American Dialect: The West

The American West, as a rule, does not have distinctive pronunciation or grammatical forms. Large numbers of those living in the West came from somewhere else and arrived relatively recently. As a result of this late immigration and mixing of dialects, those in the West speak a very standard brand of American English. The English of the West is very much like that of the Midwest and Northeast.

English-speakers did not settle the West until quite late. Large scale settlement of California did not begin until 1849, following the discovery of gold there the previous year, only about 150 years ago. Similarly, the Mormons did not settle in Utah until 1848. The other Western states were settled even later. Arizona did not attain statehood until 1912. The population of the West boomed after World War II, when the combination of massive water projects and air-conditioning made the Southwest and Southern California habitable for large populations.

In the early days of the Wild West, there was a heavy Southern influence on Western speech. After the defeat of the Confederacy, many Southerners made their way West. The Rs, for example, were dropped in words like horse, which became /hoss/. The Southern /ah/ sound also prevailed, ride became /rahd/. With the massive population boom in the 20th century though, much of this Southern influence has been lost. One can still detect traces of it, but it is almost gone.

There are two rather subtle pronunciation differences between Western and Eastern speech that prevail today. The first is for words that have the letter combination arr, like marry or carry. In the West these are pronounced /merry/ and /kerry/. The second is that in the West the words caught and cot are pronounced identically. Similarly out West, daughter is pronounced /dotter/.

One Western state has a particular pronunciation pattern all its own, Utah. Before the consonant R, Utahans will reverse the /a/ and the /o/ sounds. Barn is pronounced /born/ and born is pronounced /barn/. So if a Utahan leaves the door open all the time, he is barn in a born.

The similarity in dialect with the Midwest, however, does not extend to vocabulary. Like any other region, the West has its own unique vocabulary.

One highly atypical example, but rather famous among those who read about language, is Boontling, or the “language” of Boonville, a town in Mendocino County, California. Boonville was an isolated community for much of the 19th and early 20th century. Boontling started among the children of the town, who wanted a code language they could speak to each other in the presence of adults without the latter being wise to what they were saying. Eventually, the adults in the town started using it.

Boontling is not a language. Rather it is simply a specialized vocabulary of about a thousand words. The pronunciation and grammar is English. Many of the words are based on people’s names. Zeese Blevins, for example, liked coffee, so the word for coffee is zeese. Jenny Beck was known among the other children for being a tattletale, so Boontling enshrined her name as the word for a stool pigeon.

A Sample of Boontling

There being a hob in Boont, Pete shied ottoing, charled the broady, chiggreled, then took his apple-head and tweeds and piked to Boont for a hedge. He spent about forbes on a horn or two for himself and gave the tweeds some buckeys for dulcy.

(There being a dance in Boonville, Fred quit working, milked the cow, ate, then took his wife and children and went to Boonville for a haircut. He spent about four bits on a drink or two for himself and gave the children some nickels for candy.)

Boontling lasted from about 1880 to 1920. Unfortunately, no one attempted to record the vocabulary until the 1940s and by that time good portions of it were lost. Still, linguists managed to preserve a fair amount of the vocabulary. No one really speaks Boontling today, although there are probably some locals who can put on show for tourists.

Most of regular Western vocabulary is not nearly as obscure as that of Boontling. The following is a sampling of vocabulary that is either unique to the West or originated there before spreading to the country at large. Omitted are geographical terms like arroyo, canyon, and mesa and the names of plants and animals unique to the region. Entire dictionaries could be and have been written on just these words.

Western Words
All, v., said, as in “I’m all ‘you’re not going to wear that, are you?’” (Calif.)

Awesome, adj., terrific, excellent, from 1975 (Calif., San Fernando Valley teenagers).

Bail, v., to abandon, to leave, (Calif., surfer lingo)

Barrow pit, n., a roadside drainage ditch, from barrow meaning the mound of earth excavated from the pit, often folk etymologized to borrow pit.

Bitching, bitchen, adj., excellent, wonderful, from 1957 (Calif.).

Chesterfield, n., a sofa (Calif., also Canadian)

Colcha, n., a bedspread, from the Spanish (N.M.)

Colchon, n., a mattress, from the Spanish (N.M.)

Coney, n., a pika, a small, rabbit-like mammal (Colo.)

Ditch, n., water, prob. a clipping of ditch water (Mont.)

Ditch, v., to skip school, play hooky (Calif.)

Doney, n., a round stone suitable for throwing, prob. a clipping of dornick, which in turn is from the Irish dornog (Colo.)

Dude, n., a man, often used as a form of direct address. This is a 19th century term that has been retained in California surfer lingo and more recently spread to nationwide student slang.

Fer sure, adj., true, a phrase of affirmation, (Calif., San Fernando Valley teenagers).

Freeway, n., a toll-free highway, an expressway.

Geoduck, n., [pron. /gooey-duk/] a large, edible clam, from Chinook jargon (esp. Wash.)

Gnarly, adj., 1) difficult, challenging; 2) unpleasant, disgusting; 3) excellent, wonderful. Originally a California surfer term for difficult surf conditions, this mutated in student slang to first mean something unpleasant and eventually something good. From 1977.

Hassayampa, n., an old-timer, a liar or teller of tall tales, from the Hassayampa River and gold prospectors who worked the area, often hassayamper (Ariz.)

Hole, n., a valley, esp. one surrounded by steep mountains (mountain states, esp. Colo.)

Hosteen, n., mister, old man, used as respectful term of address, from the Navajo hastqi’n (N.M., Ariz.)

Jockey box, n., an automobile’s glove compartment (NW states)

Like, 1) interj., used as punctuation at the end of phrases, as in “That is, like, totally awesome”; 2) v., said or thought, as in “He’s like, ‘I hate that shirt.’” (Calif.).

Looky lou, n., a gawker, nosy bystander (Calif.)

Lucerne, n., alfalfa, from the French (Utah, Idaho)

Mesa, n., a flat-topped hill or mountain, from the Spanish for table (esp. SW states and Colo.)

No-host, adj., describing a social event where guests are expected to pay for their own food and drink, a no-host bar is a called cash bar in the east.

Park, n., a high valley surrounded by mountains, as in the television show South Park (Colo.)

Spendy, adj., expensive (NW states).

Totally, adv., completely, utterly (Calif., San Fernando Valley teenagers).

Tubular, adj., excellent, from the shape of perfect wave for surfing, (Calif., surfer lingo).

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