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More on Appalachian English

When it comes to Appalachian English, myths and stereotypes abound. It is not uncommon for people outside the area to think that those who live in Appalachia “talk like Shakespeare or Queen Elizabeth did.” This, of course, isn’t true. All language varieties change over time and while Appalachian English certainly preserves some features and words from earlier stages of the language that disappeared a long time ago in mainstream English, it has also changed with time, adapting to the needs of its speakers and reflecting the reality of their lives.

Some outsiders find aspects of mountain life along with the Appalachian dialect quaint and charming. There exist, too, the unfortunate and unkind stereotypes of Appalachian speech, as indicative of slow thinking, ignorance or just plain lack of intelligence. The term “hillbilly” is not one that is used kindly. These callous and hurtful perceptions are realities for those who grow up speaking Appalachian Dialect. Their dialect is so marked and the phonology at such variance from the standard that their speech will always draw attention from those outside of their dialect area and the inevitable reaction is not always a pleasant or welcoming one. And even with an open-minded outsider, communication can still break down.

A somewhat startling example of this was when I asked a 14-year-old named Brett the name of another neighbor’s wife. The conversation went something like this:

“So what is Melvyn’s wife’s name?” I asked.

“Dysert,” he replied.

Since I knew that this was Melvyn’s last name and not his wife’s name, I asked again, “No, what is Melvyn’s wife’s name?”

Brett was clearly confused but very politely responded again, “Dysert.”

Not to be put off and fascinated by our lack of communication I tried again. “No, the woman he is married to. What’s her name?”

“Oh,” he replied. “Charlene.”

“What did you think I said?” I asked him.

He looked at me and said, “I thought you asked what’s Melvyn’s last (sounded like lyste) name?”

At that moment I realized that my vowel for “wife” and his vowel for “last” were the same. That is how different the phonology of this dialect is from standard English. These kinds of sound differences combined with the lexical and grammatical features that make this dialect distinct are often the basis for ungenerous and unfair treatment.

Many of my students at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise shared their experiences with me. Almost all of them had been on the receiving end of a negative reaction to their speech when outside the area. Interestingly, more than any other group of students I have taught, these students captured almost immediately that the study of linguistics is the scientific study of language — that linguists look objectively at how language works, leaving aside bias or judgment, and understanding that the terms good and bad can be harmful when used to describe someone’s language. These students had learned a long time ago about the reality of language variation, as well as the resulting social judgments.

These social judgments have left their mark. Even as a member of the community, it was difficult for me to get interviews for my study of the local dialect. Many residents felt I was going to criticize their speech or worse publish it so others could make fun of it. There seemed to be an unfortunate disconnect with the rest of the state. Several times, I heard people from the southwestern corner say that they didn’t feel like they were part of the rest of Virginia, that the state line for most people ends at Roanoke and theirs is a Virginia few Virginians either know about or care to know better.

When moving on to other parts of Virginia or the U.S, the college students I met almost always modified their speech, quickly adopting the phonology and structures of mainstream U.S. English. This is completely understandable and is without doubt a practical and wise decision, but this change has its consequences as well. There was often another sociolinguistic lesson waiting to be learned when they came back home. If these returning natives failed to switch back to their original dialect, it created a sense of distance between them and the rest of the family. One woman told me her mother became very upset when she spoke differently and told her she acted like she didn’t want to be a part of their family any more.

It is true that mountain culture and the Appalachian dialect are different, but these differences have given us the Barter Theatre in Abingdon, the music of the Carter family and the literature of writers as diverse as John Fox Jr. and Adriana Trigiani. This is a culture and dialect that can be celebrated and for which Virginians can be proud. I hope you will agree the state line does not end at Roanoke. It very much includes the southwestern corner of our state.

Definition to words given in previous column:

1. To krill is to twist or sprain so “to krill your ankle” means that you have injured it.

2. Shuck beans are green beans that have been dried and then cooked.

3. Mamaw and Papaw are grandma and grandpa.

4. Dogwood and blackberry winters are a temporary return to cooler temperatures, perhaps even snow, after spring and warmer temperatures have already arrived. If the dip in temperature occurs when the dogwood is in bloom then it is called a dogwood winter. If it occurs later when blackberries are in bloom it is called a blackberry winter.

5. To plant by the signs is to follow the signs in the Almanac that show the clustering of stars located within a little human figure. So if the stars are positioned in the legs then you would plant root vegetables. If the stars are positioned in the arms, it’s time to plant leafy, branchy plants.

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