Appalachian Dialect

Appalachian Grammar Lesson 1

grammar usage

I didn’t realize certain words were unique to Appalachia until I took an Appalachian Studies class in college. The thought that folks from other areas of the US didn’t use the same words we did had never occurred to me.

During the class, I also discovered grammar used in Appalachia isn’t typical in other areas of the US either.

A few months ago I had the pleasure of meeting “The Casada Brothers” better known as Jim and Don. They thought I was using the Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English for my vocabulary tests. Once they realized I wasn’t they both urged me to make every effort to get the book. I added the book to my list and forgot about it.

But after I got a chance to check out Don’s copy of the book I realized they were right I needed it. For anyone who is interested in the language of Southern Appalachia and the Appalachian regions beyond, the book is a must have. At close to a 1,000 pages it is full of words and their meanings, but more than that the book has fascinating details about how it was compiled, how the words were tested for their validity, it has a few photos thrown in, and it even has a section on grammar. The problem with the book-it’s out of print.

The University of Tennessee Press printed it and they are planning a reprint, but have no firm date of when that will be. If you’re lucky enough to have a copy hang on to it. The going rate for one is over a thousand dollars in certain places. There is a website for the book, you can read the book details and even see an example of the dictionary portion by clicking here. Thanks to the kindness of Miss Cindy I now have my own copy to refer to for future vocabulary and grammar posts. Miss Cindy can hunt out book deals like nobody I know.

rocks

My college professor pointed out this use of grammar to me. See if you’re familiar with it or not:

*Using the word big for emphasis and in exchange for the word most is common throughout Appalachia.

-“It’s always like that, after every meal they have at church theres a couple of women who end up doing the biggest portion of cleaning up.”

-“A big part of the problem is there is to many hens in the hen house.”

-“The biggest majority of the garden was plowed yesterday, so today shouldn’t be that hard.”

Those sentences above are exactly what I would say. How about you? Do you use ‘big’ in a similar fashion or have you heard someone else use it that way?

Tipper

p.s. Just curious-how many of you know what the pile of rocks in the pictures indicate?

Answer: The area in the photo used to be a cornfield-they piled the rocks as they cleared the land to plant the corn.

 

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39 Comments

  • Reply
    marsha king
    November 12, 2019 at 12:15 pm

    This piece is just great. I live in central WV and my parents and grandparent used a lot of these sayings and so do I. It also reminded me of something that happened when my daughter was in school at WVU. The professor was telling them about Hank Williams. Of course my daughter already knew because she had fallen in love with him when she was a little girl. As the teacher began to name some of his songs she said, I’m So Lonely I Could cry. Of course, Sheila said the name is, I’m so Lonesome I Could Cry, and the teacher said It’s the same thing. And Sheila said, There’s a big difference between lonesome and lonely. (And please overlook my typing. I just got a new keyboard and there are no quotation marks on it. ??

  • Reply
    Charles Howell
    November 12, 2018 at 4:24 pm

    When my Dad was mad at my Mother he would say “Big feelin Cordell” her maiden name. “Little Fellers” was the opposite, I guess.

  • Reply
    Becky
    December 11, 2010 at 9:11 am

    The “biggest” part of the people I know use big in place of most.
    I’m thinking those rocks mark a burial site.

  • Reply
    Nancy M.
    December 5, 2010 at 9:46 pm

    It makes perfect sense to me! I was gonna guess an old homeplace on the rocks, but I see I was wrong.

  • Reply
    Misty Taylor
    December 3, 2010 at 9:34 pm

    I was right. JD looked at the rocks just now & said very matter of factually “It’s a still.” Smarty pants.

  • Reply
    MissFifi
    December 2, 2010 at 10:30 pm

    In NJ we say things like “A big part of the problem”
    I am all over that dictionary since I find dialects/languages in the USA poorly covered or discussed. Thanks for that link!

  • Reply
    Janet
    December 2, 2010 at 6:09 pm

    Yes, I speak that way too, here in WV.

  • Reply
    Luann Sewell Waters
    December 2, 2010 at 2:17 pm

    My family, too, has always used this….my dad was born and raised in SW Ark. and my mom in eastern Okla.
    Another book folks might enjoy along this line is: Down in the Holler–a gallery of Ozark Folk Speech by Vance Randolph and George P. Wilson publ. by Univ. of Oklahoma Press, Norman, OK
    Luann in Oklahoma

  • Reply
    Rick
    December 2, 2010 at 12:11 pm

    That is very interesting and if you find out when it will be reprinted could you let me know.
    Whitetail Woods Blog / Deer Hunting and Blackpowder Shooting at it’s best.

  • Reply
    Ronald D. Weddle, MD
    December 1, 2010 at 2:50 pm

    We use “big” exactly as you describe. I grew up in the western margin of “Appalachia”.

  • Reply
    kat
    December 1, 2010 at 9:23 am

    Don’t know for sure what the rocks mean. Could be for different things I guess. Use “big” that way as did my folks. Must have come from the ancestors, that came from Tenn. and Ky. Would like to have a copy of that dictionary.

