Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

Fall 2007


Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 27, No. 4, Fall 2007, pp. 239-51.


Copyright 2005 by the Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln


In "The New Language of the Old West," Deadwood's creator and executive producer David Milch offers an extended exposition of the television show's language:

Language-both obscene and complicated- was one of the few resources of society that was available to these people .... It's very well documented that the obscenity of the West was striking, but the obscenity of mining camps was unbelievable, and there was a reason for that which had to do with the very fundamental quality of their behavior. They were raping the land. They weren't growing anything. They weren't respecting the cycles of nature. They were taking. And in order to muscle up for that enterprise in an environment where there were no laws-you know apes beat their chests a lot so they don't have to fight twenty-four hours a day-the relentless obscenity of the miner was a way of announcing the compatibility of his spirit with the world in which he found himself. . . . So there was a tremendous energy in the language. And it was the only social form until there was government.

Thus, for Milch, discourse functions as a precious "resource" for the miner, a "social form" that mediates their lives. In a lawless camp, language helps organize and govern the miner's life. Ironically, "the relentless obscenity" sits at the margins of accepted discourse, much like the unincorporated camp itself.

Not surprisingly, the "obscene and complicated" vernaculars spoken on Deadwood have garnered much critical attention. Sean O'Sullivan characterizes Deadwood's discourse as a "new style in which Milch fuses the mannered sentence structure of Victorian speech with the colloquialisms and 'low' speech of the West." Another critic writes: "The language on Deadwood ranges from an Elizabethan-like ornateness to profanity of a relentlessness that makes The Sopranos seem demure. Both extremes often coexist in a single speech." Milch and the writers for Deadwood do not shy away from this; indeed, they revel in their meta-linguistic awareness. For example, in an episode from the second season, Francis Wolcott explains his disappointment in the contents of a letter he purchased from E. B. Farnum. Farnum replies, "Some ancient Italian maxim fits our situation whose particulars escape me." Wolcott responds, "Is the gist that I'm shit out of luck?" And Farnum asks, "Did they speak that way then?'''1 Farnum's question provides a framework for this essay: I examine Deadwood's discourse within the context of the Western genre, and then address the two dialectal features that have driven so much of the critical commentary about the show: the profane lexicon and the "Shakespearean" dialogue. I do so in an effort to not only answer Farnum's question about language in the Dakota Territory in the 1870s but also to interrogate the transgressive qualities of the language in Deadwood.