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.