Seeking The Possibly Inaudible: Is There a Houston Accent?
The rain in Spain falls mainly on South Main.....
The question of whether there exists a definable, distinct Houston accent has come up in the blogosphere, inspired from beyond the grave by Marvin Zindler. Sixty-year-old tapes of the white-suited wonder's radio broadcasts, posted on J.R. Gonzales's Bayou City History blog , reveal that the vast majority of interviewees and old Marvin himself sounded a lot more Southern than people around here do now.
A commenter named "Don" on the Bayou City blog, quoted by Slampo on his blog, had this to say:
Love the accents. You still hear that out in Montgomery County, but even out here the transplants are wiping it out now. Another thing wiping out the beautiful, soft, distinctive Houston accent is pop-culture. Kids are raised on such a large volume of TV that the kids all sound the same from coast to coast.
Having been raised in deep south Texas farm country, our accent is very similar to that of the Houstonians on the tapes, but it is disappearing.
Slampo took gentle exception to Don. He wondered if the lost accent Don lamented was Houstonian or merely generic Southern.
What we mean is, were the pronunciations, inflections and cadences peculiar to Houston, in a way that if you were in New York or Boston and heard them you could ask the speaker "You're from Houston, right?" and be assured of an affirmative answer, as opposed to the broader and more obvious "You're from Texas, right?" or the even broader and more obvious "You're from the South ...?"
Slampo's conclusion: No, you could not. "We've never been able to hear a distinct "Houston" accent because there apparently isn't one," he writes.
Hair Balls has given the question some thought over the years. A year or so back, we interviewed American regional accent Dr. Robert Beard (author of the Are You a Yankee or a Rebel quiz ), who in his gentle, courtly North Carolina Piedmont accent, pretty much told us we were crazy to think that there might be a nationally identifiable Houston accent.
But back in 2007, before we talked to Beard, we spoke with noted voice actress Lani Minella, who dissented. Minella has voiced over 500 video and computer games (on PC games, she is none other than Nancy Drew), and she believes that the Houston accent has Southern roots but also boasts "clipped, military" features. She said it was very much in demand for take-charge, can-do characters on shoot em' up video games.
And if you Google "Houston accent," you find a lot of posts wherein people complain about Beyonce not being able to transcend her Houston accent in any of her acting roles, while others cite rapper Trae and his strong Houston accent, while still another complained that Houston rappers had monotone accents. (Or maybe they were just clipped and military?)
So maybe there isn't a white Houston accent, but there does seem to be a black one, which black people from other parts of the country can instantly recognize and pinpoint to Houston. And as Slampo pointed out, there is certainly a lilting Valley/ South Texas Hispanic accent, which is fairly easy to detect on speakers who don't speak much Spanish at all. But as with white Anglos, that accent is more region-specific than local to Houston.
But if there isn't a nationally recognized white Houstonian accent, there are a few peculiar words local whites use that give themselves away as Houstonians. "Feeder road" and "party barn" or "beer barn" (for a drive-through beer store) are "Houston-specific" phrases. "To pulse", as in "I pulsed $60 out of the ATM," is a dying, though once widely-used Houston verb, as is "to wrap," as in the toilet-paper hurling teenage ritual of "wrapping a house." Today, the kids say "We TP'd the house," which makes us cringe.
I have also seen the word "to tump," as in "You kids better clean up everything you tumped out in that bedroom!" cited as a Houston-specific word, but I think it might be more generically Southern.
Lastly we know of nowhere else where those little gray armadillo-like insects known elsewhere as roly-polies or pill-bugs are called "doodle bugs." Which brings up a tangent: Hair Balls once took a dialect quiz on which there were four choices for that bug's name, none of them "doodle-bug." This omission was explained in a unique caveat stipulating that "doodle-bug" was not an option because that was in fact the name of the larval form of the ant-lion. Well, so what? If we call them doodle-bugs here, then that's what they are called, right or wrong. It's a dialect quiz, not an entomology exam.
So maybe there isn't a nationally recognizable white Houston accent. That doesn't mean there might not be a few locally recognizable Houston accents in this sprawling confluence of five million people and 300 or so cultures.
Take that "789-AUTO" woman of many a local TV ad: She has always struck us as having a quintessential Westside/Memorial/Old Lee high school party-girl accent, but maybe that's just us. And there are a lot of people like my dad who grew up here in the '50s and '60s who sound quite a bit like Billy Gibbons. And for the life of us we couldn't begin to tell you why they sound that way to us, like, phonetically or whatever.