I took a slow and southerly journey through the Appalachian mountains this summer, hoping to hear the strains of some lost southern speech emerging from hill to hollow along its twisted roads. As the linguistic legend goes, the Appalachian dialect is reputedly so odd and so archaic, hundreds of years out of step with the rest of the English-speaking world, that you “might could” ask, as Shakespeare would have it, “What country, friends, is this?”
Well even if Appalachia is America’s mythical Illyria, where rugged mountain men and folk heroes like Daniel Boone roam about checking on their moonshine, some think Shakespeare might feel right at home. In fact, some say that the speech of the southern mountaineers is “pure Elizabethan English” just as Shakespeare would have spoken it. Others go even further and claim that “the dialect of the Appalachian people is the oldest living English dialect, older than the speech of Shakespeare, closer to the speech of Chaucer,” apparently preserved by a brutally impoverished rural existence in the isolation of their mountain fastness, with little contact from the modern civilizing ways of outsiders.
Josiah Combs claimed that “the Southern mountaineers are the conservators of Old, Early, and Elizabethan English in the New World. These four million mountaineers of the South from West Virginia to northern Alabama form the body of what is perhaps the purest Old English blood to be found among English-speaking peoples. Isolated from the outside world, and shut in by natural barriers, they have for more than two centuries preserved much of the language of Elizabethan England.”
Is it true? It doesn’t quite sound like it, though it is a unique kind of speech.
It’s of course a myth that is still being repeated by many to this day. For one thing, language in Appalachia has not frozen in time but evolves just as it has elsewhere. But I reckon Appalachia is full of tall tales with plenty of storytellers to tell them in a colorful turn of phrase or two, whether borrowed from Shakespeare or Chaucer or not.
It is true that Appalachian speech can be quite different from standard American English. This is a dialect that famously uses different vocabulary and meanings, some of which may be archaic, such as “britches” (trousers), “poke” (bag), “sallet” (salad, as in a poke-sallet, of pokeweed rather than bags!), “afeared” (afraid), “fixin” (getting ready, as in “I’m fixin to do something”), “allow” (suppose, as in “I’ll allow as how I’ll go over yander for a leetle spell”).
But words are the least of it. Appalachian accents also differ markedly from the standard, such as in words ending in “oh” sounds, such as “holler” (hollow), “winder” (window), ‘tater” (potato), or “ah” ending words, such as “sody-pop” (soda-pop), “chaney” (china) (and that’s just for starters).
Where it gets interesting are the many grammatical changes from the standard dialect. Michael Montgomery and others have used grammatical evidence, which is generally slower to change than pronunciations, to track Appalachian speech back to their origins from the predominantly Scots-Irish immigrants that settled in the area, along with others. For example, most are familiar with the pronoun “y’all” but there are also unusual constructions such as “might could/should” (“we might should tell him”), “done” (“they have done landed in jail again”), a-prefixing (“he come a-running at me”), “like to/liketa” (“I got lost and liked to never found my way out”).
Language has an important place in the folklore of Appalachia and has evolved to become something quite different from its original linguistic sources. It’s one of the ways Appalachian communities show solidarity and belonging. Language lovers may marvel at this unique linguistic quilt, a thing of threads and patches, that extends across a region that often seems to have little else going for it. But in some ways, the folksiness, the romanticized hearkening back to the past, holds the region back from telling a more nuanced story about itself, where it came from, and where it might be going.
To many Americans, Appalachia is a frustrating cultural cipher in more ways than one. Its uncertain borders seem to ebb and flow with its fortunes. Appalachian historian Ronald Eller wrote that “we know Appalachia exists because we need it to define what we are not. It is the “other America” because the very idea of Appalachia convinces us of the righteousness of our own lives.” People don’t always agree on what counts as the Appalachian region, except, it seems, no matter where you are geographically on the mountain range, if you’re poor, white and rural, you must be in Appalachia. And that’s a difficult definition, separating an Appalachian underclass from the rest of the country with negative epithets like “hillbilly,” “white trash,” and “redneck.” These labels have often been reclaimed and worn as a badge of local pride, yet are no closer to the full story.
