Appalachian Code Switching

Many people's Appalachian accents grow stronger when talking with mountain family.
Many people's Appalachian accents grow stronger when talking with mountain family.

Appalachian accents are like no other. A mash up of influences—British Isles, German, African dialects, probably some Native American—all mixed together and baked in our secluded hills for a couple centuries.

Some say that the resulting sound is more like Elizabethan English than the contemporary accent in England. I’m not sure how to confirm that without a time machine, but I do know that the minute Appalachian natives leave the mountains, that accent sets them apart.

You know how it goes. A friend from, say, New Jersey is deaf to his own thick intonation but doesn’t hesitate to reference the Beverly Hillbillies or Deliverance when poking fun at yours. Some folks call it vocal imperialism. I just call it mean.

But it works. Countless mountain people are ashamed of the sound of their own voices, some going so far as beating the accent into submission with diction classes.

This pitiful pattern set today’s guest blogger Chelyen Davis to thinking. A Southwest Virginia native who lives in Richmond, she sees “code switching” among Appalachian folks all the time. That’s when someone switches dialects depending on the circumstances.

Chelyen, who also writes on her own blog Homesick Appalachian, asks an important question—now that we’re constantly exposed to people from other regions, is code switching just a fact of life or are we losing a key piece of our mountain heritage?

We’d love to hear your thoughts. Be sure to leave a comment below.

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NPR recently started an interesting conversation on Twitter by asking if public radio voices are “too white” and if those white-sounding public radio voices are limiting the audience, shutting out people who don’t necessarily choose to listen to people who don’t sound like them.

The discussion grew out of an African-American professor and hiphop artist who did some radio work and noticed that he talked differently for radio, and was considering why. From what I could tell from the Twitter discussion, folks of other ethnicities weighed in, and then people started talking about how public radio voice isn’t just white, it’s a sort of standard, non-accented white. You don’t often hear regional accents on NPR, no matter what race the speaker is.

That’s an interesting and valuable conversation to have, and it gets into all kinds of issues — race, ethnicity, regional dialects, the value placed on how we talk, how we sound, the words we choose, how others judge us by all that, etc. An interesting comment on that is here.

But it got me thinking off on a specific related tangent — Appalachian code-switching. This probably would apply to any strong regional accent (hi, Boston), but Appalachian accents are my own experience.

I don’t think everyone in Appalachia (or the south, or another region with a strong accent) code-switches. Not everyone needs to. My uncles and cousins mostly still live in the small communities where they grew up, and I doubt they talk any differently at work on the strip job than they do at home. They might change their words a bit when they go to, say, the doctor’s office in Bristol or Johnson City. But largely, their lives are lived around people who talk the way they do.

But I grew up hearing my parents code-switch, because they left those communities. They were both the first in their (large) families to go to college, and we lived in a town — still in Appalachia, but outside the more isolated, small communities where they both grew up. You could hear my mother’s voice change when she called her parents on the phone. To neighbors where we lived, it was your basic “Hi, how are you?” To her own parents, it was “Howdydo. Howre you’uns a-doin?”

She still does that when she calls her dad or brothers, or when we visit them. And so do I. It seems you only need to code-switch when you leave. (Or become a radio/tv host.)

I am an adopter of accents. I think there’s actually a word for that but I don’t know it — I unconsciously mimic the accent of the person I’m talking to, if I talk to them for long enough and if their accent is distinctive enough. I don’t mean to, and they aren’t necessarily flattered by it, and I don’t always do it strongly. I first noticed it when I spent a month in England in college.

But my own accent is softly Southwest Virginian. I’ve lived away a good long while, so it’s not as strong as, say, some of my cousins’ accents. And probably it never was, because we lived in town and my parents went to college and I grew up watching public TV and, as I noted in a previous post, I was the kind of kid who thought “ain’t” wasn’t a proper word. But it’s there. People here, away from the mountains, sometimes comment on it, or ask where I’m from. It’s a great way to find fellow mountain folks here — we can hear each other talk, and believe me, if I hear an accent that sounds like it’s from Southwest Virginia, I’m going to ask that person where they’re from.

