a fun look at Rick Perry's speeches translated by a very bad lipreader, click the link below.

  14. Rod Johnson said,

    October 4, 2011 @ 4:59 pm

    Dante wrote poetry?

    I'm trying to figure out the conditions under which this could be considered a serious question, and failing.

  15. Rod Johnson said,

    October 4, 2011 @ 5:02 pm

    His remarks often wandered off into complex rotundities, words piled upon words.

    Huh. I would have thought this was intended to be orotundities, but the dictionary tells me rotund and orotund are synonyms. This surprises me. I don't think I've ever heard rotund in this sense before (and to be honest, orotund very rarely). Is this a common use?

  16. Daniel Buck said,

    October 4, 2011 @ 5:49 pm

    Rod Johnson,
    Good catch. I suspect it's only in common use in my household. The governor's rhetorical style is plump. Heh.


  17. Trimegistus said,

    October 4, 2011 @ 6:08 pm

    So there's dispute about whether Perry is too prolix or too terse, but everyone here is agreed they don't like him. Diversity!

    [(myl) The political content is genuinely not relevant in this context, but in fact my own opinion is that Rick Perry has gotten something of a bad rap linguistically. He's been dinged — from the right as well as from the left — for a couple of unimpressive debate responses, but his stump speeches and many of his debate answers have been well crafted and well delivered, IMO.]

  18. Robin Frazier said,

    October 4, 2011 @ 6:34 pm

    I am from Arkansas and have lived in Texas most of my life. Yes Dante wrote poetry. The Divine Comedy was a masterpiece of poetry in Italian. Of course most like me have read the translated versions which DUH, does not rhyme.

  19. Janice Byer said,

    October 4, 2011 @ 7:35 pm

    "Dante wrote poetry?

    I'm trying to figure out the conditions under which this could be considered a serious question, and failing."

    Dunno if either of the above are serious, but have Google, will link:

  20. Nathan Myers said,

    October 4, 2011 @ 7:47 pm

    All that is true, but it doesn't answer the question: who the heck is this Dante Nelson?

    And, what figure of speech does the question imply? It's zeugma, but is it syllepsis?

    "Nothing is certain but death in Texas."

  21. Mr Fnortner said,

    October 4, 2011 @ 7:54 pm

    My comment and the reactions to it may illustrate a corollary of Poe's Law. I thought the irony would be apparent somewhat, following on the heels of the comment about Willie Nelson's poetry as it did.

  22. Bud Malone said,

    October 4, 2011 @ 8:50 pm

    I'm prejudiced. As a Juanita Jean devotee, I have enjoyed her Texas Take on the social and political news of the day. Behind her "Talk Texas" is a classy lady with a superior intellect.

  23. Janice Byer said,

    October 4, 2011 @ 11:01 pm

    Nathan, ask and you shall receive a link.

    As for what figure of speech is implied by "Dante wrote Poetry": lolcats.

    [Your quote about Texas is to die for.]

  24. Off Topic: Laugh and a Half | The Old Gringo said,

    October 4, 2011 @ 11:23 pm

    […] my regular perusal of Language Log, which posted this entry, I stumbled into a Texas blog. Like this image of Gov. Goodhair: He became a millionaire while […]

  25. Peter said,

    October 4, 2011 @ 11:48 pm

    On a slight tangent, “Rick Perry is not doing well on the national stage because he’s an undereducated idiot.” is a nice example of an ambiguously scoped not (ambiguous in writing, at least): it could easily have been written by a supporter of RP, dismissing suggestions that he’s an idiot as patently false.

  26. Dakota said,

    October 5, 2011 @ 12:53 am

    Don’t make me come over there and slap ya.

    I don't know what this is called in Texas, but north of the Mason Dixon line it's called "assault and battery".

