Appalachians Are Finding Pride in Mountain Twang

Willie Drye
for National Geographic News
May 2, 2005
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 speech—at 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."

Hicks's speech is rich with the heritage of the hills. He says "heared" instead of "heard," for example.

The region known as Appalachia includes parts of 13 states, from western New York to northern Mississippi. But the heart of Appalachia spreads across the mountains of several southern states, including West Virginia, southwestern Virginia, western North Carolina, northwestern South Carolina, northern Georgia and Alabama, and eastern Tennessee and Kentucky.

Dialects from Scotland and Ireland

Many of the first European settlers in this area moved from Scotland to Ireland and then to the United States, and they brought their native pronunciations and dialects with them. But there are smatterings of other influences, and there are variations in dialect in different parts of Appalachia.

Wolfram, the North Carolina State University scholar, said a "constellation of features" makes the mountain speech distinctive. Those features include the way Appalachia residents pronounce certain words, some of their grammar, and lots of unique words and phrases.

For example, words such as "across" and "twice" are pronounced as though they end with the letter t. So, "across" becomes "acrosst" and "twice" becomes "twicet."

This pronunciation, Wolfram noted, was common among English speakers centuries ago, but was lost everywhere in the U.S. except Appalachia.

In certain words, such as "light" and "fire," the pronunciation of the letter i is much different than in other parts of the United States. So, "light" comes out sounding something like "laht," and "fire" becomes "far."

One of the better known examples of an Appalachian pronunciation is the way singer Loretta Lynn says the name of her home town of Butcher's Hollow in the mountains of eastern Kentucky. She calls it "Butcher's Holler."

The use of words such as "growed" and "knowed" dates back to the common speech of 18th-century England. And if no word exists to express a thought or observation, mountain people often coin their own word. That's a possible explanation for the origin of the word "sigogglin," which is used in the hills to describe something that is unusually crooked.

Montgomery, the South Carolina scholar, says the stigma of sounding like a hillbilly began in the late 19th century. After the U.S. Civil War, writers created fictional illiterate characters whose fractured grammar established an enduring negative stereotype of Appalachia residents.

Later, television comedies such as The Beverly Hillbillies presented the stereotype to an even larger audience. And the focus on Appalachia during the U.S. government's War on Poverty in the 1960s portrayed residents of the region as impoverished and illiterate.

Wolfram says there's no danger of the colorful mountain dialect disappearing anytime soon. But he wonders about the more distant future.

"There are 20 million people in the Appalachia region, so it's still a pretty vibrant dialect," he said. "It's not going to disappear in the next generation. But it's changing. It's losing some of its distinctiveness."

This National Geographic News series is underwritten with a grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission.

Willie Drye is the author of
Storm of the Century: The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, published by National Geographic.

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