Tuesday, April 26, 2016

You'uns 're gonna think I'm loco

When I think of how cowboys talk, at least these days, the voices I hear are Chris LeDoux (actual rodeo cowboy as well as one of the last popular -- as in, non-niche -- cowboy singers) or Keith Carradine.

The cowboy accent does have a drawl -- but at the same time a clearer enunciation, by and large, than most Southern accents. I call it "Texas meets Minnesota." The distinctive cadence is decidedly un-Southern. And one thing you'll hear more clearly from a cowboy than from a Georgian or Tennessean is the R after a vowel. A Southerner will say "yo'." A cowboy, "yore."

Sam Elliot's deep baritone voice and slightly slower speech may seem to the unwary ear to be a more typical Southern drawl, but the cadence is still cowboy, recorded at 45 rpm and played back at 3313. Besides, Sam grew up in California and Oregon.

The truth is, accents evolve continuously, sounding different from one generation to the next. Today's Texas accent and modern cowboyese share an ancestor, but having split off long before the advent of the phonograph, let alone radio and television, they've followed different evolutionary paths.

Cowboys on the northern plains were more likely to meet up with people speaking the ancestor of today's upper Midwestern accent as heard in Fargo, while Texans had the Southernness of their accent subtly reinforced rather than subverted.

Since my mustache's recent growth spurt I've been working on sounding less Southern and more western. For when we move back to where folks don't complain about bad weather, but brag about it.


  1. This explains much. (And much, at least to me, needed to be explained.)

  2. These days it's stereotypical that cowboys grow big mustaches like Elliot's (though most rodeo competitors seem to prefer to be clean-shaven). But watching Sam without his mustache during the last season of "Justified" it was obvious he was still holding his mouth as though he were still bristling walrus-style.

    I suspect the prevalence of mustaches in the old days may also have contributed to the evolution of the cowboy accent, causing men to speak with as little lip movement as possible, but using other parts of the vocal apparatus more, to compensate. The enunciative habits spread to those without facial hair, and an accent was born.