for National Geographic News
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.
"There can be no doubt that it's the most heavily stigmatized regional speech in the country," said author Michael B. Montgomery of Columbia, South Carolina. "I can't think of any other region where five words out of somebody's mouth will completely affect another person's evaluation of their intelligence, their reliability, their truthfulness, and their ability to handle complex tasks."
Montgomery, a professor emeritus at the University of South Carolina, said this stigma has made many mountain people "schizophrenic" about their speech. "They learn to shift their speech quite dramatically from situation to situation, and they are much more inclined to want their children to speak more mainstream English," he said.
The cultural homogenization caused by such powerful influences as television and the Internet are putting more pressures on residents of Appalachia to speak like everyone else. Despite these pressures, however, Montgomery and other scholars say the mountaineers are refusing to give up their speechat least when they're home in the hills.
"The way we talk is an expression of ourselves," said Tom McGowan, an English professor at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. "It's maintaining a sense of local identity, a sense of home. In postmodern American life, personal identity is really important."
Other scholars say the growing national popularity of such southern staples as country-and-western music and stock car racing are fostering a growing sense of pride among residents of Appalachia.
The distinct accents of stars such as singers Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn, who grew up in the southern Appalachians, have become familiar to millions of fans around the world. And that has removed some of the stigma from speaking with a mountain twang.
"Proud of It"
"What we're finding is that people are taking a new pride in their mountain culture," said linguistics professor Walt Wolfram of North Carolina State University. "That includes their language. People are making the comment, 'We're hillbillies, but we're proud of it. That's who we are.'"
That attitude describes Orville Hicks, who lives in the mountain village of Deep Gap, North Carolina, not far from the home of famed bluegrass musician Doc Watson. "I growed up with it, and it's still in me," Hicks said of his accent and dialect. "Am I self-conscious about the way I talk? No. I talk like I do naturally. I don't try to change nothing. A lot of people laugh at me. Kids sometimes laugh at me."
But, in a sense, Hicks gets the last laugh. He's gained some fame and extra income as a storyteller who spreads his mountain culture by retelling the folk tales he heard from his mother.
"We didn't have no electricity till 1964," Hicks recalled. "My daddy was a preacher, and he wouldn't let us have a television. We'd set on the porch and shell beans, and Momma would tell us tales that had been handed down for generations."
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