Not Hobbling Their Lips: Andy Adams' Use of Cowboy Dialect

Daily Images

My Poems


The American Southwest

The American South Central

Eighteenth Century England and Scotland

The oilfield

Other literature


American Dialect

Cowboy Dialect in Print


Our Writing Workshops


Other Subjects

nature art, travel, teaching, parenting, grandparenting husbanding


(This is an article I wrote in 1990 and published a version of in Re:al in 1991.)

Most of you know Andy Adams as a novelist, as the author of The Log of a Cowboy, a novel about a cattle drive from South Texas to Montana. He published it in 1904 and followed it with a collection of short stories and three other novels about the cattle business, A Texas Matchmaker, The Outlet, and Reed Anthony, Cowman. He later wrote two books for children about ranching. Andy Adams was also a collector of folktales. In each of his works, he includes stories told by his characters, usually referring to them as yarns, usually having them told around campfires. Wilson Hudson selected these stories from the various works and in 1956 published them as Why the Chisholm Trail Forks and other Tales of the Cattle Country.

I have been attracted to these tales because of my interest in the dialects of Texas, particularly that of the cowboy, and because Andy Adams has been praised for the authenticity of his writing. Hudson has said of Andy’s cowboy talk.

Andy’s rendering of the language used by tellers of the campfire tales is in keeping with his general literary attitude. It is colorful and appropriate but not overdone or exaggerated. It is the language of cowboys and Rangers reworked and made smoother than it actually was. Though it has the ring of real talk, it could hardly be studied by a modern scholar as an altogether accurate and reliable specimen of the language of the Southwest in the seventies and eighties. Andy has done what most writers attempt to do when they have to represent a specialized or localized way of talking: he has retained the idioms and figures and improved the grammar and connection. The result that he obtains is convincing and lively. (Adams, p. xxiv)

I would agree with Hudson that the language of these tales does not represent an altogether accurate rendering of the language of the Southwest at that time, but it is a part of the puzzle in discovering now what some of the features of Cowboy talk at that time were. I have cataloged features of the speech of those who were trail drivers as they are represented in print. I have been checking my results against what I see in books about Cowboy speech particularly the work of Ramon Adams, author of Western Words and Cowboy Lingo. I have also been checking how the language of the autobiographies of trail drivers compares to that of fictional representations.

Andy Adams is, in Log of the Cowboy much more formal, particularly in choice of words, than any of the others who wrote of the trail-driving days. He uses the flowery diction of a turn-of-the-century editorial writer. For example consider this passage early in The Log.
Just why my father moved, at the close of the civil war, from Georgia to Texas, is to this good hour a mystery to me. While we did not exactly belong to the poor whites, we classed with them in poverty, being renters; but I am inclined to think my parents were intellectually superior to that common type of the South. Both were foreign born, my mother being Scotch and my father a north of Ireland man,–as I remember him, now, impulsive, hasty in action, and slow to confess a fault. It was impulsiveness that led him to volunteer and serve four years in the Confederate army,–trying years to my mother, with a brood of seven children to feed, garb, and house. The war brought me my initiation as a cowboy, of which I have now, after the long lapse of years, the greater portion of which spent with cattle, a distinct recollection.

With his campfire tales, though, Adams is less formal, yet still more formal than any of the trail drivers I have read. Even in the campfire tales we have examples of rather formal word choice and sentence structure.

“But a quart amongst eight of us was not dangerous, so the night passed without incident, though we felt a growing impatience to get into town.” (pp. 40-41)
“Something–it might have been his ambling walk, but, anyway, something–about my chum amused her, for she smiled and watched him as we passed.” (p. 83)

For the most part also Adams differs from writers such as Will James who intentially use non-standard English, for example this passage from James’ Sand : He wanted to see what they was holding them cattle for, and why they was taking some cattle out of the one big herd and chasing ‘em into a smaller one. (James, p. 51) But he does occasionally use nonstandard English. For example one character uses a double negative, “Didn’t you never see the girl again?” (p. 17) Another has a problem with verb agreement, “Turkey eggs is too rich for my blood,. . . .” (p. 35) And still another, a doctor, uses ain’t, “Billy, if the drinks ain’t on you, charge them to me.” (p. 81) But these are among the few examples I found in the whole collection of tales, in contrast to James’ using such in almost every sentence.
Maybe the more important consideration is what words and structures Adams employes to get the color that Hudson speaks of. I have separated examples of expressions into traditional parts of speech.

The examples of his use of comboy dialect are in the pdf of this essay that you can download to your computer.


Two Editors' Comments on Representing Cowboy Speech in Print

Some General Characteristics of Printed Cowboy Talk


Home of Dick Heaberlin Writes

Orange House Books

A Cavalcade of Oilfield Novels

Fountain Wells: Oilfield Novels of Ontario, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia

Gushers: Oilfield Novels of Texas

Poetry Collections

Trotting With the Fox

My Writing Guides

English Syntax:
A Guide to the Grammar of Successful Writers

Writing Style 1

Connecting for Coherence:
A Guide to Building Sentences With Syntax And Logic

Writing Style 2

Purposeful Punctuation:
A Syntactic Guide to English Punctuation

Writing Style 3

Word Wisdom:
A Guide to Selecting Words
for Writers and Editors—Writing Style 4

Other Books of Interest

Other Sites of Interest


Dick Heaberlin's Website
at Texas State University

Center for the Study of the Southwest at Texas State University

Southwest Regional Humanities Center at Texas State University
Email Dick Heaberlin