Appalachian English

Me, when I had a strong accent.

Once I had a mountain twang. It was thick as bacon fat and stronger than the scent off a rose bush in full bloom. When I was three and living on Bent Mountain, my daddy recorded me. On that tape, you can hear me sassing at bedtime, “Maw’ma, ayan’t slea’pee. Ayan’t red’ee for bed, Maw’ma.”

I didn’t know that I spoke with a dialect. Everyone around me talked the same way–choppy and fast without stopping between words. Our sentences were punctuated by hums that could mean approval, agreement, doubt, or just plain annoyance, all depending on the tone. Sayings added flourish to our speech and framed our world with metaphor:

Lord willin and the creek don’t rise.

Can’t get ahead for tryin’.

Can’t afford a pot to piss in.

Hintin’ is in West Virginia.

Knock you into the middle of next week.

It was a gorgeous, elaborate accent, and it began to erode when I signed up for high school theater. I had to neutralize my speech on stage. For a while, the twang came back after the curtain closed, but eventually, over-enunciation took a toll. My accent softened for entire school days and even at home, where everyone thought I talked kind of funny.

Then I moved outside Appalachia. I went to college in the Piedmont of North Carolina. Natives talk slower there; the spoken word is more languid, but I didn’t adopt this variation of Southern speech.

Instead I was influenced by politically progressive Yankees. They were the kind who drove clunker Saabs and spent their free time debating the merits of Ayn Rand novels. Few of them had any distinguishable accent beyond the flat intonation of America’s hyper-educated class.

This dull tone wore down whatever was left of my twang. It also changed what I heard back home. On the phone and during visits, the local dialect popped. Someone would say, “Hey, swee’dee,” or call me “Maur’kle’en,” and I’d smile. It was like being greeted with fireworks every time I talked to my family and mountain friends.

I’ve heard that many Appalachians ditch their accents because of work. Some years back, National Geographic explained it this way:

“It’s a common precaution among many young adults from the United States’ southern Appalachian Mountains to disguise their unique way of speaking when they seek work elsewhere. They fear their distinct twang, nonstandard grammar, and obscure idioms will cause potential employers to conclude they are incapable of holding jobs.”

This never occurred to me. My accent was virtually gone by the time I began working white collar jobs. I doubt it hindered my career; maybe it was because I was passing. Like people of color who used to pass for white, I blended into the dominate culture. I never denied my Appalachian roots, but for years I didn’t focus on them.

I lived in Boston during my twenties and emulated New England norms. I listened to rock and jazz, not bluegrass. I vacationed at the beach or abroad, not in the mountains. I wore button downs, khakis, and rolled neck sweaters.

Once, a friend told some colleagues that I was from the Virginia mountains. Their eyes got big, and one said, “No way. I’d always assumed he was a Kennedy or something.”

Of course, in Boston the local dialect was in direct contradiction to my native one. Bostonians talk as if the letter “r” had never been invented. “Pahk the cah in Hahvahd yahd,” is the stock joke about their accent. Meanwhile, mountain people can drag an “r” out so far you’d think it was the whole of the alphabet. “Ids nad’farrr if yeur drivin’ yeur’carrr.”

It’s no surprise that my accent remained dormant until I headed south. Seven years ago I moved to DC. A job was waiting and there was the promise of better weather, but mostly I was ready to be close to the Blue Ridge. On weekends, I drove to the mountains to hike, kayak, hang with locals, and for the first time in a decade, talk the way I was meant to talk.

As unconsciously as it had drifted away, my accent returned. “Ain’t” and “ya’ll” and “s’ko” eased out of my mouth. They sounded softer than when I was a kid, but they were back, still seasoned with a distinctive drawl. Their cadence felt natural, as if it had been inside me the whole time, waiting on the sweet smell of mountain laurel to draw it out.

Now my accent comes and goes, depending on my mood, who’s talking to me, how much I’ve had to drink, and, especially, where I am. It’s like a radio station during a car trip. In general, it’s clearer in the mountains, and it fades in town.

Driving West from DC, I pick up the signal somewhere around the intersection of Highways 66 and 81. My vowels get longer. Single consonant words begin breaking into two. Everything starts looking “purdy as a pikcher” once I cross into the Shenandoah Valley. If you’re in the car with me, you might even hear a gentle, twanging hum of approval.

