Speaking in Code

September 23rd, 2004 · 2 Comments · Los Angeles

Back in April, when we were in Texas working on People, 29 Burdens — exhausted, trying to put the whole thing together from scratch in just one week, and with a family wedding to attend to boot! — I started a little silly linguistic game with myself. We were in Denton, land of the extreme Texas accent, and I started listening, really listening, not just to people’s words, but to their cadence as well.

Murray and I grew up in Dallas, and both of us lived south of LBJ freeway, meaning, close enough to downtown to be surrounded by relatively worldly and accent-less people. If you live north of LBJ, you’re pretty much guarenteed to sound like J.R. Ewing. We had our yalls and said “hay” instead of “hey” or even “hi,” but mostly, we sounded like all the other teenagers in the United States.

Austin, too, has its twang-tongued denizens, and we lived among them for years. But people go to broadcasting school in Missouri for a reason — to lose any regional accent they might be sporting — and in-between Dallas and Austin, Murray and I each got an education in flat tonality in the sing-song-less cities of Kansas City and Columbia, respectively. So Austin barely made a dent on our speech patterns.

When we moved to California, most people marveled at our twang-free speech when they learned of our origins. It seemed to be a mystery that two people, born and bred in the Lone Star State, could talk so normally. It also seemed to be a disappointment to most of the people we met, as if they wished we were more exotic. More, well, country.

My sister, step-sister, and Murray’s best friend all went to Texas twang finishing school. If you don’t have an accent when you get to Texas A&M, you sure will on your way out. I guess it just happens as you frequent the Dixie Chicken and go boot-scootin’. Maybe there’s an easy elective in Twang that everyone takes instead of PE.

Back to my linguistic game: In Denton, accents are just about as pronounced as they are in College Station. As Murray and I put together People, 29 Burdens, we went to scaffolding rental companies, Home Depot and Lowes, music equipment stores and pawn shops, thrift stores, craft stores, Western outfitting saddle shops and cowboy clothes stores, and even a hunting gear store. We were deep in the heart of Texas.

In my utter exhaustion, I reached a state where I was no longer listening to the content of people’s speech, but was able to isolate the cadence and focus exclusively on the music in the way the words were said.

I started picking out the notes of people’s speech patterns, and singing the notes back to myself without their attached words. Then I started keeping track of the more musical phrases, and stringing them together. And I made those phrases into a song. It’s a Philip Glass kind of song, but I think it’s actually pretty good.

The refrain of the song is a combination of these two experiences:

I was in a coffee shop early one morning, waiting for my cafe au lait, and I heard a female real estate agent talking to her clients. The agent asked the woman if she could get her some coffee, and the woman said that she didn’t drink coffee. The agent replied:

“Yu shuda tole me tha-at.” (six syllables, each a musical note: C, B, C, D, B, F)

The next incident happened in front of the pawn shop/music rental company. I was sitting in the car, waiting for Murray to finish the paperwork to rent the large PA system, and two men met up on the sidewalk. The first man asked the other man, “Well, howyu doin?” and the other man replied:

“All rite, hauer yu?” (four syllables: F, C, F, C)

String them together, and you have a nice melody in the key of C that forms the refrain of my little song. The challenge was to string together enough phrases to make a whole song. It seemed to me that all the Texans I was listening to spoke in the major key of C. It was an interesting linguistic/musical exercise, and one that wouldn’t work in Los Angeles, where monotonality is more the norm.

I’d say that Texans are C major kind of people. Happy, upbeat. Goes with everything. All the white keys on the piano, no sharps or flats. Harmonious.

You musicians out there? What key would you say that Angelenos speak in? Phrygian? Do you think that speech patterns affect the overall outlook of a culture?

Category: Los Angeles

2 Comments so far ↓

  • Tibbie Newman

    What a relief! You are not mad at me when you answer the phone – you are in your California cadence! “Yu shuda tole me tha-at!” Luv ya! Your born and bred Texas mom

  • Micah

    Wow, that is an interesting thought. Reminds me of the association of certain keys/scales with certain colors (ask me about that sometime). I hear Texas accents as C Locrian. Californians, D Mixolydian (as with the rest of standard-American America). Midwesterners speak E Dorian. British, A Aeolian. Scots, E-flat Phrygian. Irish, B Lydian. Okay, sorry to those of you to whom this is completely Greek. Just found this idea pretty intriguing… 🙂

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