Appalachia Appalachian Dialect

Anguish Languish via Appalachia

Today’s guest post was written by Stephen Taylor.


“My Introduction to Anguish Languish via Appalachia” written by Stephen Taylor

I had some adjusting to do when I moved to Kentucky to attend Berea College in the 1980’s. I am a native of Buffalo, New York and the son of a teacher who taught English and social studies for 35 years. Only Standard English was spoken at home and for the most part, at my school too. Of course the Buffalonian “Yuse Guys”, (the Southern Appalachian version is ”All You All”) and “ain’t” were fairly common but I rarely used them.

When my family would go on vacation to visit my father’s parents’ and boyhood home in Long Island, NY, we’d spend the 8 hour road trip playing word games. Dad also read great children’s literature to me and my siblings with works by C.S. Lewis, Lewis Carroll, Ogden Nash, AA. Milne, Shel Silverstein and others to pique our interest in written and spoken English. Dad’s sister, my favorite aunt, also taught English and she would read to us as well. Through these experiences, I grew to love the English language. But I lived a sheltered life traveling mostly in New York’s and New England’s borders. The only really strange sounding English to me was spoken by the Long Islanders and Bostonians. These people regularly dropped “r’s” from the word car or bar and replaced them with “ah” to make caah and baah, or they’d put “r’s” where they did not exist in written form such as the word idear, as in a moment of intellectual creativity.

So imagine my surprise when I came to Berea and discovered my classmates had new uses for old words in speech- every hour. My roommate from Kentucky often referred to “a fur piece”, as in the sentence, “ Blue Ridge dorm is a fur piece from the student cafeteria.” Indeed, our dorm was on the campus outskirts and it was a relatively long walk to reach the center of campus. But for me, a fur piece was a fox stole or bear rug. Other words or phrases like “afar”, “of a moanin”, flowerty, and “puny” also gave me pause. Little did I know before coming to Kentucky that puny meant sick; flowerty would appropriately describe shirts, skirts and mumus worn in Hawaii; “of a moanin” meant before 12 noon and if a house is afar, you better call 911 and hope the firefighters don’t have a fur piece to go because someone’s fixin’ to lose their home. Through these experiences I also learned the power of context to enable understanding.

Perhaps that is why I fell in love with the stories told in the nuanced speech of Anguish Languish, attributed to Prof. Howard L. Chace in his 1956 publication of the same name. By chance I happened upon this little gem of familiar stories and songs rewritten for verbal economy. Chace’s novel method of speech imparted new meanings to old words as a way to expand one’s vocabulary while simultaneously reducing the number of words you have to learn. Anguish Languish employs homophonic transformation, or more simply, it demonstrates that there can be new uses for old words when given proper context, and the sound pattern is similar to what we know or expect. For example, words become warts; cops and sorcerers are the dishes used at proper ladies’ tea, not policeman and magicians; and a family unit is often comprised of a murder, fodder, broader and xyster.

If you have a love of language and want to test your listening skills, you can find the book online. Once you learn to read the words as sounds, the otherwise seemingly incomprehensible string of letters make perfect sense. Patience and humility are terrific teachers to understand Anguish Languish just as they are for improving one’s understanding and empathy for others from different cultures. Be prepared for side splitting laughter to erupt from all within wear shot. My favorite story is Ladle Rat Rotten Hut (Little Red Riding Hood). Enjoy.

Having lived in Kentucky for these past 30 some years, I have grown to love the very things about the language and culture that at first I thought were most peculiar. After all, I married a beautiful Appalachian woman who has blessed me with five terrific (now grown) sons. And while two have flown north to Wisconsin, the others, like my wife and I, remain in Kentucky.


I hope you enjoyed Stephen’s guest post as much as I did. I’m sure you’ve already figured it out, I’m plumb foolish about language especially the words and accents found in Appalachia.