  27. McLemore said,

    October 5, 2011 @ 1:19 am

    As a 6th generation Texan (and linguist) who's worked in Texas Democratic political campaigns, taught undergraduates at UT, and analyzed my fair share of Texas speech, I can only think there's something wrong with Mr. Hanson's sample. Is it possible nobody's cutting loose with him in any context because he's a Yankee?

  28. Joe said,

    October 5, 2011 @ 7:29 am

    @Dakota: In Texas, we call it "humor". I believe that's what it's called elsewhere as well.

  29. [links] Link salad asks earnest questions | said,

    October 5, 2011 @ 7:54 am

    […] Talking Texan — The linguistics of Rick Perry. […]

  30. Mary Bull said,

    October 5, 2011 @ 8:02 am

    As a fifth-generation Texan whose ancestors migrated there from Tennessee in 1848, I really think the speech patterns of Texans vary according to region. In South Texas, where I grew up, there was nothing notably laconic in people's communication styles. I do have to concede that education levels among our neighbors did vary considerably.

    Note: I did move to Tennessee at age 21, but frequent visits home have kept my Texas accent pretty well polished up, and I'm in almost daily e-mail contact with a delightfully long-winded sister, who is as proud of our Texas heritage as I am.

  31. Rod Johnson said,

    October 5, 2011 @ 8:18 am

    Mr. Fnortner: Whew, I am reassured.

  32. Xmun said,

    October 5, 2011 @ 8:38 am

    @Robin Frazier
    Find one of the older translations of Dante. The ones by G. L. Bickersteth (1932-55), Laurence Binyon (1933-43), and Dorothy L. Sayers (1949-62) do rhyme. They are all in _terza rima_. Or, alternatively, learn Italian!

  33. Plegmund said,

    October 5, 2011 @ 8:54 am

    I know the poetry of Dante and Willie Nelson

    On the Middle of Life's Road Again is a particular favourite

  34. Jon Weinberg said,

    October 5, 2011 @ 9:01 am

    Plegmund wins the Internet.

    Also, the recent Pinsky translation sorta rhymes; he follows terza rima, but uses vaguely-near-rhymes rather than true ones.

  35. Mary Bull said,

    October 5, 2011 @ 9:01 am

    Who said it has to rhyme to be poetry?

  36. Kenneth D. Franks said,

    October 5, 2011 @ 9:31 am

    Perry is from the opposite side of the state. Even colloquial expressions are slightly different in East Texas than in West Texas. I live in the Eastern part which is located along the Louisiana border and has had different influences and a different history than West Texas. The topography is also completely different with pine and hardwood forests, red clay, sandy loam soils, and rolling hills. My writing isn't as colorful as what you might read at Juanita's site. It is mostly simple summaries of articles that I link to with my opinions about them.

  37. Hermann Burchard said,

    October 5, 2011 @ 11:11 pm

    By common practice, visiting faculty are not offered tenure. One very capable visitor, bitter about this, posted on his door "lasciate ogni speranza." I asked him whether he was Italian, unaware that Dante is standard reading in American schools, making me a look a Lilliputian to his Gulliver.

  38. maidhc said,

    October 6, 2011 @ 4:34 am

    I can think of several Texans who were/are very effective speakers; the examples of Ann Richards and Molly Ivins to start with. Short sentence or long is just a matter of style. As mentioned above, Churchill managed pretty well on the short side.

    Some people associate any kind of a southern accent with being uneducated, but it's a mistake. I have friends from the South who are very well educated, and it's a treat to hear them drawl on about digital filter theory or the prospects of this year's Napa vintage. I could also mention Shelby Foote, who managed to become a Public Intellectual, much in demand by PBS, despite his regional accent.

    I may be an optimist, but I feel that the time when someone who says "Dog my hides, I think them multinational corporations could use a consarned massive infusion of government simoleons" could be regarded as a populist has passed by.

  39. maidhc said,

    October 6, 2011 @ 4:35 am

    I was not very sure about how to punctuate that last sentence.

