09. April 2011 · Comments Off on Talk of the West · Categories: Uncategorized


It’s come up a time or two, from readers and reviewers wondering why some of the characters in Adelsverein don’t talk very much the way that we are accustomed to ‘hearing’ characters in most Westerns talk – which when I ‘hear’ in my imagination, is rather twangy, hick-ish, Southern-drawl kind of speech – think of Jerry Clower on steroids. The explanation is actually rather simple.  While one or two of my characters are laconic in the Western tradition – and certain others, like Carl Becker’s neighbors, the Browns, Trap Talmadge and some of Hansi Richter’s cowhands – conform very much to that style of speaking – those other characters who don’t ‘ sound’ like typical Westerners have several and good reasons  . . .  like, being originally from somewhere else. Curiously, a local Texas historian tells me that many of the educated German settlers of the mid-19th century spoke English so much better than their Anglo neighbors that a certain amount of resentment arose because of it  . . .  so, I have tried to bring out this difference in spoken vernacular.

Another reason for having characters speak in other than a plain and unadorned vernacular is that many are also very proper 19th century Victorians. Some, like Peter Vining, for example, are American-born, educated and middle-class. Others, like the Steinmetzes and their friends in Fredericksburg aren’t even ‘speaking’ English: they are German immigrants and I am putting their speech into English. Their ‘voices’ would sound very different from their more back-woods Scotch-Irish and Southern-mountain neighbors, not very much like generic movie and television westerners –  even to the second generation, like Dolph Becker. I also tried to differentiate Carl Becker’s ‘voice’ when he spoke English to his Texian comrades – very terse, and colloquial, but more mannered and formal in speaking German to the Adelsverein settlers.

Just going back and reading 19th century popular books, speeches, letters and memoirs brings to mind voices and a way of speaking that was a little more baroque, certainly more wordy – just look at Charles Dickens, who was madly popular and widely read. 19th century American speech patterns – at least at the upper end – were formed by sermons, by knowledge of the King James Version of the Bible, by Shakespeare, and the classics – among others. They valued learning (even if most people didn’t get very much of it) read newspapers voraciously, and many maintained diaries and letter-writing schedules with an energy that modern-day bloggers can only envy. (Sam and Margaret Houston wrote to each other every day of their married life that they were apart.) Material aimed for mass consumption was pitched at a readability level several degrees above the equivalent mass media today – even if the sensationalism was similar. Politics was a full-contact sport; something like the Lincoln-Douglas debates drew massive public interest – a complex public discussion of a complex subject – and a viewing audience today might not have the vocabulary or the patience to follow with the same abiding interest that mid-19th century American audience did.

And finally – the American frontier was wide, wide open; full of Irish and English and German settlers, New Englanders and freed black slaves, Mexicans of all different social classes, and Indian tribes whose facility with English also varied widely. Not quite a tower of Babel, but certainly offering a rich and complicated medley of voices and dialects  . . .  and that is what I have tried to establish.

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