My sister’s accent has mostly faded, but mine hasn’t. I think I’m just prone to an accent. Also, I lived back home for a couple of years after college, so maybe it sort of “set” then. It gets stronger if I’ve had a glass or two of wine, and it gets stronger when someone asks about it. It knows when it’s being talked about, and it likes to show off.

I have a professional job, but I rarely consciously talk differently than I would, say, at a party or at home. The primary exception has been at public events — say, if I’m on a speaking panel — or the occasional times when I’ve been a guest on a radio show (public radio, at that!). I think the accent tightens up a bit then, tries to behave itself. I probably make some different word choices than my colloquial speaking voice, although I know I’ve said “might could” on the radio.

My writing changes some, too. I’m rereading this post and it sounds awfully formal. If you and I were sitting down and just chatting about this, I would probably say things a bit differently.

But that’s all code-switching, I suppose, to an extent. I also know I talk differently when I call home to Mom, and even more so when I call my grandfather. I talk differently when I visit my parents’ families. My boyfriend tells me I talk differently when I come back from a visit home. So I code-switch both ways, to a lesser accent and to a stronger one.

And I’m glad. I’d rather switch than talk blandly all the time. I don’t want to lose my accent, my word choices, the colorfulness of Appalachian ways of talking. I’d be fine with that accent getting stronger. I know many people outside the mountains assume someone with a strong mountain accent is a dumb hick, but I figure that’s their problem, not mine. I love using terms like “might could/should/would” — and it is so handy, perfectly describing that point between “I could go to the party” and “I only MIGHT could go to the party.” I love having that vocal connection to home, to a place and a culture and a history.

My boss once told me he had heard a theory that we talk like where we want to be. I miss home, so I love talking like people back home. People who are glad to get out of the mountains (and there are some such misguided souls) probably welcome the disappearance of their accents, consciously work to shed them. The boss had come from a poor, flat farming area in North Carolina. He didn’t seem to much miss it, and he didn’t talk like his roots either.

I’m not a linguist. I assume there are studies and papers and research and opinions out there about this subject, about Appalachians shedding their accents in the flatlands. I know there are many papers and studies and ruminations about the broader issues of the homogenization of language, the pernicious effects of TV (and radio!) on making us all sound the same, the value judgments placed on word choices and on speaking “proper” English, and all that.

But I love accents and words that change by region. Perhaps because I value them so highly for my own sense of culture and place, I’m all for everyone else having their own too. Why should we all talk the same? Language should be colorful. So while I love public radio, I hope it doesn’t Henry Higgins us all, stamping out accents and strange pronunciations and weird words.


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How I Got My Twang Back


341 Comments

  • morgen

    I’m one of those who pick up accents. I’ve been accused of “making fun” of my relatives with southern or english accents. I’ve lived in various parts of the country, and my words always pick up the local colloquialisms. I want to sound like I’m from there, so I match my accent to my locale.

    I guess I “code-switch” a bit, too. My writing is very formal. I now live in a part of the country in the southern appalachian region. I don’t always hear the differences, but my tongue does…

    Thanks for the article.

  • Shannon

    Oh Leah NWM, I’m originally from Piitsburgh and none of them yinzers have any business poking fun at your accent. Just tell ’em not to get their babushkas in a bunch ‘n ‘at.

  • Anonymous

    I feel a friendship has reached a new level when I notice that my friend no longer code-switches with me.

  • Liz Hood

    I also pick up accents easily which is handy in speaking or singing in other languages. I can do on ourpise–or pick it up quite unconsciously as I did when talking to a teacher from Paris back when I was in college. She was very provoked, convinced that I had been put up to it to make fun of her by one of the other professors!
    I agree that accents are disappearing and that, I think by choice. I feel it is unfortunate as it makes us linguistically Boring! Please–keep on practicing accents and don’t let them be lost!

  • Liz Hood

    I also pick up accents easily which is handy in speaking or singing in other languages. I sing in 10 if one counts my native language of English. I can do on purpose–or pick it up quite unconsciously as I did when talking to a teacher from Paris back when I was in college. She was very provoked, convinced that I had been put up to it to make fun of her by one of the other professors!
    I agree that accents are disappearing and that, I think by choice. I feel it is unfortunate as it makes us linguistically boring! Please–keep on practicing accents and don’t let them be lost!

