Appalachian Dialect

Might in Appalachia



In Appalachia we offer advice like this:

  • you might could soak the plants in water to revive them
  • you could might soak the plants in water to revive them
  • you might can soak the plants in water to revive them
  • you mighta coulda soaked them plants in water to revive them
  • you might ought to soak those plants in water to revive them
  • you might should soak them plants in water to revive them
  • you might should ought to soak those plants in water to revive them
  • you might would want to soak those plants in water to revive them

A conversation I had with a gentleman the other day got me to thinking about how I use the word might. Every one of the phrases above are ones I would say myself and all are common usages of the word might in Appalachia.

As I studied on the way might is used in the Appalachian dialect, I went straight to my Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English. This is what the dictionary had to say:

Modal auxiliaries in Smokies speech differ from general usage only
in usage, not in form. As in other Southern varieties of American English,
might and occasionally may combine with other modals to express conditional
force and indirectness.

After I read that I thought AH HA! The dictionary described exactly what I had been thinking about the usage of might. No not the modal auxiliary part, but the last part: to express conditional force and indirectness.

Sometimes when I tell people “they might could or might should do something or the other” I really mean they ‘might’ do it-in other words I haven’t a clue if it will work. But often when I suggest someone ‘might could or might should do something’ I really mean “You should listen to me and do exactly what I’m telling you because I know what I’m talking about.” So why don’t I just say that? I believe the use of might in Appalachia can be directly connected to the way we look at life.

  • Most native Appalachians will go to great lengths to avoid offending someone directly. Telling someone they ‘might could’ is a more tender way of giving advice.
  • Most native Appalachians are modest as well. I can’t even begin to count the times I’ve heard Pap suggest a solution to someones problem in such a modest manner that it left them wondering how someone as quite spoken as Pap could give them the answer they’d been searching for. There again ‘might could’ is a modest way of offering advice to someone without coming off like you think you’re the smartest person on Earth who holds all the answers.

How about you-do you ‘might could’, ‘might should’ or ‘might ought’?


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  • Reply
    Joe Mode
    July 13, 2018 at 2:54 pm

    I use these all of the time. My wife thought I was crazy and just making up the phrases, but then a linguistics professor informed me that these are called Double Modals. I addition to the might could, might should, and might oughta there are these that I use:

    I used to did, I used to could, I used to would, I used to might as well as you shouldn’t oughta do that.
    If some one asked, “Do you ever go caving?” the reply would be, “I used to did.”
    Do you think you could climb that tree?” The reply would be. ” I used to could.”

  • Reply
    July 13, 2018 at 2:13 am

    Telling a body “you might ‘aw’tah'” do whatever is just a gentle way of making a suggestion. Trying to encourage them to do whatever without out being demanding. Getting more forceful it becomes “you need to” do this right now. This is a set of phrases I hadn’t given much thought too but I imagine I use most of them.

  • Reply
    July 13, 2018 at 1:01 am

    I never thought much about it until now, but I often use “might want to” when I’m not wanting to sound like I have all the answers (’cause I don’t.) As someone else mentioned, “might” is a gentle way of giving advice/directions/counsel. Of course, the tone of voice and the tilt of the head could negate the gentle aspect. But none of us would do that, right?

  • Reply
    José Luis
    July 12, 2018 at 10:16 pm

    Dear Tipper, I read your sentences carefully of the expressions of the form of expression in the English of your smoky mountain areas. Actually the expression, basic in all the sentences, is a suggestion of how the other person could do something, as I would do.
    It’s a gentle way of telling you, you should do it like that! In Spanish, here in Argentina is to express oneself correctly, in “potential verb tense”, because one thing is to say, you must do it, (one order), and another, you could do it, (one suggestion). A big hug for you, Deere Hunter and the twins, and cordial greetings to all the friends of the Appalachians, from Buenos Aires, José Luis, (The only Gaucho banjo player, hahaha !!!)

  • Reply
    July 12, 2018 at 5:07 pm

    Well we say, might ought or might ortta. Hey, it’s all ok.

  • Reply
    July 12, 2018 at 12:50 pm

    Absolutely I use it, didn’t even consider how I used it until you brought it up, just normal to me.

  • Reply
    Paula Rhodarmer
    July 12, 2018 at 12:00 pm

    Tipper, I use “might ought to” or “might could” all the time. I never have really thought about it, but now that I do, I think it is a gentle way to suggest something to someone. I really like that expression!

  • Reply
    Ken Roper
    July 12, 2018 at 11:15 am

    When you and Pap came to see me one time, we was over at my garden because I was so proud of it. During our talk, I asked Pap if I had enough stakes and he said “if I were you, you might ought to put a stake in between all these cause later they’ll be real heavy.” (I had a stake about every 20 feet.) I liked the way he used his Mountain Accent and I added 15 more stakes in those 3 rows. When it came time to gather in the Harvest, I had more Green Beans than you could shake a stick at. I gave away 9 big bushels of Nantahala White Runners after we canned our part. …Ken

  • Reply
    July 12, 2018 at 11:11 am

    I probably use “maybe could, should, etc” more than might. I grew up on the TN side and heard John Cameron Swasy and Lowell Blanchard on TV. I also read a lot and my grammar and accent were different from that of my classmates.

