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Appalachian English in Virginia, Part 1

Dialectal differences capture our attention, especially those differences or points at which communication breaks down between two people speaking different dialects of the same language.

I will never forget the time I went to ask a neighbor for some help with a minor task. I had just moved to Big Stone Gap in the mountainous, southwestern corner of Virginia and needed a small favor. Beth and her husband, Tom, seemed, and as I found out later, really were wonderful people and great neighbors. So when her response to my request for her help was a smile accompanied by “I don’t care to,” my immediate reaction was to apologize for bothering her.

She looked at me strangely and repeated rather slowly and carefully, “No, I don’t care to.” After another uncomfortable pause she said, “Down here, that means I don’t mind helping you.” Ahhh, I thought, this is part of the Appalachian dialect. And it felt as if I’d successfully learned a new phrase in another language, although I never felt entirely free to use it.

The Appalachian region of the United States is roughly defined by the range of the central and southern portion of the Appalachian Mountains. This region stretches over 13 states, from New York all the way to Alabama. Virginia’s section of the Appalachian region lies within the southwestern corner of the state and because of its central location in the mountain range is commonly known as the Heart of Appalachia. Here the dialect is well established. 

Towns such as Big Stone Gap, Wise, Norton, St. Paul, Appalachia and Coeburn are just a few of the places where you can hear this dialect being spoken in Virginia. Those native to the region prefer the pronunciation Appalachia with the third “a” being a short vowel. As one man helpfully explained it to me, “Just pretend you are saying I want to throw an apple atcha.” In fact, I soon learned that an effective way to identify yourself as an outsider is to say “Appa-lay-sha” with a long “a.”

Not surprisingly many words and phrases that are distinctively Appalachian tend to be heard when speaking with older residents of the area. These include: “I’m as well as common”, meaning “I’m okay” in response to “How are you?”; “It was a thousand wonders” as a way to signify something particularly worthy of note; and “the hoot owl shift” to indicate the third shift. It was in southwestern Virginia that I first heard someone say “It’s time for her and me to have a come-to-Jesus talk.” This meant that there was a serious misunderstanding and someone needed to be enlightened. 

Some of the words that characterize the dialect in this area of Virginia reflect the culture and geography of the area. One frequently hears “four lane” instead of “highway” for Route 23 and “coal camps” are the rows of small houses, sitting on the sides of mountains, built many years ago by the coal companies for the miners and their families.

Some of the words and phrases typical of this dialect are commonly found in 19th-century British literature by authors such as Thomas Hardy and George Eliot who made an effort to include dialectal speech in their novels. Because the largest group of immigrants to the Appalachian region were the Scots-Irish, it is not surprising that speech patterns typical of their dialect areas in Great Britain have managed to hang on in the Appalachian dialect. It is not unusual even today to hear phrases such as “I sit out here of an evening,” “over yonder” and “I was but 20 year old” (instead of “I was only 20 years old”), all of which recall an earlier stage of English spoken first in the British Isles.

This earlier stage of English also included a feature still found in Appalachian English grammar known as a-prefixing. The prefix “a” is attached to a verb form ending in –ing to create sentences such as  “We’ll be a-lookin’ for you tomorrow night” and “My son was a-workin’ over in Buchanan County.” During an interview with Johnny, an 83-year-old woman who had built her own log cabin, she took me up a ladder to see her upstairs loft. It wasn’t too long after that that we heard an unusual noise below us. We looked over the side to see my Golden Retriever Tucker struggling to climb the ladder. He had actually managed to crawl upright to the fifth rung without falling to which she said, “He’s a-tryin’ to come up here.”

Today’s quiz is dedicated to Bill and Lila Reach, our wonderful Farmville neighbors originally from Big Stone Gap. For speakers of dialects outside the Appalachian region, it can be difficult to establish the meaning of certain words and phrases. I include the following to be translated or explained in part 2 of this column. Can you guess what they mean and yes, by all means, ask Lila and Bill for help!

to krill (verb)

I krilled my ankle.

shuck beans (noun)

She’d bring shuck beans over every Christmas.

Mamaw and Papaw (nouns)

Mamaw and Papaw gave me that for my birthday.

blackberry winter (noun)

Sometimes we get a blackberry winter up here.

dogwood winter (noun)

Looks like we might have a dogwood winter this year.

To plant by the signs (verb)

A lot of older people still plant by the signs. They won’t plant any other way.

Julia Palmer is an associate professor of modern languages at Hampden-Sydney College. Her email address is jpalmer@hsc.edu.