  40. Dakota said,

    October 6, 2011 @ 6:02 am


    Not everyone thinks hitting people is cute. In many northern states, violence, and the threat of violence, is taken very seriously. Likewise, anyone who uses corporal punishment in the schools will quickly find themselves prosecuted, as well as out of a job, along with any witnesses who did not report what they saw to the appropriate authorities ("mandated reporter"). I was quite surprised when a former schoolteacher told me there are some southern states where corporal punishment is still legal.

    But different strokes, etc, etc. I live in a city (Riyadh) where they think beheading is cute.

  41. Rodger C said,

    October 6, 2011 @ 11:59 am

    To return to a linguistic topic, the question isn't whether hitting people is cute but whether a joking expression based on the practice can be humorous. Obviously tastes will vary, partly according to culture.

  42. JMM said,

    October 6, 2011 @ 10:25 pm

    Oh, wow, Dakota! Really just wow. Can't you buy a clue anywhere in either of the Dakotas?

    I kinda doubt you can because, if you could, someone would come and hit you up the side of the head with a rock, wouldn't they (a phrase I've only heard "north of the Mason-Dixon.)? But I suspect that that and the difference in metaphor means nothing to your foolish need to show regional superiority , does it?

    You know what we say about people like you in Texas (and I taught Jr.H. in Texas and Md, and know better than you which ended corporal punishment first, btw)? In Tx, now days about you, people just say, lmwfao. Your a sad thing, boy.

  43. Dakota said,

    October 8, 2011 @ 6:52 am

    JMM: lmwfao
    Urban dictionary: "lmwao: laughing my white ass off – used by white nationalists instead of lmfao"

    JMM: Your a sad thing, boy.
    In the hick outpost of Riyadh, we say you're, a contraction of "you" and "are".

    JMM: Your a sad thing, boy.
    Urban dictionary: "boy: Notably racist remark made of black men not long ago in the US, as if they were less than men. Sometimes used today by blacks referring to other blacks however, in a similar way that nigga is."

    If JMM really is a former teacher from Texas, these comments ought to shed more light on our understanding of Texas "linguistic flair and embellishment", not to mention "humor", and how they are transmitted.

  44. Janice Byer said,

    October 8, 2011 @ 5:16 pm

    Fictional violence has always upset me, starting with children's cartoons. The fact others are entertained, or worse, amused by it, has only made it more disturbing. But the humor in "Don’t make me come over there and slap ya" is not in the threatened slap. It's in the warning "don't make me come over there", the absurdity of which is delightfully funny, imo.

  45. speedwell said,

    October 11, 2011 @ 7:04 am

    It just happens to be fashionable to make fun of Texas and Texans now, a state of affairs which makes it harder for non-native Texans living in Texas (like I do) to escape Texas to live elsewhere (as I wish to).

    It isn't too unlike the tendency of Europeans to sneer at Americans generally. As the first-generation daughter of European immigrants who wishes to move back to Europe, I can't tell you how high the wall of prejudice is, or how much trouble it's caused me.

  46. SimonMH said,

    October 12, 2011 @ 9:23 am

    Back to Texas, Hell and renting. It would appear that the first record of this quote comes from the 14 April 1866 Wisconsin State Register, pg. 2, col. 3: GEN. SHERIDAN, after his recent Mexican tour, states his opinion succinctly and forcibly, as follows: “If I owned h-ll and Texas, I would rent Texas and live at the other place!”

    19 April 1866, The Independent, pg. 4: But these states are not yet reduced to civil behavior. As an illustration, Gen. Sheridan sends word up from New Orleans, saying, “If I owned Texas and Hell, I would rent Texas and live in Hell.” This is the opinion of a department commander.

    15 May 1866, Idaho Tri-Weekly Statesman (Boise, ID), pg. 7, col. 3:
    GEN. SHERIDAN does not have a very exalted opinion of Texas as a place of resident. Said he lately, “If I owned hell and Texas, I would rent Texas and live at the other place.”

RSS feed for comments on this post