Appalachian Dialect: Comments on its history

The way that people talk in the Appalachian region of America, particularly the Southern Appalachian region, is a subject that has always fascinated people from other regions. Southern Appalachia runs from southeastern Pennsylvania to Alabama. The dialect has often had fun poked at it because it sounds different than English spoken in other areas of the U.S. It isn’t as simple as just the fact that the Appalachian people have a particular accent. Their actual speech patterns may differ from traditional English.

One of the myths about the Appalachian dialect is that it dates back to Shakespearean English. Not true. It probably goes even further back to the days of Chaucer. The dialect has survived, for one reason, because of the geographic isolation of the area. Appalachia is mountainous with hills not as high and new as the Rocky Mountains in the west, but high hills nonetheless. They are more rounded and green. The Appalachian Mountains have been here longer and have sheltered the people from many outside influences. Roads into the area have been difficult to build and expensive. There still aren’t many of them.

The fact is that the Appalachian dialect is close to that of the first settlers to America. Chances are, the English spoken among the first colonial settlers sounded a lot like the Appalachian English of today. It is the English of the Scots-Irish immigrants who first settled in Appalachia. Other cultures are also represented in the Appalachian dialect. The area had 10% African-Americans around 1860. German immigrants also populated the area.

Not only does the English spoken in Appalachia sound different due to the way words are pronounced, the grammatical structure of sentences is actually different. One difference is the agreement between the subject and verb in a sentence. An example would be, “Horses is large animals,” and “We went to find the dogs, which was over the hill.” This pattern of speech was found in the Scottish lowlands as well as colonial America due to the Scots immigration to the area.

Maybe the vocabulary of Appalachian speech is most fascinating. Words like “poke” refer to a sack. “Pone” refers to bread made in a skillet, usually cornbread. A well-known word is “holler” which refers to the valley or hollow between two mountains. “Sallet” refers to salad. The Appalachians put the letter “a” before verbs like “I’ll be a-going to the store right now.” Unusual contractions are used like “They done gone to town.”

The people have southern Appalachia have been laughed at and discriminated against because of their different dialect. They have been called “rednecks” and “hillbillies” in a derogatory way. During the great migration of Appalachian people, between the 1940s and 1960s, to northern climates in the U.S. to find work, the city of Cincinnati, Ohio actually made it against the law to discriminate against them.

There are many legends and myths associated with Southern Appalachia and those surrounding the language and dialect of the Appalachian people are just some of them.

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