The History of Appalachian English: Why We Talk Differently
“Where are you from?” An annoying question asked in a condescending tone I have been forced to endure nearly my entire life. Whether I travel north into Yankeedom or south into Dixie, it seems that the way I (and everyone I grew up with) talk just seems oddly out of place.
We don’t have a Yankee accent, but we also don’t really speak with a southern drawl. Ours is an accent that is entirely unique and though it’s often the subject of scorn and ridicule, the Appalachian dialect is an ancient connection to our rich heritage and deserves to be safeguarded and honored.
The language we speak is known as Appalachian-English and actually serves as one of the oldest varieties of English spoken in this nation.
But why do we speak it and where did this dialect come from?
Like nearly all things related to Appalachia, there is no one clear answer to this question; however, extensive research has been conducted on this very topic for the better part of a century in order to determine why so many of us pronounce words such as “wire,” “fire,” “tire,” and “retired” as “war,” “far,” “tar,” and “retard” respectively.
Appalachian-English also places an “-er” sound at an end of a word with a long “o”. For example, “hollow”— a small, sheltered valley— is pronounced like “holler”. Other examples are “potato” (pronounced “tader”), “tomato” (pronounced “mader”), and “tobacco” (pronounced “backer”).H retention occurs at the beginning of certain words as well. “It”, in particular, is pronounced “hit” at the beginning of a sentence and also when emphasized. The word “ain’t” is pronounced “hain’t”.The noun “grease” is pronounced with an “s,” but this consonant turns into a “z” in the adjective and in the verb “to grease.”
And then of course there is the unending and longstanding feud regarding what is the proper way to pronounce the region itself, “Appalachia”. People who live in the Appalachian dialect area pronounce the word with a short “a” sound (as in “latch”) in the third syllable, while those who live outside of the Appalachian dialect area or at its outer edges tend to pronounce it with a long “a” sound (as in “lay”).
Of course on this subject, we all know it’s “App-ah-latch-uh”… or I’ll throw an apple-atch’a!
But why is it that we speak so uniquely?
The predominate theory is that the existence of Appalachian-English is the result of the isolation the mountains beyond the Blue Ridge ensured — making our dialect one of the most ancient and protected dialects in the nation.
While our high-browed relatives who moved to the big city and lost their accent may frown upon our words and pronunciations, it is believed that the Appalachian dialect is a remnant of Elizabethan English.
An evidence of this is the use of words such as “afeared”, a Shakespearean word that is largely forgotten by most English speakers outside of the Appalachian region.
Other ancient phrases include the use of “might could” for “might be able to”, the use of “‘un” with pronouns and adjectives (e.g., young’un), the use of “done” as a helping verb (e.g., “we done finished it”), and the use of words such as airish, brickle, swan, and bottom land all of which were common in Southern and Central England in 17th and 18th centuries.
Interestingly, Appalachian-English has virtually no Native American influences (with the exception being place names, e.g., “Appalachia”, “Tennessee”, “Kanawha”, etc.) while so many other regional dialects in the nation do contain heavy influences from Native Americans. This is noteworthy, as it showcases something we know and realize today — the people who settled this region are not easily influenced by the accents and languages of others, even if they become displaced, Appalachian-English is a hard dialect to lose.
Further evidence of this reality may be found in several areas in the State of Texas.
Nearly two centuries ago, the sons of Virginia’s Appalachian region (Stephen F. Austin & Sam Houston), as well as men of Tennessee (Davy Crocket) and Kentucky (James Bowie) made the decision to leave the mountains and head into the land of Tejas — eventually forming a new Republic, built by the blood and sweat of Appalachia’s sons.
Despite being some 1,200 miles apart, Appalachian-English is still alive and well in multiple Texas localities. There, in the Lonestar State, you’ll hear phrases such as “Like’t’a”, proving that you may take the man out of Appalachia, but you won’t be able to take the Appalachia out of the man.