Tall Talk: The Language of the Frontier

Seminar Paper 2006 12 Pages

American Studies - Literature


Table Of Content


About the tall tales

Exaggerations in metaphors and similes








According to the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary of Current English a frontier is a "part of a country bordering on another country". In the American English this word has one more meaning: in the past a frontier was the "farthest part of a country to which settlement has spread, beyond which there is wild or unsettled land" (352). So the language of the frontier is first of all the language of people who settled at the western frontier of United States. The settlers were plain people, backwoodsmen, most of them were illiterate and spoke a simple, substandard English, often even dialects that originated from their old fatherland (Sorbonne). That all influenced of course the language as the whole.

The language of the frontiersmen is well documented and can be an object of scientific studies thanks to tall tales, which were oral stories, before they were written down. So The Tall Tales of Davy Crockett can be a very rich source of examples of words and grammar rules used by people those days. It is also interesting to examine the characteristics of texts written in the beginnings of the 19th century.

In the first chapter – About the tall tales – I describe shortly the history of tall tales in America, their main topics and features. In the next chapters I concentrate on a tall tale about the legendary Davy Crockett and examine the language. The main focus of the second chapter – Exaggerations in metaphors and similes – lies on the language as a means of literary expression. Therefore, I examine the style of the text. In the next four chapters – Syntax , Grammar , Words and Spelling - I concentrate on more linguistic characteristics of the text, like syntax, grammar rules, words and words groups, semantic and spelling.

As mentioned before, the object of my studies are The Tall Tales of Davy Crockett. I have chosen one tale from the The Second Nashville Series of Crockett Almanacs 1839-1841 to present some examples of the language: Col. Crockett's Adventure with a Grizzly Bear ( Almanac 1839 3-7). The main sources of secondary literature I use for my studies are the article An Introduction to Tall Talk and American Folk Heroes on the webpage of the Université de Paris-Sorbonne and the essay Western and Southern Vernacular published in The Beginnings of American English: Essays and Comments by Milford MacLead Mathews.

About the tall tales

The history of the tall tales began at campfires and in general stores, where they were told orally, as the backwoodsmen living at the frontier were hardly literate or even illiterate. The stories about the legendary heroes and their adventures spread quickly, firstly being retold and later written down in almanacs and periodicals. Many of them were even put on stage (Sorbonne).

The popularity of those tales was enormous because of their topics, folk heroes as well as their vivid and humorous language. First of all, the main topics of those stories concerned the hard life at the southern and southwestern frontier. The folk heroes had all the skills and qualities one needed to survive in the backwoods. They were strong, courageous and shrewd, were the best in shooting, hunting and fighting, got never lost and found a solution in every situation (Sorbonne). Nothing could make them feel fear, not even a pack of wolves or a huge grizzly bear. But the tall tales did not only present the adventures of such half-gods. They described also the nature, landscape and the "Injuns" as the Indians were called in the Almanacs.

Secondly, the first tall tales were told and written in dialects. Both listeners and readers were rarely educated people and did not want to be confronted with the "complexities of authoritative or educated language" (Hauck 59) of politicians or officials.

Last but not least, other very important characteristics of the tall tales were their style and humor. The stories were told in a witty, colorful and metaphoric way, were full of exaggerations, with long lively comparisons, with new words and phrases. The backwoodsmen could identify with that humorous literature, which was so typical for the southern and southwestern America. The frontier humor itself was marked through "the frontier boast, backwoods invective and imagery, racy dialect, ugly people, earthiness" (Dorson XV). The heroes were not only half-gods, but they were also eccentric and picaresque braggarts and brawlers as well. They were legends and grotesque creatures in one (Dorson XXIV). Humoristic is also the language itself: long and exaggerated similes, metaphors and the southern vernacular.

The Tall Tales of Davy Crockett are a valuable example of such southern tall tales. They are thought to be "America's most authentic folk literature" (Dorson 25). Their authenticity lies in the language, anonymous legends and the "supernatural inventions of mythology" (25). Unfortunately, it is not really known, who the real author of those stories is. Was it David Crockett or the editor of the Almanacs , Ben Harding? This question is difficult to answer. Nevertheless, the tall talk is associated with both David Crockett and the Almanacs (Hauck 79).

Exaggerations in metaphors and similes

The story I have chosen Col. Crockett's Adventure with a Grizzly Bear (Lofaro 3-7) is about a fight between a huge grizzly bear and two men, Crockett and his Doughboy, a nigger. The bear attacks them, when they want to hunt buffaloes. Only Davy Crockett can rescue himself, his Doughboy dies and the bear drowns in the river. The tale is interesting not so much because of the adventure, but above all because of its exaggerated descriptions, metaphors and similes. When we read it, we simply have to agree with the following statement: "The metaphoric language of the almanacs, when it is at its best, has all the freshness of dawn" (Dorson XIII).

The whole story takes place in the Rocky Mountains near the "Little Great Small Deep Shallow Big Muddy River" (3). That river is the Missouri River, because it is often called "Big Muddy" (Wikipedia) and flows through the Rocky Mountains. The other epithets of the river are an invention of the storyteller. To describe it, he uses a row of opposite adjectives: little-big, great-small, deep-shallow. It seems illogical at the first glance, but the river is not the same in every place and at every time. It appears differently in different places where it flows and in different seasons.



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Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz – Angewandte Sprach- und Kulturwissenschaft
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Title: Tall Talk: The Language of the Frontier