So while the Appalachian dialect can be paradoxically praised for being “pure,” and for preserving a prestigious archaic form of the language, the people who speak it are frequently socially stigmatized as ignorant and uneducated for using “incorrect” English, just as other non-standard varieties of English are, such as African American Vernacular English (or AAVE). A verb like “reckon” (as in, I reckon it’ll take five minutes) is regularly used in Australian and British English vernacular, yet the exact same usage in Appalachian English is stigmatized as backwards hillbilly talk. American language attitudes show a marked disrespect and prejudice for marked dialects like Appalachian English. Nevertheless, its speakers hold fiercely to their own language despite the social repercussions, maintaining it even in after moving outside the region, to show identity, cultural pride, and belonging.
The Scots-Irish Myth
It’s important to note that the region is about more than just the Scottish and Irish immigrants who lent their language to the land. Despite the legend that there’s a pure linguistic line from Scots-Irish immigrants to present day white Appalachians, this is just another myth. What linguists like Michael Montgomery and Walt Wolfram have shown is the influx of other immigrant groups have had a profound effect on southern speech.
After all, there’s a long history of Appalachian cultural and linguistic diversity through immigration in and out of the area. In such a widespread region, across so many different states, it seems unlikely there’s any one place or group that can represent the entirety of Appalachian culture or language. Appalachian speech itself varies from holler to holler. The captivating myth of the self-sufficient white mountaineer is deeply embedded in the American psyche, but it is a monoculture myth that dismisses other minority communities that were historically a part of Appalachian life, particularly African Americans, who are often rendered invisible from Appalachian culture (despite being responsible for the banjo, duelling or otherwise), yet made up nearly 10% of the population from 1860.
This matters not just because it’s a more complete telling of the Appalachian tale, but because in the present political climate, white supremacy and bigotry are growing contemporary problems. Immigration is blamed for many of the country’s ills, yet Appalachian culture and language are strongly intertwined with immigration. One lost eighteenth-century English folk song rediscovered in the Appalachian Mountains is the popular “Pretty Saro,” a story of an immigrant far from home.
For Appalachians, a sense of place and of home seem particularly important, yet from the 1940s to 1960s, an estimated seven million immigrated north into urban areas in search of work, only to be met with widespread prejudice against any Appalachian-speaking mountain speech. (The city of Cincinnati saw fit to make it illegal to discriminate against someone of Appalachian origin).
The AAVE Connection
Many have noticed strong similarities between white southern speech and AAVE, although AAVE isn’t necessarily tied to the south. For example, Wolfram highlights language from a KKK pamphlet which reads “Look out liberals: Wallace power gonna get you” showing a similar grammatical construction to AAVE with a missing copula be (e.g. you ugly).
If it’s true that the two dialects have slightly different linguistic sources as their origins, how did they come to be so similar? As we’ve seen, white southern speech has a Scots-Irish origin, sharing some of unusual grammatical structures yet is missing many other distinctive features of those dialects. Meanwhile, though most linguists agree that AAVE originated from the same British dialects as white southern speech, some argue that there was some linguistic influence from an English-based creole formed when millions of Africans speaking many different languages were forced, through slavery, to communicate with each other.
Wolfram suggests that the missing copula is a characteristic sign of creole influence from AAVE. The question is, how did this feature get into white southern speech, especially if the grammar was inherited mostly intact from its monoculture immigrants? It seems likely that while both dialects came from similar sources, AAVE had a significant impact on how the white southern evolved. White southern speech could have adopted and assimilated certain features of AAVE through white children spending formative time with slave caregivers and their children, for example. In a social context where white southerners and black southerners were closely interacting, many elements of African American Vernacular English, from grammar to accent, were likely to have been major influences on how southern speech developed into its own distinctive dialect. The writer of the KKK pamphlet might could have been driven plumb crazy had they known that.
So the theory of the poor, white, rural Appalachian mountain men going it alone, preserving a pure and unchanging strain of archaic British English, isolated in a hardscrabble place far from civilization, could not be further from the truth. Without the influence of diverse communities of other Appalachians such as African American Appalachians, the southern Appalachian speech and culture simply would not be what it is today. To ignore their contributions to culture and language means Appalachia will always be a distant story, burdened by the myths and legends written by others, left half told.