deadwood & the reconstruction of historical vernacular

If you read my review of Deadwood (HBO) you’ll know that I like it a lot, but I was critical of the anachronistic use of language. Robert Armstrong objected to the criticism and commented:

… However, much historical research was done to produce Deadwood and the dialog is authentic.Check out Noel Holston’s article at

So I did go have a look at the article. Newsday is a subscription service, but here’s an excerpt with the salient points.

The article is by Noel Holston, dated March 21, 2004

Welcome to the vile, vile West.

“Deadwood” is the most profane western in the history of the genre. … Just about everybody…uses polysyllabic epithets of the sort we associate with Tony Soprano and gangsta rappers. It’s language so unprecedentedly blistering, even some tough, jaded TV critics have been moved to ask, “What the, ah, heck, is this?”… According to Milch, it’s a much closer approximation of the language of the real West, that’s what. “That’s the way they spoke,” he said. “I researched the show a good, long time – over a year – and went through a tremendous amount of primary material. And the one thing upon which everyone agrees was that the profanity and obscenity was astounding. It was overwhelming. People who would visit would report that they simply couldn’t believe the way people spoke out there.”… Note that Milch said “primary” material. He’s talking about accounts of Deadwood in letters and diaries from the time in which his show is set and oral histories collected by the Library of Congress’ Living Memory project. … Rather than take Milch’s explanation at face value, I did a bit of primary research myself…. Don Reeves, the McCasland Chair of Cowboy Culture at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, recently oversaw the installation of an exhibit about the cinematic West. … He said the expression “cusses like a sailor” would apply equally to cowboys, but he was quick to add that, from his study, the salty language of the 1870s wouldn’t necessarily be the same as today’s profanity. [emphasis added]… Milch said that however startling the language in “Deadwood” may be, shock is not his point. “The lawlessness of the language is, first of all, something that I hope people will get used to,” he said. “But it [also] establishes an atmosphere, verbally, in which anything is possible. And at that point, the viewer, one hopes, is brought to some sort of emotional equivalency with the environment and then begins to identify how certain characters rise above it.”

I also went to look at the data at the American Experience website at the Library of Congress. There were a number of oral histories but no letters that I could find. The only mention of swearing I ran into at all was a recollection of Wild Bill Hickok that mentioned that he was very quiet, and rarely swore. Of course the letters may well be there, and I just didn’t find them — I’m assuming that they are. But here’s the problem. In 1875 “I can’t believe the way they talk!” means something different than it does in 2004. As the historian pointed out (bold faced in the excerpt above), salty language is a relative term.

The writers for the series went looking for hints on how people talked, and my guess is that they have over-interpreted what they found, or maybe they just decided that they wanted the shock value of the strongest language possible for the present day. In either case, I stand by my original criticism.

This is an issue of some importance to writers of historical fiction, and of particular interest to me because of my academic background. The short answer to the question of how to handle language of the past is (as I see it) this: you can’t get it completely right, but it is possible to avoid the worst kinds of generalizations and errors. ((An example of how I handled this issue in the Wilderness books: Robbie is a Scot from the Lowlands, thus is first language is Scots, and English is his second language. Scots and English are related, but distinct languages, somewhat like the relationship between Dutch and German — there is a high degree of mutual intelligibility, but Scots and English are still distinct and associated with different nation-states. Scots is different from English primarily in that many sound changes which originated in the south of England and moved northwards petered out — or, to put it more accurately — were resisted by those in the north. Now, all of this has nothing to do with Gaelic, which is another language from a completely different language family. Gaelic and other forms of the Celtic languages were spoken all through the island before the Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian invasions, which gave rise to English. The Celtic peoples were driven back, into Cornwall and Wales and up into Scotland. In the eighteenth century, Gaelic was the first language of the Scottish Highlands. Many people there spoke nothing else. If they did speak something besides Gaelic, it might have been Scots, but not necessarily. It might have been English. Novelists like to portray Highlanders as speakers of Scots, but that’s unlikely in most cases. This is similar to the way we like to think of King Arthur as speaking English, when that language did not even exist during his lifetime. So in Robbie’s case, he grew up in the Lowlands, speaking Scots. He learned English subsequently when he went to the Colonies, but he always spoke it reluctantly, and with a strong Scots flavoring.

As you might guess from this rather detailed answer, I have a PhD in linguistics and I take a lot of interest in the language issues. So when Robbie was developing as a character, I went to various people who could be counted as experts on Scots. Lesley Milroy, a sociolinguist who happens to be a Lowland Scot, was a great deal of help. I have about fifteen volumes on Scots (history, structure, vocabulary) and I have also found extremely helpful sights on the web. One of the best is put together by Andy Eagle (Sneck here for tae gang til a cuttie Scots furthsettin o his wabsteid!).))

The other question, and it is a valid one, is how to avoid anachronism without alienating modern day readers. That’s a topic for another time, I think.