Apparently, I’m not the only one who’s proud of his mountain drawl. In that National Geographic article, Walt Wolfram, a linguistics professor at the North Carolina State University says, “What we’re finding is that people are taking a new pride in their mountain culture. That includes their language. People are making the comment, ‘We’re hillbillies, but we’re proud of it. That’s who we are.'”

There’s even a new Facebook page called Appalachian English. It’s trying to “develop a standard of wraatin da better refleck ar speech.” Under the Discussions tab, it even has guidelines for spelling in our dialect.

So if you’re from Appalachia, are you proud of your accent? Still got it? Ever felt pressured to lose it?

If you’re not, what do you think when you hear Appalachian accents? What do they bring to mind?

10 Comments

  • Gladys Gheesling

    Well, I (flat i) guess I still have sum of mi accent left over. Hit don’t matter none tho. I still use a lot of the idioms when I really want to make a point!

    Hit aint very far down to the far station. (fire)……they have sawwwsage cookin sumtime…………Won’t yall stay for supper?………Couldnt find his butt with two hands and a serch warnt……dont chall get hit with that arn bar(iron)

    Perhaps I have learned to enunciate properly the King’s English or have I?

  • jterry

    Wow… I could’ve written the same post myself… minus the Boston part. A friend of mine from NW Georgia tried that town out for awhile, and called me one day to announce that his snot done froze, and he was a-movin’ back south.

  • marklynn

    Ha! It sure is cold up there. Where abouts did you grow up?

  • Uncle

    Hey Bud! I just finished readin’ a little book called the Dixie Dictionary. I decided to highlight all the passages I have heard frequently. Boy I used up a lot of highlighters! LOL I’m glad your Momma told me where to find this. Give a shout some time we’re all fair to middlin’ here.

  • Margaret

    I live in Asheville, got my speech from my mother who was born here, directly descended from English and Irish. Never have lost my accent, though I have been overseas and out West. Never want to lose it. I am very proud of it, and my children have the same accent, as well as my grandson, even though he speaks Swedish and lives there. I love to hear it, never tire of it. Northerners think we are stupid, but quite the opposite!

  • Will

    Just found the blog, and I’m working my way through. My mother is from East Tennessee (Erwin), but I was born & raised in Tucson AZ. She worked for IBM, and her accent disappeared…………until she called home. We’d give her crap about it all the time. It was never hard to tell who called. We knew it was family when the accent came back. I find that I have it as well, especially when I head back home. (yes, Tennessee will ALWAYS be home)

  • Angela Teague

    I have a thick southern drawl and an even thicker thang. I do not use the “mountain phrases and mountain dictionary”, such as “hen on a junebug”, or “over yonder”. I am educated, as I hold several professional degrees. In no way do I live like a “hillbilly”, (even though I do enjoy a mess of ramps). However, I could most likely fit in with any group of country, backwoods hillbillies without being differentiated. Although I find the language, phrases and the accent beautiful and charming, I found this sight by searching ways to lose the accent.
    I am very aware of the discrimination we endure for a simple accent. Everyone has an accent. However, people are quick to point ours out. We are polite enough to never point theirs out. I am very resentful of the teasing and mocking that my friends, neighbors, family and myself have tolerated for years. In a time of “political correctness”, and such a focus on “not discriminating”, I find it repulsive that we people from the Appalachia are still a group that society finds absolutely acceptable and entertaining to mock, name call, make assumptions, and the list goes on. Why can the world refer to us as “hillbillies”, but words like “thug”, or racial slurs, or cultural slurs and such are offensive, and unacceptable? Excuse me if I expect the same consideration and social courtesy as the government and society insists I show everyone else.
    My neighbor moved to the heart of the mountains of Western North Carolina. He brought a strong New Jersey/New York accent. We all welcomed him with kindness and hospitality. However, many years later he is still mimicking the accent, laughing at it, and pointing it out. Does he really think that we don’t hear his? I just do not understand in this melting pot called America, especially in a time of so-called social awareness and acceptance, it is still acceptable to make fun of my accent, call me names, stereotype me, and assume that I am uneducated, illiterate, barefoot, drinking moonshine and eating possum pie, and married to my first cousin? Some areas have lots of drug dealers, but no moonshine. Some areas have a high concentration of homo-sexuals, but we personally grew up with our hometown mate’s families. We could compare/contrast differences and likenesses all day. What’s the point though?
    Each culture has its own phrases and nicknames for things. Some religions do as well. Many races have their own language and words.
    Why are people so ignorant they forget this? People from other cultures, other races, other states, other sexual preferences visit our beautiful mountains and have a vacation of rudely entertaining themselves at our expense. How could the world have anymore of a negative assumption about our intellect, our values and our knowledge of the world if we called them crude names and made remarks about the way they live or talk, or worship, or color, etc.
    I met someone the other day who asked, “What do ‘you people’ do for work? How do you make a living?” I replied, “Well all of us don’t make moonshine. Some of us are teachers. college professors. Others are doctors, nurses, postal workers, truck drivers, office personal, retail clerks, managers, fast food service. and any kind of job, career, or profession you have in your community” Here are examples of IGNORANT people. Seems like we need to re-define who is ignorant.
    We don’t marry our cousin with any more often than any other area. We don’t all drink moonshine any more than others areas drink wine or vodka or beer. We do have high school drop-outs, just as every area, We do have deadbeats, as other areas, We do sit on the porch and enjoy the mountains, rather than shop from concrete sidewalks of a city. We do eat fried foods, just as other cultures have foods representative of their own group.
    I could write a novel about my opinions, complaints, and feelings regarding the mistreatment/discrimination of my fellow Appalachian people. Aren’t we all just people with individual backgrounds and cultures? Are we all really so different?
    My wish is that the word ‘hillbilly’ be eliminated from language. My wish is that Southern people be shown the same consideration and manners as all others groups of people. My wish is that a world of ignorant people do a little research before visiting this area and realize we are just like them, (only different). I am proud of my heritage. On one hand it is a fine thing that I am surrounded these days by some of my heritage and culture and I know where I came from. On the other hand, it is Shameful that I have to search the web for ways to reduce my accent in order to visit my family to the West and to the North and in Canada without ridicule and being mocked in front of my grandchildren. I am a first grade teacher who has many awards and accolades. I have endured teasing and name calling in front of my students. Yes, I am a Southerner, but I have manners and tact.

