WYTHE COUNTY, Va., February 27, 2014 — When trying to define the roots of Appalachian mountain language, to make sweeping generalizations more often than not sacrifices accuracy. Since pioneers from virtually all parts of Europe made the trek to the mountains to settle, folks can drive an hour in any direction and find themselves scratching their heads at how different the local lingo is from one mountain hollow to the next.
It is true that various terms are rooted in Elizabethan English, Scottish, Celtic, and Irish languages, and dialects do remain in use amongst the Appalachian people, but there is no across the board commonality amongst them that explains the unique nature of the language, other than geography. Urban immigrant and ethic concentrations existed, yet no clearly distinct way of speaking beyond a common accent had developed in these places.
The extreme mountain terrain meant that settlements were more enclaves than communities, with isolation, as always, the common theme. Because of this, languages developed almost within a vacuum, with little to no outside influence. These peculiarities are still alive and well today, even if the relative isolation no longer exists. The unique style of speech itself has become a part of the Appalachian identity.
One common theme I can list is a tendency to drop any consonant that isn’t absolutely necessary. When saying any verb that ends in “ing,” such as “walking,” the “G” will always be dropped. It’s always “walkin” and never “walking.”
It doesn’t matter where a consonant is in a word, the two letters “TH” are often dropped at the beginning of a word. “That there” is said “’at ’ere.” “That’s okay” is most often said “’at’s okay.” “R” at the beginning of a word may be dropped as well. “Right there” becomes “’ite ’ere.”
Restructuring the sound of a word to omit a vowel at the end of the word is common as well. “Fire” becomes “Far,’ “Tire” becomes “Tar,” and “Wire” becomes “War.”
Appalachian Americans are proud of their vowels, however, and will often add one where none exists in common English. “Well” becomes “wey-ul,” head” becomes “hey-ud,” and “theatre” becomes “the-yadur.” Vowels as a rule are held just a little longer in speech, a pattern they share with their Southern neighbors.
So fond of vowels are the mountain people, they will often add “A” at the beginning of a verb, almost in what seems like a random pattern. “Hunting” becomes “a-huntin”, and “drinking” becomes “a-drinkin.” The examples of this are prodigious; just add the vowel before any verb, and as a general rule it works.
Occasionally words will be reversed to mean the same thing. “However” is often said “everhow.” “Everwho” and “everwhat” are also common words in the Appalachian Mountains.
There also exists within the mountain language words that confound explanation, such as the word “dun,” that translates to bill, the kind creditors send you. “Nothin’ but duns in the mail today” means a mailbox full of bills.
The word “poke” means bag for some mysterious reason. At a small country store after making a purchase one may be asked, “You want that in a poke?”
In Appalachia, people never pay the electric bill; it is always referred to as paying “the light bill.” Also, more often than not “Cut the light off” is said instead of turn the light off.
When failing to report to work, instead of not showing up, it is “lay out,” so missing work becomes “lay out of work.” The word “clean” can be used to state the completing of an action or something done all the way, such as “He knocked that feller clean into next Tuesday.”
“Fixin’ to” means getting ready to and “directly” means in a short while. “I’m fixin to go home directly” means “I’m getting ready to leave soon.” “Ary” means any, so the sentence “Anyone want a ride home?” becomes “Ary one a yall want a ride home?”
The closest the language comes to having passive aggressive phrases is “bless their heart.” Anything derogatory can be said about anyone as long as it is followed by “bless their heart.” That girl is dumb as a bucket of rocks, bless her heart.”
Scholars have endlessly argued about the specific origins of each of these anomalies but defining the origins of the language of the mountain people is as futile a task as defining the mountain people themselves. From every background and ethnic group they came to the mountains for their own reasons, so to try and define them with a few well-chosen words is impossible. For the scholars still trying, all I can say is “bless their heart.”
Do not look at the language as a simple-minded version of proper English. Appreciate it for its unique and colorful nature, just as we appreciate the rest of America for its unique and colorful nature.
This article originally published April 12, 2012