Speaking Laramie

Last week, Kimi sent an link to the International Dialects of English Archive site, which has a sound file of a Laramie native telling a story to give a sense of tone, timbre, and general accent colors of a Wyoming speaker. I thought I’d do a little more digging to see what else might be helpful to developing your characters’ voices.

To be frank, I didn’t find a great deal. Wyoming, Montana, Colorado and Idaho get lumped together in a general “Western” region without a lot of distinctions. In one way, such a lack of detail proves what we’d already suspected, that the Wyoming “accent” is pretty close to “Standard American” than anything with a lot of regional color or variation. Such an assertion seems to be supported by this 2005 article from the online magazine New West. The article references the work of linguist William Labov, particularly his 2005 publication The Atlas of North American English, which Duke library has in electronic and hard copy form if you are terribly interested in how pronunciation patterns across the US have shifted since the mid-1990s.

I found this story from a 2006 SMITH magazine interview with Joy Ellison, the dialect coach on Brokeback Mountain, which starred the late Australian actor Heath Ledger and Jack Gyllenhal both playing love-struck ranchers. Here’s a page from Ellison’s notes about vowel sounds/construction:

Speaking of Brokeback Mountain, the short stories from which the movie is derived were written by Annie Proulx, a Connecticut native who has lived in Wyoming since 1994. I found an interview with her on The Sycamore Review from 2001 which is composed of audio clips to give you another idea of a Wyoming transplant voice. Remember folks like Phil DuBois, Stephen Mead Johnson, Rebecca Hilliker are transplants to Laramie.

A linguistic hobbyist (I think I just coined a new word!) named Rick Aschmann has this wonderfully detailed site called American English Dialects, Based on Pronunciation Patterns. This site looks like it might be a gold mine considering it is something he’s collected out of personal (vs. scholarly) interest.  He has only three examples of Wyoming speech, but two are from speakers  native to two cities relevant to the play (Cody–where April Silva is from and Rawlins–where the Wyoming State Penitentiary is located, it will be Russell and Aarons eventual home):

  • US Representative Cynthia Lummis (R) (native of Cheyenne) YouTube video (2009)
  • Former US Senator Alan Simpson (R) (native of Cody) YouTube video (1997)
  • Actor Jesse Garcia (native of Rawlins) YouTube video (2007?)

Harvard Professor of Linguistics Bert Vaux founded DARE (Dictionary of American Regional English) and constructed the English Dialect Survey in the early 2000s to “explore words and sounds in the English language” and get a sense, via statistical analysis, of what kinds of sounds are made by individuals in various areas of the US. He is interested in how we “really” speak versus how we think we are supposed to speak. Click here to read his results for Wyoming speakers. PBS used Vaux’s work as part of its 2005 program Do You Speak American?

And since Laramie is so close to Colorado, I thought this article by Carlyn Ray Mitchell from the June 21, 2009 edition of The Gazette [Colorado Spring, CO] gave some insight into possible variance of pronunciation south of the (Wyoming) border:


In the time he’s spent outside of the mountains west of Colorado Springs, Robert Denison’s cowboy drawl has marked him as an outsider in his own state.

But as a third-generation Colorado native, the 45-year-old and his manner of speaking are more insider than most found in the state’s major cities or along the Front Range.

“I’ve had a lot of people ask me if I’m from the South. I spent a month, month and a half in Texas building fence. But they were making fun of my speech long before I went to Texas,” said Denison, who grew up on a ranch between Fairplay and Jefferson.

By and large, linguists paint Coloradans with the broad brush stroke of speaking with a neutral, or unmarked, accent, widely known as Standard American English. The Front Range, with its mingling of people from across the country, is especially neutral, experts say.

But speak with natives, particularly of older generations, and those on the plains or remote parts of the mountains such as Denison, and a certain something becomes apparent.

And certain words and pronunciations can be linked, if not directly to the state, to the Rocky Mountain Region or parts of Colorado.

Much of Colorado’s speech identity rests on the pronunciation of the state’s name itself.

” Coloradans who strongly identify with the state use the vowel in ‘rat’ for the third syllable, while non- Coloradans or those whose state connection is tepid, such as the millions from California, use the ‘ah’ sound,” said Thomas E. Nunnally, associate professor of English at Auburn University in Alabama.

Though linguists and dialectologists cringe at the request to judge which pronunciation is correct, solutions would be to study the regional pronunciation of “Colorado,” or how natives of Wyoming and New Mexico say the word, and to analyze the Spanish roots of the word, said Lamont Antieau, professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

“It is hard to argue with whose state it is. They’re from there, so it is kind of like arguing the pronunciation of your last name. You’re the expert on that.” he said.

In a similar vein, Coloradans are known for pronouncing “coyote” with two syllables rather than the three syllables heard in much of the rest of the country, Antieau said.

Other linguists account for Denison’s cowboy drawl in Coloradans ‘ speech. “Northern with a little Southern flavoring,” is how Allan Metcalf, professor of English at MacMurray College in Illinois, characterizes the accent of the Mountain West in his book “How We Talk: American Regional English Today,” published in 2000.

Ask someone out of state to imitate a Colorado accent , and “some people would probably respond with a mild Midlands accent , something like John Denver,” said Jack Chambers, linguistics professor at the University of Toronto. “But other people would say they never heard a Coloradan who sounded like that,” he said.

The Standard American English spoken by many Coloradans resulted from a two-step dialect change in those who won the West.

Places like Boston and New York City have distinct accents in part because of the first settlers from England, which to this day has a wide range of English accents .

“So certain people went to Boston and certain people went to New York, and then certain people went to Charleston and they carried all those differences with them. Then they didn’t really talk to each other that much,” Antieau said.

Then people started moving west, first to places such as Michigan and western Pennsylvania, where dialects were mixed and muted. By the time those people got to Colorado, they had already shed their coastal accents and went through another, less-pronounced dialect mixture, Antieau said.

“When people got to Colorado, even if they did carry with them marked features from Boston or the South, they would tend to lose them over time in the greater speech community,” Antieau said. “Because that is what you do, when you find yourself being different, you just kind of weed that stuff out. Especially if it is stigmatized, as a lot of those features would be.”

Today, any marked speech features in Colorado are likely to be found in rural areas, which Antieau researched for his doctorate degree in the 1990s. He said he would like to further study speakers in the San Luis Valley, with its heavy Spanish influence and isolated Mormon communities.

“The other is Pueblo, or as they say it, “Pea-eb-low,” Antieau said.

One widespread modern syntax phenomenon Coloradans are participating in is what linguists call the “positive anymore,” in which a speaker says things akin to, “Kids all have iPods anymore,” Antieau said.

Western speakers have also weeded out a difference between the words “cot” and “caught,” a merging of vowel sounds linguists call the low-back vowel.

A problem with studying younger speakers is media’s influence on language.

Television has historically been dismissed as having an impact on speech, since viewers don’t interact with it, Antieau said. But with our culture’s media overdrive, “people are exposed to many different variations and can kind of pick and choose,” he said, citing children picking up words and pronunciations associated with rap music to which they wouldn’t have otherwise been exposed.

“We speak how we speak to say who we are, talking like those whose acceptance is important and not talking like those whom we ourselves do not accept,” Nunnally said.

If anyone finds other resources or if we have blog readers out there from Wyoming (or places nearby) who wish to chime in about accent/dialects of the region, please do!

One thought on “Speaking Laramie

  1. thank you thank you thank you Jules! Some really helpful stuff here. I found myself reading the page of Ellison’s notes out loud and thinking how much easier this would be if we just had our own individual vocal coaches! Do you think the Theatre Department would spring for that? hehehe:)

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