  • Daisy

    I find myself in a tough spot here. My parents are “Florida people”, but my brothers and I were born and raised in southwestern NC. I have an extremely thick accent at times and a completely neutral American accent at others and sometimes something inbetween. I’ve been asked by people I’ve known my entire life where I’m from. I’ve been called “halfback” even though I’m FROM here. I don’t feel at home here even though I should, but I could never feel at home in Florida either. I’ve had yankees and actual halfbacks outright mock my accent. Also, I can’t stand yankees and how rude and mean they are, but…”locals” aren’t really that accepting of me either despite the fact that I’m a native.

    As a female especially (and one with a not-so-sweet sounding voice) I worry more about what more educated and cultured people would think about me on account of my accent. Fortunately, I haven’t encountered anyone around here of that description. Haha. I can suppress it for a time and other times I don’t have to, but still. I wouldn’t care, I guess, if it weren’t for the stigma. I guess if I hadn’t been dirt poor and had more of an opportunity to be educated and had degrees and such I could be like “screw you, I’m educated”, but that’s not the case. It makes me feel really insecure, honestly. It’s like I’m too “hillbilly” for “outsiders” and too much of an “outsider” to “hillbillies”. I’ve known a few other people like this too but they usually don’t have the accent or it’s not as thick so it’s a lonely feeling. Discrimination goes both ways, but it hurts more when it comes from your own than from damn yankees who nobody likes anyway. I dunno. I just wish I didn’t have the accent at all. My grandparents thought it sounded incredibly ignorant and backwards (makes me wonder why they moved here at all…) and always discouraged me from speaking “that way” as a kid, but when I developed multiple personalities, eventually, in my early twenties, one of them took on a full-blown accent. Now I can’t get rid of it. Oh well.

    And as for writing like that, hell no. It may have some place in literature, though.

    This post was actually getting me down until I remembered the times I would holler at the old yankee Jew women in Highlands driving through town. Haha! Good times. (As a kind-of-Floridian I’m entitled not to like them and as a hillbilly to harass them. Don’t judge.)

  • Sharrol Hensley

    Boy, did you open a can of worms. Been there, done that. As my pawpaw would say, that is uglier than a mule eating saw brars through a barbed ware fence.
    Yes I’m a hillbilly too, and proud of our hospitality, strong work ethic, our ability to make do, strong Christian values, and our colorful language.
    I’m starting a blog “Hunting Family in Huntdale”. Hope to be up a running soon.

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