Blog: Drouths and Rising Cricks

There are several things I inherited from my dad, and a few things I did not.

I inherited his love of beer, obsession with reading the news, and fair skin. I did not inherit his red hair, love of football, or saying “drouth” instead of “drought.” He has a traditional Wyoming dialect and says “crick” instead of “creek.” I didn’t inherit this either. I’m a creek-sayer, but I know and respect many crick-sayers.

I’ve never heard anyone other than my dad call a prolonged period of dryness a “drouth” but I’m sure they’re out there. Because my dad was born and raised in Rock Springs and has lived in Wyoming most of his life, I’ve always associated “drouth” with Wyoming. Based on my sample size of one.

Contrary to the “Wyoming doesn’t exist” conspiracy movement, Wyoming does — and it even has its own language.

Linguistics is a fascinating humanities discipline. I’m not a linguist, nor do I play one on TV, but I often wonder about the language of Wyoming. How does one describe the Wyoming dialect? What are the words we value and the words we use? How does Wyoming identify itself through language? Wyoming has a unique identity, and I argue a unique language.

An organization called the International Dialects of English Archive (IDEA) has a library of recordings and scholarly analysis of English dialects. There are six Wyoming recordings in this archive from four women and two men, born between 1936 and 1981. The voicers (all white) have ties to Wamsutter, Lander, Laramie, Saratoga, Wright, Basin, and Lovell. The linguists describe the Lovell voice:

The speaker has a slight but noticeable drawl, elongating his vowels and demonstrating an overall folksy and unhurried speech patterns. The elongation can be heard in the short “e” sound in the word “stressed,” the “aw” sound in words like “dog,” “long,” and “strong.” He retains the diphthong for “I” as in “life” and “shy.”

The Wyoming way of talking (“overall folksy and unhurried speech patterns”) is also a laconic style. People in Wyoming generally talk less than city slickers (but say more, according to the Wyoming code of the West). With little interest in chit-chat, speech is leisurely and slow paced, with pauses before responses.

There are some uniquely Wyoming words—often related to our ag heritage. Riding for the “brand” in Wyoming means something different than the way a marketing firm would use “brand.” “Buckrail” and “Branding Iron” are both media outlets and allusions to ranching. In Wyoming “riding herd” applies equally to cattle and cajoling employees.

Although Wyoming values the words that tie us to a ranching heritage, the words Wyoming uses more often reflect its commodity economy. Wyoming sees many things as “resources,” or commodities. The environment is a “natural resource,” which must be managed. Wyoming’s heritage is a “cultural resource.” Wyoming’s “most valuable resource” is either its children or water. Land is “a working landscape.” Enjoying nature is “outdoor recreation,” which is also an economic development strategy.

Wyoming may be the only state that has a “Game and Fish” agency, rather than a “Fish and Game” agency in all other states. Hunting is more profitable than fishing in Wyoming. “Greenies” is a unique Wyoming term for Coloradans. It’s pejorative, but also reflects the economic contribution out-of-staters make in Wyoming (while encroaching on favorite local fishing-holes), as well as the color of that state’s former license plate.

Wyoming also uses language to create to classify “us” vs. “them.” Politicians and citizens wanting to establish street cred often preface statements with “My name is Shawn and I’m a third generation Wyomingite.” Discredited are those who pronounce the town of Opal like a gemstone.

Of course, there are many more languages spoken in Wyoming that drawled English. It’s great that a few Wyoming schools have dual-immersion language programs. How cool would it be if everyone in the state were more acquainted with the languages of Shoshone, Arapaho, and Spanish?

God willing and the cricks don’t rise, there will be no drouth of appreciation of Wyoming’s languages.