  • Reply
    Dee from Tennessee
    December 1, 2010 at 2:20 am

    Exactly the way I use “big.” Sitting here listening to the girls singing “How’s the World Treating You?” They just get better and better.
    Rocks: honestly , the first thing popped into my mind was a burial spot — rocks to protect from animals. Then, I thought of covering an old well.

  • Reply
    Mamabug
    November 30, 2010 at 10:41 pm

    Hey Tipper, my family uses big in that context all the time, and we live in Florida! As for the rocks I’m guessing either a spot where an old still was or at a spring head.

  • Reply
    Rooney Floyd
    November 30, 2010 at 10:41 pm

    I’m not the “biggest” on rock piles, but I have seen some like your pictures called Indian graves–smaller and more recent versions of the burial mounds of the Woodland Period.

  • Reply
    glenda
    November 30, 2010 at 10:27 pm

    My ancestors came from Virginia and NC and settled in north Florida. Some of my aunts and uncles and my father spoke much the same dialect as those from Appalachia. I think it comes from our Irish and old country roots.I am glad to hear it and remember how my father’s generation spoke.

  • Reply
    Vicki Lane
    November 30, 2010 at 9:44 pm

    Sounds natural to me.
    I’d guess a fallen chimney (chimbley.) We have rock piles on our place from field clearing but they’re stacked very neatly.
    I need that book!

  • Reply
    Greta Koehl
    November 30, 2010 at 9:28 pm

    You mean everyone doesn’t say it that way?

  • Reply
    martina
    November 30, 2010 at 8:31 pm

    David’s guess of a still furnace makes sense. The rocks also could be a boundary or foundation marker or a memorial. An expression I remember from 1970’s Garfield comics is that he would say “big fat hairy deal” when there was much ado about nothing.

  • Reply
    Farmchick
    November 30, 2010 at 8:23 pm

    We use the word big in the same way. I guess I just never thought about it really! It just seems so natural when you use the local language everyday. As for the rocks, I was thinking it marked the remnants of an old spring as well. Please don’t keep us waiting for an answer. I am kind of curious.

  • Reply
    Mike McLain
    November 30, 2010 at 7:13 pm

    I have also used BIG this way all of my life, so much so that I never even thought about the possibility of it being part of Appalachian dialect.
    Is the rock pile a Cairn in the Biblical sense of marking a site for prayer and/or thanksgiving? Just a guess, though…

  • Reply
    Uncle Al
    November 30, 2010 at 4:19 pm

    My kinfolks and I have all used “big” such as in that is a big ole dog or That’s the biggest bowl of mashed potatoes I’ve ever seen….. No idea about the rocks, but some of the suggestions make sense to me.

  • Reply
    Larry Proffitt
    November 30, 2010 at 3:16 pm

    Tipper , My bet on the pile of rocks is a collapsed chimney. I have seen a “heap” of such in my combing of these mountains . I’ll bet there is water nearby .Nobody likes to carry water very far. This use of big is so common in our vernacular here in east tn that I did not realize it’s peculiarity. Thanks for all your work . We enjoy it . Larry Proffitt

  • Reply
    David
    November 30, 2010 at 2:56 pm

    If I were to see a small, or large, pile of rocks anywhere near a spring or branch, and if I concluded that it had not been a garden spot or such, I probably would assume thet it could have been a Still Furnace. You know, a Moonshine still. Here in my cove there are numerous rock furnaces along the branches and springs. These however have long since been covered by thick layers of moss and could not be recognized as such unless one knew their existance. If a moonshiner was very smart he would sometimes set the still a good ways away from the water source and pipe the water to the still. All that would be left of the operation would be a small pile of rocks. To verify this, you would have to dig under the pile and see if you can find ashes. This is a dead giveaway.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    November 30, 2010 at 1:02 pm

    Well, I’ve heard biggest all my life…………….and I thought everyone did. LOL
    Does the rock pile mean water……..a spring?
    Seems like you got two tests in this post!

  • Reply
    Sallie Covolo
    November 30, 2010 at 12:22 pm

    I had no idea that many of these words were not used in other places. Some of my educated California born adult kids are forever correcting my grammar. Maybe my grammar is legitimate after all..

