When I met my neighbour for the first time we both had to slow down. She is from east Tennessee and I am from New Zealand and our ears needed time to tune into each other.
Cheryl lengthens her vowels so they sound like two syllables…. said is say-ed, hill is he-al. When she says right it sounds more like rat, fire is far and yellow becomes yeller. She calls people honey and says howdy and “that’s not mine, it’s her’n”.
Cheryl is one of 25+ million people who call the cultural region of Appalachia (that’s Appa-lach-ah) home. The region is defined by the Appalachian Mountains that run in a jagged ridge roughly parallel to the Atlantic coastline from southern New York to northern Mississippi cutting through 13 states, including Cheryl’s home state of Tennessee.
Appalachia is beautiful. The tree covered mountains stretch out as far as the eye can see shimmering blue and grey in the sunlight. A track runs through it, one that you might have heard about.
But all is not well in Appalachia. Many communities are crumbling. Unemployment is as high as 60% in some areas and poor health, substance abuse and addictions, petty crime and all the other demons that sniff around communities that exist on or below the poverty line are rife. Those that can, leave and those that can’t survive. Driving the empty roads through parts of Appalachia, the rest of the world can feel very far away indeed.
There probably isn’t another region in the US where people are so stereotyped or the butt of so many jokes. The Beverly Hillbillies didn’t help. Neither did ‘Deliverance’. Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn, who grew up in the southern Appalachians, may have removed some of the stigma, or added to it, depending on your point of view.
“They hear us and they think we’re dumb,” Cheryl told me.
There are many ways to describe the people from Appalachia, most of them not complimentary, but remember, if you refer to someone from West Virginia as a redneck don’t be surprised if they are not insulted. In this state, the only one that is entirely enclosed within the Appalachian region, redneck is a term that was appropriated by the United Mine Workers union when they tied red bandanas around their necks to fight for safer working conditions for not just West Virginian coal miners, but miners everywhere.
A doctoral thesis that I came across on Google looking at the impact of Appalachian dialect on university student performance concluded that prejudice based on dialect is alive and well in academia. Students from Appalachia with distinct accents were disadvantaged in their academic experiences, and their sense of belonging, perceptions of campus environment and interactions with others on campus were impaired compared to other students. The study noted that the Appalachian students were proud of their heritage and most chose not to forsake their culture or change their speech patterns but they all understood the benefits of removing y’all, you’ns and a-going from their speech in a job interview.
A popular and romantic myth says that instead of being criticised as unsophisticated corrupters of the English language, the people of Appalachia should be applauded as preservers of a way of speaking that can be tracked back to Chaucer and Shakespeare who used the same so-called poor grammar and pronunciation that is common in the Appalachian dialect today. It’s a nice story but a closer examination of history suggests that this is not entirely correct.
What is true is that the 50 000 or so Scottish people living in America at the time of the Revolution travelled westwards into the Appalachian mountains along with people for Ireland and Germany and other parts looking for land and a place to build a home. They kept to themselves, their families and communities grew and they developed speech patterns, idioms and pronunciations that are unique and resilient.
There is not one single Appalachian dialect but they all have a distinctive sing-song quality. My New Zealand ear has struggled at times to keep up with the people I’ve met in Tennessee, North Carolina (Car-liner) and southwest Virginia but I’ve come to love the colourful expressions that they infuse their conversations with.
In the depths of winter it was “colder ‘n a well-digger’s backside” but now that Spring is here and summer’s on the way, it’s going to be”hotter ‘n the hinges of hell”.
And, my absolute favorite for confused wisdom: “You don’t have no time to do nothing else but be busy.”
As Maya Angelou said:
“Listen carefully to what country folk call mother wit. In those homely sayings are couched the collective wisdom of generations.”
Categories: An American Adventure