The first comprehensive surveys of speech patterns along the Atlantic seaboard of the United States, conducted in the 1930s and 1940s under the direction of Hans Kurath, disclosed three major dialect areas: Northern, Midland, and Southern. Like three great rivers flowing west, these dialect areas followed migration patterns of settlers as they expanded to fill unoccupied lands. Like rivers, the expanding dialect areas were affected by geographical contours, with speakers from the Southern dialect area, for example, being forced south by the Appalachians until they were able to swing behind the mountains towards the north, where they encountered lands already occupied by speakers from the Midland dialect area.
The resulting admixture of Midland and Southern speakers has led some dialect geographers to posit the existence of North Midland and South Midland dialect areas in the central portion of the United States. As migration continued westward, until the late 1880s Oklahoma stood like an island around which the rivers flowed. Closed to settlement by whites and occupied by American Indian tribes arbitrarily assigned land by the United States government, Oklahoma, with its land runs, lotteries, and allotments, eventually developed a settlement pattern that resembles not so much a flow of rivers as it does a "patchwork quilt."
Although a great deal is known about the dialect features of those who first settled the western half of the state (Oklahoma Territory) during the last two decades of the nineteenth century, very little is known today about the English spoken by the American Indian tribes who had been forcibly resettled in the eastern half of the state (Indian Territory). Full bloods apparently tended to remain isolated, speaking their native languages and leading a subsistence style of life that relied on hunting, fishing, and the cultivation of small crops. Their way of life gave rise to the derogatory term "blanket Indian," which one may still encounter in Oklahoma. The mixed-bloods, however, tended to emulate southern whites, developing large farms and plantations in fertile river valleys and owning slaves.
Perhaps because of the southern culture adopted by elements of the Five Tribes, at the end of the twentieth century the former Indian Territory displayed more characteristics of the Southern dialect area than did the former Oklahoma Territory; this southern orientation was especially true of the southeastern corner of Oklahoma. Following 1907 statehood, though, many migrants from Texas, Arkansas, and southern Missouri entered the former Indian Territory, thereby adding to the development of a Southern and South Midland dialect region in the eastern half of the state.
Settlers of Oklahoma Territory, however, tended to come from the Midwest or upper Midwest. Of the settlers in the Land Run of 1889, for example, 50 percent were from Kansas, Illinois, Indiana, or Ohio, and 10 percent were from Texas and another 10 percent from Kentucky or Tennessee, states representative of the Southern or South Midland dialect areas. In all of the land run areas, settlers were typically from the upper or lower Midwest, although individual land runs show variation. The 1892 Cheyenne-Arapaho Opening, for instance, tended to divide into eastern and western halves, with sparsely populated counties such as Roger Mills having a considerably greater percentage of southerners (almost 80 percent) than the more densely populated counties to the east, such as Blaine, which had only 32 percent from the South.
The "patchwork quilt" settlement patterns, thus, have left a tangled, confused distribution of speech patterns in Oklahoma. Nevertheless, data collected in the 1960s by William R. Van Riper for the Linguistic Atlas of Oklahoma (a project in its editorial stages in 2001) suggest at least two distinct speech areas: a "Southern" area composed of Indian Territory, the land annexed from Texas, and the land assigned by lottery; and a "Midland" area composed of the land runs of 1889, 1891, 1892, and 1893. Oklahoma's Panhandle may also be included in this area, although its status is less certain because of population shifts and migration from the area.
Vocabulary items that support this view of Oklahoma's speech patterns include the use of "branch," a Southern dialect term for "running stream," compared to the use of "creek" or "crick," a Northern dialect term. An isogloss (or line indicating a boundary separating two speech areas) for these terms would separate the land run areas from the remainder of the state. In similar fashion, the Northern "teeter-totter" occurs 100 percent of the time in the former Oklahoma Territory, but only 45 percent of the time in the former Indian Territory, being replaced by the Southern/South Midland "seesaw."
An analysis of seventeen terms identified as being characteristic of the Southern dialect area ("pulley bone," "comfort," "light bread," "branch," "quarter 'til," "whetrock," "seesaw" "toad frog," "snake doctor," "cherry seed," "tushes," "weatherboard," "Christmas gift," "paling fence," "snap beans," "souse," and "male cow") disclosed a frequency of occurrence of 52 percent in Indian Territory, but only 35 percent in Oklahoma Territory. In contrast, eight Northern terms ("jag," "sweet corn," "head cheese," "toad," "comforter," "haymow," "baker's bread," and "white bread"), show a 46 percent frequency of occurrence in Oklahoma Territory, but only 33 percent in Indian Territory.
In summary, statistical analysis of dialect terms collected for the Linguistic Atlas of Oklahoma strongly suggests that an area in north-central Oklahoma, and perhaps extending into the Panhandle, constitutes a dialect area distinct from other sections of the state. This area encompasses Oklahoma's two major public universities, the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University, as well as the state capital of Oklahoma City. With governmental and higher education functions focused in the area, one might expect this dialect region to form a "focal area" for a prestige dialect that will ultimately expand its boundaries into the surrounding predominantly Southern/South Midland dialect areas of the remainder of the state.
Elmer Bagby Atwood, The Regional Vocabulary of Texas (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1962).
Frederick G. Cassidy and Joan H. Hall, eds., Dictionary of American Regional English (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1985).
Hans Kurath, A Word Geography of the Eastern United States (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1949).
Bruce Southard, "Elements of Midwestern Speech in Oklahoma," in "Heartland" English: Variation and Transition in the American Midwest, ed. Timothy C. Frazer (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1993).
Janevlyn Tillery, "The Locus of Linguistic Variation in Oklahoma" (Ph.D. diss., Oklahoma State University, 1992).
The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Bruce Southard, "Speech Patterns," The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=SP008.
© Oklahoma Historical Society.