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  • Reply
    Stephen T.
    March 6, 2018 at 4:27 pm

    Thank you to everyone who commented on my post. When I first shared this with Tipper years ago, I did so at her urging but with much trepidation, because I did not want to offend. While mountain folk are warm and generous, my experience is they take a while to fully accept outsiders like me.

    Miss Cindy, I like reading your posts and thank you for the kind words.

    Shirl, it’s amazed me how quickly people adapt to their surroundings. My one son who moved to Wisconsin in 2013 now speaks like he’s from there and I have to recalibrate my ears to understand what he is saying. How fun to learn a new language.

    Howland, my wife and I experienced first hand, what Winston Churchill observed. In 1987-88, a dear friend of ours from London, England decided he wanted to live in Berea, Kentucky upon his retirement. We spent 3 weeks helping our friend establish and acclimate himself to his new future home. Had our common language not caused a gulf in communication, the process might have taken only 3 days.

    Tipper, thank you for celebrating and keeping alive on your blog, so many rich aspects of Appalachia.

  • Reply
    Carol Rosenbalm
    March 3, 2018 at 5:32 am

    Tipper, I volunteer at a hustory museum in East Tennessee that’s about telling to stories from the Cherokee to today. One night at one of our summer concerts a lady came to pay her money to enter the concert and all at once she said loudly you scotch-Irish do not put ing at the end of your words. I didn’t even remember what I had said to her. So I let it go! I’m proud of my scotch-Irish heritage but my married name throws some people off. But that’s ok I call myself diversified

  • Reply
    Leon Estes
    March 2, 2018 at 9:58 pm

    Thank you for sharing this information. I am lerning some good stuff!

  • Reply
    March 2, 2018 at 6:01 pm

    This article reminded me of one of numerous encounter with a different culture during one of my tours of duty in Europe… As we returned back “Stateside” upon completion of one of our military assignments in Germany, we shipped our car via the Port of Bremerhaven located in northern Germany. Now, this area of northern Germany during the period of the Cold War was defended mainly by British Forces who their family members also accompanied them also. As many soldiers spouses do, they were employed at many of the area support facilities. As we entered the office of the shipping facility to complete import and other sundry of shipping documentation…there’s a very large sign at the entrance of the waiting area stating: ” We speak English but we also understand American”. How cheeky of those blokes!

  • Reply
    March 2, 2018 at 2:17 pm

    Amusing examples of “Marekin” the language we speak instead of English. It is great to celebrate American diversity, language usage included.

    • Reply
      March 2, 2018 at 10:19 pm

      During WW2 my dad was stationed in the South Pacific as a guard for an artillery emplacement. They had a perimeter set up which no one was supposed to cross. They were supposed to challenge anyone who tried to enter. One night one of his fellow soldiers had some urgent “business” to attend to and had to step outside the boundary. Whenever he came back, someone said “WHO GOES THERE?”or whatever they say. He replied with “Me Mellican, No shoot. No Shoot… Me Mellican!” They didn’t shoot him. Not that night anyway!

  • Reply
    March 2, 2018 at 2:13 pm

    And Stephen, I love our Appalachian talk, there’s just something about it that makes me happy.

    I watched America’s Preacher—Billy Graham’s Funeral today and I did pretty good till Franklin got his turn and said “I was with daddy a few days before he went to be with the Lord, and daddy told me You may read in the papers that Billy Graham is dead, but don’t you believe it. My clothes
    may be changed, but I will be alive with the Lord.” At the end, Franklin looked at the Casket and
    said “Daddy, I’ll see you Soon.” …Ken

  • Reply
    March 2, 2018 at 12:49 pm

    You can get “Anguish Languish” for $130 on Amazon, yikes! Highway robbery. Made me curious to read it but not THAT curious. Enjoyed the post. I keep forgetting not everyone talks like us.

