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The Language of Appalachia


Imagine my surprise when I went to Jamaica a few years ago and learned that I do, indeed, have an accent. You see, unlike my paternal grandmother, I don't stretch the word "cornbread" into four syllables. She might say, "Here. Have ye some co-orn-bray-ed;" whereas I might say, "You want some corn-bread?" See? Two syllables on the cornbread; "you" rather than "ye."

Unlike my maternal grandmother, I say "carrion" rather than "kyarn." In fact, I had no idea what she was talking about until recently when I mentioned the word to my husband. I told him, "Grandmother used to say, 'That stinks like kyarn.' I never figured out what 'kyarn' was." He said, "Road kill." My jaw dropped. "You mean, carrion? Kyarn is carrion?" "Yeah," he said. "Put the Appalachian accent to it." It made sense.

Unlike my mother-in-law, I say "they fought," not "they fit."

Thus, I concluded that I have no accent. After all, I'm fairly well educated. I studied French for three years, and I did some self-study of German and Greek. Plus, I'm well read, and I've authored several books. Ain't I the berries? I couldn't possibly have a hillbilly, Appalachian accent. And, yet, in Jamaica, everyone I met asked, "What part of the South are you from?"

So, I did a little research and learned that the Appalachian region has its own language. Linguists call it "Appalachian English." The Scots-Irish settled the entire region known as Appalachia (all of West Virginia and portions of Virginia, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Georgia) in the mid-1700's. At the time, physical boundaries kept modernization out. Then in the 1940's, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was created; and that brought tourists to the area. By the 1950's, highways and telephones were more prevalent throughout Appalachia, bringing the modern world another step closer to its rural inhabitants.

Now, I don't want you to think we in Appalachia are a bunch of snobs. We realize that the same immigrants who settled here settled land elsewhere, but the linguists tell us that our speech patterns will not be found in any other dialect to the extent that they are in Appalachia. In addition, we Appalachians use variants of our own speech patterns. Just because I don't use the same words as my grandmothers doesn't mean that I don't have an Appalachian accent. In fact, the linguists say that each region has its own speech patterns and that most of us allow our situations to govern our speech. For example, when I'm talking with my family, I'm liable to let down my guard a little-use a bit more Appalachian English and a bit less Standard American English. In a more formal situation, I'll try to employ a lot less Appalachian English. Even though I know from personal experience that most Appalachians are not "dumb hillbillies," I'm afraid that others might see me that way if I use the language I naturally use. And yet, some phonological differences are so inbred, that I can't not use them.

Did you know that the t at the end of slept is not silent? You might say, "I slept in this morning." I would say, "I slep in." To me, that "t" just doesn't feel right. It reminds me of an episode of "All in The Family" where Edith met a Jewish baker and he called her "Edit." She told him, "My name's Edith! Th!" So then he called her "Edit-th." To me, "slep-t" would be every bit as awkward.

Do you say "exactly" or "exackly"? And how about ten? I've actually heard people say "ten" with a short e sound-like in the word "bed." How weird is that? Tin and ten are words with the "exack" same sound but different meanings.

The linguists also point out some lexical differences in Appalachian English. For example, the Standard American English word might be faucet, but the Appalachian English version would be spigot. If somebody looks sick, we might say, "he's peaked" (that's peek-ed). Did you hurt your finger? Then we might say you "stoved it up." I once knew a man who substituted "for" for "because." He'd say, "I need to go to the store, for I'm out of milk." My brother would substitute the entire remainder of our family with the word "nim." He'd ask me, "Did Mama and nim go to the store?" Some people say "knowed" rather than "knew." We're famous for our double negatives. "I don't have none of that." Our present perfect tense has raised some eyebrows, too. "He's done done it now!"

This little foray into my Appalachian heritage has given me new insight. We might chop off some of our "-ings"; we might "reckon" rather than "guess" sometimes; and we might have places with such outlandish names as "Lick Skillet," "Frog Holler" and "Sugar Loaf," but we have a rich history. We know where we came from and, for the most part, where we're going. And if anyone thinks we're a bunch of ignorant hillbillies, then you ought to come and get to know us a little better. If you stay long enough, we might be able to teach you how to talk right.

Gayle Trent's latest book is a comedic mystery titled BETWEEN A CLUTCH AND A HARD PLACE. Find out more about the book at Gayle's Web Page.



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