  • Echo

    i was born in upstate ny and moved to elizabeton tn at the age of 40. after 10yrs i picked up quite a bit of accent, saying and wordings. then i moved to maine, needless to say i stood out for a while. but having spent a lot of my childhood years visiting an uncle in nh it didn’t take long to start speaking ‘new englander’. i stopped at a grocery store on the way to a friends party and there was a ‘southerner’ cashier. her accent immediately got my southern accent in gear.
    she went nuts to hear a “home accent voice”. come to find out she was from mt city tn, about 30 or 40miles from where i had lived in tn. she actually got tears in her eyes talking to me because she was so homesick.

  • Brian

    Born in Johnson City but grew up in Weber City, VA (Scott Co). I don’t possess the ability to “code switch”. Not sure I would if I could. I speak in front of hundreds each week and many find my accent endearing…they’re learning to speak Appalachian. 😉

  • Tonya

    I’m from eastern KY, and I have lived all over the United States, but I never really lost much of my accent. I really don’t care what other people think of the way I talk–I can say, though, that I have had a few instances when people underestimated me because of it, but if anything it gave me a tactical advantage.

  • Connie Lee

    I’ve heard this called “linguistic sensitivity”.
    If you were to travel to France, you would I hope try to engage in communication using the language spoken there. I find myself changing my own dialect in different environments.

  • Lee

    I wasn’t aware that I was code-switching until a friend pointed it out to me. My family had a southern Appalachian mountain accent sprinkled with words my maternal grandmother used–I am not sure where they originated.
    When I went to college, some of my classmates had a heyday with all that, good-naturedly, but still a bit embarrassing.
    So, I began altering my speech and word choices. Of course, then I’d go home for a visit and my family thought I was trying to be “above my raisin'”!
    Apparently, this began my code-talking and imitating the speech of those around me. A friend noticed how I changed depending on who was around and pointed it out. I had no idea how much I did it.

  • Renee

    Enjoyed your article! We sound like birds of a feather. Born n raised in western NC, I moved to Raleigh for a few years, and I’ve been in Hawaii for 13 years now. When I got my first full time job in Raleigh at a Fortune 500, I was asked to watch the news and mimic the anchors’ non-regional dialects –not as an insult to my accent, but so that our customers and colleagues could better understand what I was saying. Here in Hawaii, I’m constantly mingling with folks from various nations whose first language is not English, so I very naturally code-switch to that non-regional dialect. I subconsciously switch back as soon as I’m on the phone with my mom –and also when I’m mad about something hahaa!
    Interestingly, I conducted a seminar and gave a presentation for my senior research project in college on my specific accent and how media misrepresents the Appalachian South. It’s such an interesting topic to me. I also pick up others’ accents without meaning to…..such as the pidgin here in Hawaii when I’m speaking with kama’aina. It’s refreshing to know I’m not the only one!
    Loved your article.

  • Renee

    Enjoyed your article! We sound like birds of a feather. Born n raised in western NC, I moved to Raleigh for a few years, and I’ve been in Hawaii for 13 years now. When I got my first full time job in Raleigh at a Fortune 500, I was asked to watch the news and mimic the anchors’ non-regional dialects –not as an insult to my accent, but so that our customers and colleagues could better understand what I was saying. Here in Hawaii, I’m constantly mingling with folks from various nations whose first language is not English, so I very naturally code-switch to that non-regional dialect. I subconsciously switch back as soon as I’m on the phone with my mom –and also when I’m mad about something hahaa!
    I conducted a seminar and gave a presentation for my senior research project in college on my specific accent and how media misrepresents the Appalachian South. It’s such an interesting topic to me. I also pick up others’ accents without meaning to…..such as the pidgin here in Hawaii when I’m speaking with kama’aina. It’s refreshing to know I’m not the only one!
    Loved your article.

