Vowel Power: Methods

Techniques used in our Study of the Texas Accent in Greg Abbott’s and Wendy Davis’s Speech

by Lars Hinrichs, Axel Bohmann, and Erica Brozovsky

Background

When studying the speech of politicians, it is assumed that much of their linguistic performance is just that: a performance, where the choice of words, phrases, and pronunciations is to a considerable degree monitored. While it is hard to obtain any degree of certainty about whether a certain way of pronouncing a word was intentionally chosen or whether a speaker just happened to say a word in a given way, without giving it much thought, we assume that ultimately, the way that an individual speaks in a given social context is symbolic of how he or she wishes to be perceived.

In order to classify Abbott’s and Davis’s speech as closer to either a Texan or a mainstream U.S. English model, we first established two empirical baselines: the first, model Texans, represents speakers of (a version of) the traditional, local accent that many outsiders would expect to hear when meeting a Texan. The second, neutral Texans, exemplifies mainstream U.S. English speech without a strong regional accent – as spoken by Texans. Each group included ten speakers. Together, the two groups provide orientation as to the range of variation one may encounter in Texas between locally accented and neutral, more mainstream-like speech.

We did not follow a specific paradigm for choosing our example Texans; the speakers were selected based on availability and quality of recorded material and our opinion of how well they represent either the model Texan accent or the mainstream U.S English accent. We aimed for an even divide by gender, and each video interview or speech sample we selected was recorded after 2001. All videos were found on YouTube and are linked in the tables below.

Model Texans Birthplace Background DOB Video
Matthew McConaughey Uvalde Longview 11/4/69 Bobby Bones interview
Mary Gordon Spence Brownwood Brownwood ? A Magic Moment story, KUT Story speech
George Strait Poteet Pearsall 5/18/52 Headline Country interview
Joel Burns Fort Worth Crowley 2/4/69 The Last Word interview
Don Meredith Mount Vernon Mount Vernon 4/10/38 SMU interview
Ann Richards Lacy-Lakeview Waco 9/1/33 Texas Politics conversation
Laura Bush Midland Midland 11/4/46 Texas Exes Award, Texas Book Festival
Kay Granger Greenville Fort Worth 1/18/43 Schreier-Fleming interview, USGLC Tribute Dinner
Jim Hightower Denison Denison 1/11/43 Public Citizen interview
Linda Harper Brown Dallas Dallas 3/20/48 Election Video, Transportation Committee statement

After choosing, we transcribed each video and time-aligned the written text to the audio. From there, we measured every instance of our chosen vowels, using the mean as our baseline. A normalization algorithm was applied to make measurements from male and female voices comparable.

To gauge Davis’s and Abbott’s stylistic versatility, we analyzed a number of recordings from both candidates, made between July 2013 and February 2014 in the run-up to the gubernatorial election. These materials were selected in order to provide a wide range of speech contexts, differing with regard to audience, participation structure, and spontaneity. In addition, we opted for recordings that would enable us to draw meaningful comparisons between the two candidates. Hence, within each speech context we chose material with maximally similar contextual parameters.

Neutral Texans Birthplace Background DOB Video
Michelle Beadle Roanoke Boerne 10/23/75 Game of Thrones quiz, Dan Patrick interview
Marie Brenner San Antonio San Antonio 1/1/49 Google Author talk, Flashpoint Apples and Oranges
Linda Ellerbee Bryan Houston 8/15/44 British Royal Family chat, InnerVIEWS interview
Bill Macatee Rome, NY El Paso 11/17/55 Broncos-Raiders game, US Open recap
John Quiñones San Antonio San Antonio 5/23/52 Brookdale TV interview
Melinda Gates Dallas Dallas 6/15/64 Indian Women and Children
Michael Dell Houston Houston 2/23/65 Corporate Valley interview
Paul Lockhart Amarillo Amarillo 4/28/56 Elon University talk
Gloria Feldt Temple Temple 4/13/42 To the Contrary interview, Interview Forward interview
Wendy Kopp Austin Dallas 6/29/67 Charlie Rose interview, Big Think interview

The data presented here comprise five situational categories. First, we included both politicians’ announcement speeches. These are scripted addresses given in front of a politically supportive, co-present audience, but the intended audience is clearly the entire electorate of the State of Texas. With the exception of cheers and chants from the audiences, there is little interaction with other speakers. Next, we analyzed a campaign ad from either camp, for which the intended audience overlaps with that of the announcement speeches, but the rhetoricity of the situation is enhanced both by the possibility to rehearse and do several takes and by the affordances of post-production. Fortunately, we also had access to two separate interviews Evan Smith of the Texas Tribune conducted with Davis and Abbott, respectively. These constitute situations of unscripted, spontaneous — though still highly performative — speech with a higher level of interaction than the other situations. The interviewer was the same in both cases. The final two categories are a speech at a local rally from either candidate as well as an interview on political topics of national interest broadcast to a potentially nation-wide audience.

Abbott Davis
Campaign Announcement San Antonio Haltom City
Campaign Ad Preserve Texas A Texas Story
Interview Evan Smith interview Evan Smith interview
National TheBlaze interview Fort Worth Star-Telegram interview
Local speech Rally with Nugent Stand with Texas Women

We conducted spectrographic measurements of all the vowels in the entire material (both from candidates and control groups) and thus obtained a dataset of formant measurements for 27,427 instances of vowels.