  • Reply
    b. Ruth
    July 12, 2018 at 11:06 am

    I have used and know Mom/Dad/Grannies used might ought or might should…but I’ve said like the others you might ort…LOL
    I also think it is a way of giving indirect advice…saying it’s so…without saying I told you so later when they didn’t listen! LOL
    Love this one today Tipper,
    PS…It’s gonna be another hot one today…Wish I was sitting right dab in the middle of a mountain creek on a big rock, just a’coolin’ my tootsies…Boulders, Blackberries, Bears and all…

  • Reply
    July 12, 2018 at 10:57 am

    I have used those words except for “might orta,” but I remember my grandmother using that one. I always thought it was southern speech.

  • Reply
    Ann Applegarth
    July 12, 2018 at 10:56 am

    Yes, I have always heard and used it. I think it changes what could be taken as an order into a gentle suggestion.

  • Reply
    DAna WAll
    July 12, 2018 at 9:56 am

    I do not remember hearing “might” used that way as I was growing up in Iowa. But as a young adult, I met a woman who had grown up in Kansas, and she said “might could” easily and regularly. She claimed everybody “down there” did.

  • Reply
    July 12, 2018 at 9:34 am

    It’s a way of implanting the seed of a thought in somebody’s head so they can think they thought it up on their own later on. Personally I usually ask a question instead of making a suggestion. “Do you think soaking the plants in water might would revive them?” or “Reckon soaking the plants in water might would revive them?” That way they can’t blame me if they try it and it don’t work.
    Some folks might say “If it was me, I’d do so and so.” I try not to say that either. A while back my brother was over here and I was whittling on something while we talked. “What you making?” I told him it was a heart. He looked at it. “If it was me I’d make a so and so.” I handed him the knife and the piece of wood and said, “It’s you! Do it!” I thought his jaw was going to fall off.

  • Reply
    July 12, 2018 at 8:55 am

    I might orta change the way I speak, but instead, I suggest the people listening to me might can buy one of them dictionaries you mentioned and they will understand that I am saying things the right way. I might could save this post as proof.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    July 12, 2018 at 8:40 am

    Yes, I might could, might should, and might ought on a regular basis with an occasional might ort to as well and I completely understand the meaning of each and the and the distinctions between them. Though I must admit that I have never stopped to think about the expressions and their differences, I think it must be in my DNA. It’s just the way it is.
    It is to me a kind and considerate way of offering help without feeling the need or desire to tell someone else what to do. I don’t take well to being told what to do so I (mostly) don’t tell others what to do.
    This is why southern is southern! This is bigger than just the words we use it’s a way of life in the south. A way if being.

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    July 12, 2018 at 8:27 am

    I agree with you; advice mostly and sometimes a bit more force such as with tone of voice. And, as often happens, I don’t know if I use those wordscbut I think I probably do sometimes.

    You have hit on one of the endearing qualities of country character, what Paul called exercising himself to “have always a conscious void of offence”. The mark of real courtesy is to think of the other person(s) before oneself. I so wish I were better at it. And in an unusual way, to qualify with “might” recognises that one cannot be certain that what one would do themselves will work for someone else. There might be other factors involved of which we are unaware. So we suggest rather than direct. There is the double indirectness to, “you might want to think about” doing thus and so.

  • Reply
    aw griff
    July 12, 2018 at 8:23 am

    Sorry about that. I think everbody on here knows more about pooters than I do. Ed. That’s what I call these contraptions too.

  • Reply
    Jane W Bolden
    July 12, 2018 at 8:10 am

    I use might that way often. I just realized it. It’s my way of not appearing bossy.

  • Reply
    aw griff
    July 12, 2018 at 8:00 am

    I say you might ort to soak those plants.

  • Reply
    Lee Mears
    July 12, 2018 at 8:00 am

    And, you might ortta not give me more to worry about being as tactful isn’t my strong suit. However, it would be nice to have someone around who might could in a modest way bring my mind back to me gently when its goes to wandering…

  • Reply
    aw griff
    July 12, 2018 at 7:53 am

    I don’t think I’ve ever said you might should ought. I would say you might ort to soak those plants.

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    July 12, 2018 at 7:28 am

    I say moght in that manner all the time. I think it is a wsy of not sounding like you are giving orders

  • Reply
    Brad Scotyt
    July 12, 2018 at 7:05 am

    I might ort to remember this’n. You might want to run it again sometime.

  • Reply
    Mike McLain
    July 12, 2018 at 7:01 am

    You might oughta be out picking blackberries this time of year! Enjoying blackberry cobbler and I have put up 28 small jars of jam. Wild blackberries taste completely different from store-bought ones. You might think about it.

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