  • Anonymous

    While in college at ETSU, I built up the nerve to ask a girl on a date with whom I’d passed and exchanged smiles on the sidewalk for many mornings one summer. She was brutally honest with me and said she was interested until she heard me speak — and she was ALSO from east Tennessee! That’s how thick my Appalachian accent was. For the first time in my life, I was embarrassed of who I was and where I came from. I later moved to Texas for a few years and was ridiculed and laughed at (“Hey, say that word again… no, like you said it the first time. Aw, come on, you know we’re just joking….”). Of course, this later round of ridicule was coming from a region also known for their very distinct, but very different, southern accent. I couldn’t win. I became so aware of my accent, I was almost petrified to speak in public. I decided to get rid of it. I would record myself reading out loud, purposefully slowing my speech and carefully enunciating each word, until I was happy with the way I sounded. Years later, my accent is much fainter, but still there. I’m glad I wasn’t successful in completely erasing it.

  • Mark L Parkey

    I moved to Chicago with my parents when I was 12. My family was from Harlan County in Southeastern Kentucky in the heart of coal mining country. The Chicago kids definitely pointed out my accent. They would ask me to say certain words or phrases that would give them a little giggle. After a while I became conscious of it and started the transformation. Outside of Chicago, anywhere else in the Midwest, most people speak with a somewhat Southern drawl or Midwestern drawl. It’s not as strong but it is noticeable. My mother never lost her accent but mine is pretty well gone. I do go back to the Appalachians now and then and it doesn’t take long for the accent to start coming back to me. When I hear the locals speak it’s like music to my ears. Feels like home.

  • Judy Mitchell

    I love this article! I was born in Southwest Virginia and had a wonderful mountain accent until we moved to Maryland. In the fourth grade I had a wonderful teacher( from Richmond) who promptly told me that if it was the last thing she did, that was she was going to break me of my Southern accent(hillbilly). What? When she sounded like she had a mouthful of mush! Now, people are totally confused when they hear me talk. Am I from Baltimore? The South? Some even place me in Philly.
    And, yes, I code switch.

  • KEVIN CAMPBELL

    I LOVE THIS,,,I’M A NATIVE WV UN, FROM LOGAN,,I’M HAVE FAMILY ALL OVER WV,,MINGO,, KANAWHA,,LOGAN,,WELCH,,

  • KEVIN CAMPBELL

    I’M FROM LOGAN WV ,,,,HAVE FAMILY ALL OVER WV. MIMGO,,KANAWHA ,,WELCH ,LOGAN,,I LOVE THIS STUFF,,, AMEN,

  • Michael Johnson

    I grew up in Marion and now am a professor at a community college in Roanoke and although they’re not that far away from each other physically, they are miles apart when it comes to the accents. In Marion people have “tars” on their cars. When I go home for one day, I bring the accent back for a week.

  • Shirley Petreye

    I do this. I’m from SW VA living in Florida. People made fun of my accent when I first moved here. It felt strange to me to have someone with a thick NY accent making fun of my accent. Anyway, over the years I have lost most of my VA accent except when I go home. I am almost immediately conscious of my accent returning when I am home with my own people.

  • Sharon

    I was born in southeastern Kentucky and moved away when I married in 1979. I have lived all across the US and never lost my accent. I have had some people make comment about it (some being kind and others not so much). But, I am who I am and I am proud of my heritage.

  • Shirley Petreye

    I come from SW VA. When I moved to south Florida people made fun of my accent and phraseology. That seemed strange when most of the people I met here had a thick NY accent. At any rate over the years my accent faded. Except when I go home. I’m almost immediately conscious of my accent returning when speaking to people I treasure as my own. Can’t wait to get back to those hills.

  • Bre Martin

    How I Got My Twang Back, it almost made me get my “twang” back and I left the Appalachians 45 years ago. I, also live in the DC metro area.

    My mother recently passed away and prior to her demise, I spent 14 days with her in a hospital in Kingsport, TN. I had not been in the hospital for 10 minutes before I heard a nurse say “I hear a Yankee in here.” But, give me 2 glasses of wine, and I’ll be asking you, How y’all doin’?

    Great publication!