  • Reply
    March 2, 2018 at 11:50 am

    Language and all its variations is fascinating and delightful. The Laddle Rat Rotten Hut story (and others) have been used during “sensitivity” training for teachers working with English Language Learners.
    I’ve probably share the following story here before but it fits right in with today’s post. We had a foreign exchange student from Switzerland. His English teacher was Scottish – ‘nuf said. As time came ’round for Prom I took him to rent a tux. As the saleslady showed him some options he became strangely shy and I took over the conversation looking to him for nods, shrugs, and furrowed brow to interpret his interest or lack thereof in the choices being offered to him. Before too long he siddled over to me, took my elbow, and whispered “Mom, I thought you only spoke English?!” Puzzled, I looked at him and said “yes, ashamedly that’s the only language I speak.” He nodded at the sales lady and said, “but you understand her?” . . . the light finally dawned on me, our sales lady had a very thick Bronx or Brooklyn (sorry – I don’t yet recognize the difference. . ) accent; and even his experience with deep south, Texas, Midwestern, and Scottish English (not too mention the other 5 languages in which he was conversant!) had not prepared him to understand her version on English! Wonder how he’d fare with Appalachian speech?

  • Reply
    aw griff
    March 2, 2018 at 9:35 am

    I jest read ladle rat rotten hut and boy did I have a time. When my good wife gets home I’m going to try it on her.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    March 2, 2018 at 9:18 am

    Very nice post Stephen, thank you! I think I would like the Anguish Languish book though it’s probably challenging. I lived in several different parts of the south growing up and, of course, my speech reflects that. People often ask where I’m from saying they can’t tell from my speech, except that they know I’m southern.
    I do love our colorful speech!

  • Reply
    March 2, 2018 at 9:14 am

    My sisters boy Michael moved off up the to New York and went to a school up there for a long time, Cornell I think it was. Anyhow, he was a little strange before he ever went and when he came back he was a little stranger.

  • Reply
    March 2, 2018 at 9:12 am

    I too have travelled a fur piece and many of the roads warn’t paved. Hose pipe, hot water heater and polease threw me.

  • Reply
    March 2, 2018 at 9:08 am

    Stephen’s post made me think of some of the words my parents used to say. I tried to correct them, only to hear them say the same words again later exactly the way they had learned it from their parents. Stephen, I shore hope them youngins that remained in KY lernt to speak krectly or somebody lobble to make fun of them, instid of the ‘t other way round.

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    March 2, 2018 at 8:37 am

    I think our differences are something to celebrate. I learned long ago a good way to make friends is to praise something about where you are. And a good way to remain forever a stranger is to run a place or a people down. Just think of someone coming to your house for the first time and saying, “This place is so ugly.”

    I used to live and work in Berea, Ky. It is a little college town sitting just at the western edge of the Cumberland Plateau. It is very scenic. And we have a son now living in New York, the reverse of Mr. Taylor’s situation.

  • Reply
    Sheryl PaulI
    March 2, 2018 at 6:39 am

    I guess I also love language and words. This is a nook I am going to find

  • Reply
    March 2, 2018 at 6:36 am

    “Anguish Languish.” How fitting. I believe it was Winston Churchill who said “England and America are two countries separated by a common language.” As I’ve said before, I am a ‘recovering Yankee’, having been born in Rochester NY, about 70 miles from your guest poster’s place of birth and have lived in Florida, Georgia W.VA and Kentucky and I can relate to his dilemma. I’ve had to re-learn the English language 4 or 5 times…. How do you say ‘dilemma’ in Appalachian?

    • Reply
      March 2, 2018 at 8:28 am

      Well Howland, that would be “I found myself twixt a rock ‘n a hard place,” or “Six ‘a one ‘n haf dozen t’other.”

    • Reply
      March 2, 2018 at 8:59 am

      I wouldn’t know dilemma if one fell outta ditree and hit me right in my head.

    • Reply
      Lee Mears
      March 2, 2018 at 5:29 pm

      You may be in ‘a bind’ or ‘in a pickle’, which doesn’t necessarily mean you’re tied with ropes or sittin in a salted barrel.

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