Three American Vowels: ‘PRICE’, ‘FACE’, and ‘PEN’

We decided to focus on three vowels in the speech of the candidates. Using words which illustrate typical pronunciations, we call the vowels PRICE, FACE, and PEN, respectively. All three vowels are variable in Texas, in the sense that there is a more Texan, local-sounding way of pronouncing them and another, more mainstream-U.S.-like variant that speakers can choose from every time they use this vowel.

From our spectrographic measurements we extracted all words containing instances of the PRICE, FACE, or PEN vowels in the speech of Abbott and Davis. In total, we extracted 1,062 vowel tokens for Abbott and 1,216 for Davis. The two control groups are represented at 1,239 vowel instances in total. The extracted data allows us to determine quite exactly, for the three selected vowels, the degree to which the candidates resemble either the model Texans or the neutral Texans.

PRICE

The first vowel we studied is probably the best-known vowel characteristic of Texas English: it is the vowel in the words fly, rice, rise, ice, etc. According to linguistic convention, we label this vowel PRICE.

In strongly local speech in Texas, instances of the PRICE vowel are pronounced as ah: fly sounds like flah, rice sounds like rahs, etc. In mainstream U.S. English, meanwhile, instances of the same vowel are pronounced as a diphthong: the pronunciation starts on an ah sound and moves toward an ee sound, e.g. flah-ee for fly.

The Texas pronunciation of the PRICE vowel is extremely well known – it is a linguistic stereotype of both Texan and Southern speech more generally. Most English speakers can give a reasonable impression of a PRICE-vowel word in a Texas pronunciation. At the same time, speakers can always choose not to sound Texan on this vowel by choosing a more mainstream realization instead.

To calculate the degree of ‘Texanness’ in this vowel, we measured the vowel height for each instance of this vowel at the beginning (nucleus) and at the end (glide) of the vowel. We subtracted height at glide from height at nucleus and thus obtained a value corresponding to the vowel’s degree of modulation: the higher this value, the more mainstream, or the “less Texan,” the vowel produced. The lower this value, the more Texan-sounding each instance of the vowel.

FACE

The second vowel in our study is the FACE vowel: the vowel in words such as chase, faze, hey, eight. It, too, is a diphthong — a vowel that starts in one position and ends in another — and it, too, can be produced in either a more Texan-sounding or a more mainstream-like way. The more traditionally Texan pronunciation has what is called a “lowered nucleus”” (lowered beginning). For example, to a non-Texan, a very locally Texan-sounding pronunciation of the word chase sounds almost like chise. Similarly, faze sounds almost like fize, hey like hi, eight like ite, and so on.

As a feature of Texas English, the FACE vowel with a lowered nucleus is not very much talked about. Unlike the PRICE vowel, this vowel is much more likely to fly beneath the radar of conscious control. This means that a person who is intentionally ‘putting on’ a Texas accent, but who does not speak it naturally, might miss this feature: they are much more likely to consciously control the way they pronounce PRICE vowels than they are FACE vowels.

Our measure to determine the place of each FACE vowel instance on the scale from a more mainstream to a more Texan realization was the same as the one used for PRICE: we subtracted height at glide from height at nucleus. This time, higher values indicated a more local-sounding realization, and lower values indicated pronunciations that sounded more like the mainstream-U.S. norm.

PEN

The third vowel in our study is PEN. Actually, the conventional label for this vowel is DRESS (in words like bed, bet, Ed, etc.), but we narrow down our context to words in which this vowel is followed by a nasal consonant: m, n, or ng. This means that we only studied words like men, end, ten, them, remember, etc., but not bed, rest, bet, etc. (we actually found no instances of this vowel being followed by the ng consonant). Therefore, we changed the label to PEN. As a feature of Texas English, PEN vowels are changed to sound like short i: pen can sound like pin, men like min, ten like tin, and so on. When the PEN vowel gets pronounced in this way, phoneticians say it is raised relative to its more neutral, mainstream pronunciation.

The raised PEN vowel is the ‘youngest’ feature of Texas English: young people throughout Texas, even in big cities like Houston and Dallas, use this feature – while the PRICE and FACE features are more conservative features, i.e. they tend to be used more frequently by older, more rural speakers of Texas English. Like the FACE feature, PEN raising is not constantly talked about among Texans: while some speakers of Texas English are aware that their speech shows this feature, there are also many other speakers who don’t realize that theirs does. That is to say, like the FACE vowel, this feature of the Texas English accent is somewhat less stereotyped than the PRICE feature (in which PRICE vowels are flattened).

Our measure to determine the degree of Texanness for this vowel was, simply, height at nucleus: higher vowels sound more locally Texan, and lower vowels sound more mainstream.

Summary

The method laid out here allows us to measure the Texanness of a given speaker’s speech by degrees. In our blog post Vowel Power: Local Accents and Stylistic Versatility in the 2014 Race for Texas Governor we show it can be used to compare the speech in context of the two current candidates for Texas governor.