Appalachian English: A Primer

 

Ma:  You fixed thishere ringer warsher yet?

Pa:  I’ll git to it terreckly.

Ma:  When?

Pa:  I might could fix it tamaree fit don’t rain.

Ma:  You might ought to’ve fixed it yestidy when there warn’t no threat of rain. ‘Sides, rain ain’t got nuthin’ to do with it. Thishere warsher is settin’ where it allays does – on the stoop. It ain’t moved once since yestidy.

Pa:  I ain’t neither. I just need to lay here in this hammuck and swig on this dope for a bit. I’ll study on it tamaree.

Ma:  What kinder dope are ye swiggin’ on?

Pa:  Maller Yaller.

 

What you’ve just read is an exchange in Appalachian English, a regional dialect confined to a number of speakers in the Southern Appalachian mountain areas of eastern Tennessee, western North Carolina, northern Georgia, and the coal country of West Virginia. The aforementioned exchange is neither illiterate nor void of characteristics of a rule-governed language. Indeed, Appalachian English signifies meanings to its users (its speakers understand one another) and operates according to principles governing all spoken varieties of language.

What makes Appalachian English, or Southern mountain speech, as it is called by dialectologists, scholars who define and study regional dialects, is its distinctive resemblance to older forms of British English. One popular theory purports that Appalachian English is a preserved remnant of 16th century, or “Elizabethan,” English in isolation. However, given early colonial settlement patterns in the Inland South, a more accurate comparison would be to 18th century, or “colonial,” English. Nevertheless, these later settlers would have brought with them a knowledge and appreciation of the King James Bible, its rhythms and idioms poised on the tips of their tongues.

Southern mountain speech has long carried a stigma of being spoken by poor, unintelligent, and lazy ne’er-do-wells. Popular media portrayals, such as Li’l Abner and The Beverly Hillbillies, only reinforce these ugly prejudices. Even J.D. Vance’s recent Hillbilly Elegy paints the region in such broad strokes as to damn its inhabitants with feint praise.

Understanding a region’s language is a first step in countering toxic stereotypes. One of the first attempts to take Appalachian English seriously was undertaken by Lee Pedersen, Professor of English at Emory University and Director of the Linguistic Atlas of the Gulf States (LAGS) project. From 1968-1983, Pedersen and graduate researchers at Emory interviewed 914 speakers from Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas. Respondents were stratified by location, age, sex, and race. Questions were formulated to capture specific Southern speech characteristics reflecting syntax (clause and sentence structure), morphology (grammar), and lexicon (vocabulary). Pederson’s research enabled him to create isoglosses, boundaries where dialects in an area begin and end on a map. For example, Pedersen’s demarcations reflect three distinct dialect boundaries for Tennessee corresponding to the three major geographical areas of the state:  eastern, middle, and western Tennessee. Within these areas, language varieties reflect cultural preferences for food, music, and entertainment. The Bluegrass music heard in East Tennessee is vastly different from the Blues riffs played on Beale Street in Memphis.

Returning to our imaginary conversation between the man and woman at the beginning of this essay, we will attempt to decipher the nature and intent of their discussion. Though I pandered to prevailing stereotypes of the lazy hillbilly, a word popularized in the early 20th century by a New York Journal reporter, the language I place in my characters’ mouths is some of the oldest and most authentic spoken in the U.S. For instance, one feature of older, spoken English is what linguists call the intrusive-r phenomenon, or epenthesis, meaning the addition of one or more sounds in a word as in warsher for washer, or kinder for kind of (also called elision because syllables are conjoined or elided), and Maller Yaller for Mellow Yellow. Elision also occurs with thishere for this here and fit for if it.

Another trait of Appalachian English is that participles and gerunds end in -in and not in -ing, as with settin’ and swiggin’. Also, in mountain speech, the final -o in a word can be replaced with an elongated vowel:  tamaree for tomorrow. Finally, word choice, or lexicon, in this dialect often reflects older usages. For instance, dope, a term still used by older speakers in the region, is a synonym for a carbonated beverage like Coca-Cola which, in its original version, contained minute amounts of cocaine, hence dope.

The point of this entry is to argue for the sufficiency and legitimacy of Appalachian English as a dialect once spoken by our ancestors in rural locations of England. If you would like to learn more about mountain English, you may wish to consult the following sources:

  1. From the Gulf States and Beyond: The Legacy of Lee Pedersen and LAGS. Authors Michael Montgomery and Thomas Nunnally.
  2. Dictionary of Southern Appalachian and Smoky Mountain English. Authors Michael Montgomery and Jennifer N. Heinmiller.
  3. The Language of the American South. Author Cleanth Brooks.

5 Comments

  1. Thanks for the linguistics lesson – some of these characteristics still linger in my Tennessee twang. When I was working as a nurse tech at Carter County Hospital in Elizabethton, Tennessee, I encountered a number of interesting speech variations. Some examples: oxygen = oxgeegun, vomit = vomick, fire = far, tire = tar, help = hep, for = fer, and “you’uns.”..etc. I don’t know if the phrase about Vance’s “feint praise,” was intentional or not, but it works. J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy is criticized for not telling the story of “my Appalachia,” or because the critics disagree with his politics. But just as troubling are stories on the other side of the equation – sanitized, romanticized versions of the lost good old days. In both cases, the stories, like all stories, are filtered through the malleable memories of the teller, and the truth is likely to lie somewhere in between.

    1. Jim, thank you for your insightful remarks. I agree that a sanitized and rosy view of “the good old days” is a distortion frequently offering more harm than good. In my English 1010 classes, I assign an essay in which students must provide solutions for one of the overriding problems plaguing our region (e.g., opioid addiction, obesity, and poor infant health care, to name several.) The students mostly bristle at first. It requires considerable effort to convince them that we can’t really love a thing unless we see it clearly and unflinchingly. I can’t thank you enough for your contribution to our blog. You must surely have some recollections of Carter County our readers would appreciate. I know I would. Best wishes, Eddie

  2. Growing up where these types of topics were discussed has helped shaped my ear for language. I now listen to my New Jersey neighbors and laugh at words like Wad Da in the Rad iate taa. Nice piece!

  3. Thanks for the informative article on hillbilly dialect. I went through a phase in which I tried to purge my native Southern Appalachian dialect because people “made fun of me.” Luckily, I can still “code switch” as needed. Have you had similar experiences?


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