  • Joe

    Moved from southwest VA to Richmond when I was 15. Got into fights because of my accent. Took an “accent reduction” class to better fit in. It got me interested in languages and linguistics. I still recall my teacher saying: “book is not a two syllable word!!!” Book and fence were words that I struggled with the most. Now I’m an English teacher teaching pronunciation and ESL. coincidence? I have a lot of thoughts about this topic. I’m married now gone woman from Bolivia. And she claims not to understand me when I’m on the phone with old friends or when we visit. So I do code switch a lot. Especially when teaching of in my professional life. Is it a good thing? I don’t know. It’s important to be understood. Bit is hate to think I’m losing something of heritage. My students usually love to here me talk Appalachian. It often leaks out when I’m mad or under some stress. So it’s fairly well ingrained. Great discussion.

  • Chris

    I’ve done extensive studies into the linguistic characteristics of both sides of my family, one from a TN river basin, the other from the foothills of the Great Smoky Mtns….this phenomena is something I have come to love about myself- I have three college degrees, a third towards a doctorate, and I’m beginning at Duke in the Fall towards an M.Div, and I call it ‘putting on.’ When I’m around my parents and family, my accent is more pronounced, and I say things which I know are incorrect. (I taught middle school English 10 years before entering ministry.) However, I’ve found that even though I know saying things like ‘yuns,’ and ‘warsh’ and ‘wacheedoin’ and ‘ye’ for you are all things I slip into to accommodate and make others more comfortable. When you grow up with it in the South, you know when people are trying to be ‘uppity’ and when people are attempting to be authentic, and slipping into my Appalachian puts people at ease and lets them know I’m not trying to hold my education over their head, something which is a major sore spot here in the South, as we have many who never even thought of college as an afterthought!

  • jan Binder

    Code switching…Politicians do it all the time…Especially President Obama…the Clintons….I think when proper English is used , accents are wonderful and sets pple apart by their proud regions… wouldn’t it be a dull world if we all sounded the same!

  • April Brooks

    It is so refreshing to hear all the authentic voices of so many like minded people. I grew up in the mountains at the end of Appalachia in Alabama. My accent is still strong because I refuse to give up my identity. I am ever proud and resilient in standing up for the values and heritage of my ancestors whose culture continues to be destroyed by capitalism. I left home at 18, but go back every year…. to visit family, to backpack on the AT and to reconnect with the mountain girl inside me.

  • Amy

    I recently saw a story on the news about a Texan that woke from surgery w an British accent. Apparently it’s a rare but real condition. The first thought I had was “oh, Lord if you have to give me a different accent please, please don’t let it be eastern sea board or New Jersey /New York”
    I laughed at myself thinking those folks up there probably thought don’t let me sound like I’m from Ky 🙂

  • Mary Somerville

    My husband and I were raised in Mason County, WV , and he kept his accent, I did not. However, I slip into it the minute I hear it.

  • Patricia Youngblood

    In the 80s our family made our first and only visit to my husband’s late father’s family in Georgia, where we met four generations of the deeply rooted family. The elders (his father’s parents generation) were literally incomprehensible to me. His father’s brothers had a pretty strong but easily understood accent, their kids much less so and the youngest generation was definitely speaking what I call television English … the vanilla America version. If it was that way over 40 years ago, I assume it’s much more so now. BTW, I live in Massachusetts and I assure you that the famous Boston accent is nowhere is strong or prevalent as it used to be

  • MAGGIE JONES

    It happens without thinking, according to what I want to get across. I am from CT (southern new england is my reply when my hillbilly husband asks me what part of the S are you from anyhow…). I have been here for almost 40 yrs, more than half my life and my kids were born here, WNC that is. Folks native to here know I am not, folks here from the N think I am native, and of course when I go up N I am made fun of. I have been aware of code switching always. Though I didn know thats what it was called. Depending on who I am talking with or what i am talking about, my accent will adjust.

  • Nancy Allen

    I remember watching the movie “Cold Mountain” and thinking, these guys needed to visit Marshall, NC because the accents were totally wrong in the movie.

  • Robin Brodsky

    It’s similar for native New Yorkers. I grew up on Long Island and there are many negative stereotypes. Amy Schumacker is a poseur. We don’t throw around foul language like that. And people assume we are ignorant or uneducated. Sound familiar? The 5 boroughs all have a distinct intonation and they are very different to a trained ear. Sadly, our accents are disappearing also. I’ve traveled the world extensivly and have had to code switch. Who knows where our accent came from… A mash up from the Irish, German, Italian, Polish, Ashkenazic and other immigrant groups. When I hear an accent different from mine, I am always curious. Not because I think one is better but because getting to know our neighbors breaks down barriers. Great article.

