American Speech 78.4 (2003) 385-403
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Plains English in Colorado
University of Georgia
DISCUSSIONS OF THE LOUISIANA PURCHASE tend to focus on the delta region now bearing the state name of Louisiana or to emphasize its size by mentioning the states that were carved from the acquisition and now form an integral part of America's heartland, such as Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska. Often ignored is the northwest part of the purchase, which comprised large parts of present-day Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana. That all three of these states are strongly identified with their mountains also obscures the fact that significant portions of each of them are part of the Great Plains, an area that is enigmatic in many ways, including in the varieties of American English spoken there. This study focuses on the speech of the eastern plains of Colorado, using data recently collected as part of a larger Linguistic Atlas of the Western States.
Although some British and Scottish trappers and traders may have passed through, few, if any, English speakers inhabited present-day Colorado at the time of the Louisiana Purchase. Native American tribes had long inhabited the area, including the Ute on the Colorado Plateau near Utah and the Cheyenne and Arapaho on the eastern plains. Spaniards had explored a great deal of Colorado, but their settlements had been restricted primarily to southern Colorado, particularly in the San Luis Valley and various towns in the foothills and plains surrounding Trinidad, a city on the Front Range—the label given to the eastern foothills of the Rocky Mountains—within 20 miles of the Colorado-New Mexico border. Despite France's claiming most of the Colorado plains as a consequence of LaSalle's 1681 claim, French presence was generally restricted to the French trappers who roamed the region, particularly the mountains of northern Colorado, in search of beaver pelts. The best linguistic evidence of Native American, Spanish, and French linguistic groups in the area is found in the placenames throughout the state (see, e.g., Eichler 1977; Bright 1993). Colorado 'reddish-colored' is one of these. It was originally used by early Spanish explorers to describe the color of the soil carried by the waters of the Colorado River. Additionally, these languages, particularly Spanish, [End Page 385] provided labels for the region's unique geography and plant and animal life, as well as the terminology used in the occupation of ranching (see, e.g., Crofutt 1881), all of which would have been unfamiliar to the area's first visitors and settlers from the United States.
In 1803, the United States and France negotiated the Louisiana Purchase, by which the United States bought most of the area between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains, which would later be divided into the states of Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and portions of Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado (see fig. 1 of Eble's introduction, this volume, p. 350). The Louisiana Purchase did not bring immediate changes to the area now known as Colorado. The first documented visit to Colorado by Americans was Zebulon Montgomery Pike's expedition in 1806. In 1820, Stephen Long led a party into Colorado, making his now-famous observation that the plains region constituted a "Great American Desert." The aridity of the new land, its great distance from American civilization, and the real or perceived threat posed by Native American tribes in the region did little to attract Easterners to the new frontier. Additionally, border disputes between the United States and Spain over the Louisiana Territory continued until the Adams-Onís (or Transcontinental) Treaty of 1819, when the two nations agreed on the Arkansas River as the southern border and a line drawn due north to latitude 42° north from the source of the Arkansas River as the western border of the United States in the Colorado region. It was not until the Mexican War of 1848 that the United States acquired the land between the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, which would later comprise...