Appalachians Are Finding Pride in Mountain Twang

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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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