  • Wallflower

    I’ve lived my entire life in East TN. My paternal grandparents and many of their ancestors lived in Pittman Center–just outside of modern day Gatlinburg, where the word “pants” was pronounced “paints” and coke/soda products were called “dope.” Although I have carried some of their pronunciations with me, my accent did get watered down while attending college and I’ve noticed that I do code talk. As I get tired or sleepy, the accent gets thicker and thicker. My two daughters have no accent, which surprises their birth families in OH and FL. However, I have noticed in our area (Blount County, TN) there are so many Yankee transplants that we just don’t hear the East TN accent very often anymore (and probably rarely, if at all, in their school system).

  • Amygeb

    I loved your article. I was born in FL and moved to the Smoky Mtns. when I was 10. It took exactly three weeks for me to lose my newscaster accent. My mother was dismayed. But the school was doing spelling words out loud and I heard every letter of the alphabet pronounced ‘correctly’. I have always matched dialect with others within about six sentences. I also have always been placed at the far end of choirs because if placed near a tenor or bass. I would sing their line instead of mine(soprano). I guess I missed my calling as an impressionist. I can also understand deep accents within a sentence or two. I always laugh when my Dad needs closed caption on for British or Irish accents. I have also noticed something interesting on TV lately. More and more deep accents are watered down or homogenized. I just finished watching a mini-series about the Easter Rebellion in Ireland…and had a hard time distinguishing the Irish from the British. As we become one world with mass communication available to most, this is the result. It makes me a little sad.

  • Michael Evans

    I grew up in rural Sullivan County, Tennessee. When I went to college in Louisiana some changes were required just so people could understand what I was saying. Later I was a trial lawyer and again had to be sure juries, especially, could understand what I said. When I attended court anywhere in rural Tennessee, on the other hand, I enjoyed a linguistic advantage none of my cohorts who grew up in Nashville could possibly match. I call it adaptive communication.

  • Steven

    I’ve lived away from east Tennessee some when in the military and have worked in other areas of the country. Sometimes I’d code switch to try and fit in, other times so there wouldn’t be any confusion as to what I was saying. For example, I worked with nurses from other countries. If I spoke like I did at home they would look at me with ‘huh what’d you say’ on their faces! I asked one time what kind of English I spoke. She just started laughing. She was taught Queens English in her native country. No offense taken though.
    Even if we don’t consciously code switch I think there’s a subconscious component. Living in another area we tend to pick up that areas mannerisms, slang etc.

  • paulette kelly porter

    Well…Lordy….Day. from Wise Co. Va.

  • Rose

    I think the Appalachian accent is distinctly beautiful – soft and lilting. If you’ve got it, don’t hide it. I’m from California, speaking basically standard broadcast English, and honestly not fond of Bronx, Jersey, Texas etc. accents.

  • Sherry forbes

    I worked at a Citi call center in Gray TN and I would code switch while talking to people all over the country. But I had customers tell me they loved my southern accent and ask me where I was from. We should not be ashamed of our accents.

  • Jane Morison

    I love all accents! I am a musician, and I shed my East Tennessee accent when I went away to graduate school and ended up living in the Piedmont of North Carolina. I live in SWVA now, and I let the mountain accent come roaring back! I think if and when we lost our regional accents and colloquialisms, we will have lost a treasure. I think most people subconsciously change the way they speak when they spend time in a different place. We stayed for a couple of weeks with friends in Scotland several year ago, and their daughter laughed at them for speaking “posh English” to us! After a few days it wore off, and they started saying “nae” instead of “not.” We also found out “you-uns” comes from Scotland! How about that?

  • Heather

    I grew up in Southern Virginia and was teased for my accent in college in Richmond at VCU. I was embarrassed and I dd take a diction class on Saturdays learning phonetics… “How now brown cow” and other phrases we drilled and I practiced during church. Once I moved to Ohio people there heard an accent. I stopped using Y’all and adapted. After visiting family in Virginia I do switch back involuntarily. Accents do affect getting jobs.

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