  • Reply
    B. Ruth
    November 30, 2010 at 12:17 pm

    Mercy, I thought biggest was bestest!..LOL Sounds better than mostest…I’m sure that’s the leastest time I ever heerd it said…
    PS…Tipper…I thought a pile of moss covered rocks in the woods meant:
    Cleared and piled out of the old garden spot?.. Seen this.
    Piled rock from an old home site or fallen chimney?…Seen this one too…
    The creepiest to me, and I have one on a hill behind my house. No old garden or homesite ever existed there. It is just off the old stagecoach road, could it be…An old grave marker! ewwww…
    Have heard that they are road/trail markers too…
    Don’t keep us guessing…what’s the real deal?
    Thanks Tipper for the great post…
    Former old girl scout…wanta’be detective…LOL

  • Reply
    Ken
    November 30, 2010 at 12:05 pm

    Tipper,
    As far as I can tell thats the way
    folks talk around here. My mama
    was fascinated with word dialect
    and corrected me often growing up.
    But I guess it didn’t work. I love
    to listen to the way old folks
    talk. As to the pile of rocks, it
    looks like a barrier protecting an
    old house place or where someone
    dug out a spring for drinking
    water. Those rocks look awful big
    to move though…Ken

  • Reply
    Lanny
    November 30, 2010 at 11:35 am

    Well if that is indicative of being from Appalachia, then this is one more thing that would convince me in a big way that clearly my family comes from there.

  • Reply
    teresa
    November 30, 2010 at 10:37 am

    We use big exactly like that – and my mom has a pile of rocks that used to be an old homeplace chimney – but I don’t know what yours is.
    It was wonderful to meet you and Jackie face to face on Saturday. We had a great time – a nice easy day for The Man at my Address and me.
    Have a wonderful week.

  • Reply
    Tebo
    November 30, 2010 at 10:31 am

    Hmmm….that’s exactly how I would have said every one of those. 🙂

  • Reply
    Susan
    November 30, 2010 at 10:12 am

    Seems a big part of my syntax snuck out of Tennessee with Mom to New England where I grew up. Love it. Thanks for the links.

  • Reply
    lynn legge
    November 30, 2010 at 9:45 am

    hiya tipper, we here in sw pa use the word big in that way also.. like who gets the biggest piece of pie.. or shes the biggest of the
    two.
    as for those rocks… tell me what they are … lol i always love hearing the things you experience and share them with my family .. hope you had a great thanksgiving..
    big ladybug hugs
    lynn

  • Reply
    Jim Casada
    November 30, 2010 at 9:42 am

    Tipper–I forgot to make my guess on the rock pile. Several distinct possibilities come to mind. (1) Rocks left over from clearing a field long ago, although they were usually piled up as low walls. (2) A boundary marker, such as the corner of a tract of land. In this case, the pile seems overly large. (3) Vestiges of an old spring and the connected spring house. The spring at the site where my father grew up is somewhat like this.
    One thing is almost certain. Man created this cairn.
    Jim Casada
    http://www.jimcasadaoutdoors.com

  • Reply
    Jim Casada
    November 30, 2010 at 9:36 am

    Tipper–A big part of understanding Appalachian folkways, when it comes to patterns of speech, is simply being a part of Appalachia. I think most of us with roots in the region go through life blissfully unaware of how distinctive we are when it comes to speech, culture, outlook on life, and much more. On a personal level, it was only when, over the years, a number of folks said “You ought to do a book on all those expressions you use” that awareness began to dawn of our distinctive way of expression. I greatly fear we are gradually losing that distinctiveness, but books like the “Dictionary,” along with sites like this one, hold staunch against change and mongrelization.
    For those really interested in this sort of thing, do some Internet research on sources who figured prominently in the book. There are snippets of speech from a bunch of the folks Joe Hall interviewed back in the 30s and 40s (those interview were the catalyst for this wonderful book). specifically, google either Mark Cathey or Wiley Oakley, two notable mountain hunters, and you’ll have a start. Also, anyone who can obtain a copy of the hour-long video “Mountain Talk” has a treat awaiting them (one of the “stars” is the late moonshiner from Maggie Valley, Popcorn Sutton).
    Jim Casada

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    November 30, 2010 at 9:30 am

    We use big in just that way in my family. I am a 5th generation Floridian, with my mothers people coming from Ga and NC and my fathers people from NC and Scotland. Neither near the Appalachians though.
    I would love to get that book, if you could manage to post when it becomes available it would be wonderful!
    Sheryl

  • Reply
    Misty T
    November 30, 2010 at 9:20 am

    I have no idea what those rocks mean & I can’t wait to find out. I bet JD knows. I love your quest to document & preserve Appalachian vocabulary. Thanks so much for this!

  • Reply
    Connie
    November 30, 2010 at 9:15 am

    We use big in the same way and I never really thought about it!!!!

  • Reply
    Granny Sue
    November 30, 2010 at 9:11 am

    I think I do it both ways, Tipper. I use big as you do, but at work and in “formal” settings I use most or larger.
    The pile of rocks? On our place they are what was cleared from a field for plowing. There are piles in our woods and we wondered what in the world they were and who put them there. Our neighbor told us that about 40 years before that part of our land was cleared and planted in wheat, and that he and his brothers had piled up all those rocks when they cleared and plowed the fields.

  • Reply
    Just Jackie
    November 30, 2010 at 8:49 am

    What???? That’s not what everyone says ? LOL I use big just that way and had never thought it wasn’t right. Had a great time at the craft show. I loved meeting some of your followers. So nice to put faces with names. Keep up the good work !!!!

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