The Appalachian Language = Music To My Ears

My life in Appalachia - Off is anywhere but here

Anyone who reads the Blind Pig and The Acorn will quickly figure out I’m crazy in love with the unique colorful language of Appalachia.

I’ve never been embarrassed about my accent, even when someone pointed it out in a critical or mocking way. Pap instilled the need to be who you are in myself and my brothers from an early age and I guess that’s why I’ve never been bothered that I don’t use correct English or that I say words different than most folks.

I think Appalachian accents are like lovely music. You don’t hear them as often these days, even here in my area the accent has diminished somewhat.

There is something so comforting about the Appalachian accent to me. I’m sure folks from other areas fill the exact same way about the accent they’re most familiar with.

I used to sit at a reception desk at work. I greeted everyone who came in the door and directed them to the appropriate area in addition to answering the phone. One time a middle age man came in and after we spoke for a moment he headed on to complete the business he had come to take care of.

On his way out he stopped and asked me who I was-you know who I belonged to. He said “I can tell you’re one of us. Who’s your family?”

One might think the gentlemen was being exclusionary or rude by saying he could tell I was one of us. But he wasn’t.

What he meant was that he had come into an intimidating sort of place in a pair of pointer overalls and that it was nice to hear my voice there. How do I know that? Because I’ve been in that very position before.

More than once I’ve found myself in a strange or frightening situation far from home and been comforted by the voice of someone talking that sounded like me. They might not have even been talking to me, but hearing that accent still gave me a feeling of a warm hug or a pat on the back.

Lonnie Dockery, who was a faithful Blind Pig reader until his death, once told me a story about being homesick and hearing a familiar voice.

Lonnie was in the Marines and he hadn’t been home in good long time. He was flying from one place to another and was in an airport in California. He said he noticed a jar of sorghum syrup sticking out of another man’s bag. Lonnie pointed at it and asked him if he liked syrup. Lonnie said in one of those small world ways it turned out the man was from the mountains of Appalachia too. Lonnie said hearing the man talk of syrup and home made him feel like he was back at his own home sitting at his mamma’s kitchen table.

One of the sweetest stories I’ve ever heard about the Appalachian accent was written by a fellow blogger back several years ago.

This is what Jen had to say about the Appalachian accent:

My dad was proud to be a “hillbilly” from West Virginia and quite enjoyed referring to himself as such. He loved his native state and often spoke (in his southern drawl) of Appalachia’s rugged mountains and rivers (and cricks and hollers). Growing up (in Arizona and then Michigan), I never knew anyone else from West Virginia and hadn’t met my dad’s relatives. So I never made one particular connection – I had no idea he had an Appalachian accent.

I was about 22. My dad had already died (cancer), and I was on a college trip to rural Appalachia with Habitat for Humanity. We were deep in the hills of Tennessee, and an older local gentleman who was helping our crew stopped to ask me a question. That moment is still vivid in my memory, because out of his mouth seemed to come my dad’s voice. Only then did I have the revelation. My dad was not the only person to speak with his peculiar dialect – he was one of many and belonged to a people that I suddenly felt connected to.

I hope you’ve been fortunate enough to hear a good many Appalachian accents, and if you’ve never heard one then let me know and maybe I’ll give you a call so you can hear mine!

Tipper

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23 Comments

  • Reply
    Rev. RB
    September 21, 2017 at 7:16 pm

    What a poignant feeling and remembrance came into my heart at reading this!
    Born in NW PA, I’ve done a fair bit of traveling in my lifetime, ending up (so far) in the sand hills of NC. Now about a mile or two from the house where I grew up in McKean, PA, there’s a yard/farm equipment supply place called Pennock’s. It’s been there for decades. I suppose it’s still there.
    Anyway, one day Bro Tom and I were driving around town down here in the sand hills, and low and behold, on the back of the back seat of the car in front of us sat a grass green cap with white printing on it that looked familiar, and as we got closer, yep – it said “Pennock’s.”
    We thought about trying to flag the guy down to see where he was from, where he’d gotten the cap, etc., but in today’s world (sadly), it’s not always safe following people and trying to flag them to stop, so we just talked a bit about it (a little homesick perhaps) and let it go. But I still remember that fondly to this day…a Pennock’s cap here some 800+/- miles away from Pennock’s. sigh
    God bless.
    RB
    <><

  • Reply
    George Pettie
    September 20, 2017 at 8:16 pm

    Wow, Tipper! What fine set of reader posts you stirred up! Among the many accents in the English speaking world, Appalachian speech has a uniquely fluid lilt that falls so pleasantly on the ear. And as a dialect, “Appalachianese” stands as one of the most expressive. An English major possessing a 30,000 word vocabulary still might struggle to construct a cogent idea, whereas as a lifelong denizen of the mountains could masterfully deploy a heartfelt 5000 word vocabulary to meaningfully convey a genuine slice of life. Dialects are literature– the fewer the words the more powerful the literature.

  • Reply
    larry griffith
    September 20, 2017 at 6:37 pm

    Many years ago while traveling out west several people guessed we were from TX. One girl got it right and guessed we were from EKY. She was from TN.

  • Reply
    b. Ruth
    September 20, 2017 at 5:11 pm

    Tipper,
    One of my favorite things to do was to listen to people’s dialect. I practiced and practiced listening to others speech, language use and dialect. Here are some examples…
    I went to a new doctor…he came in and introduced his self…I immediately opened up with “You’re not from around here are you?” He laughed and said…”Just where do you think I’m from?” Well, that one was easy as pie! The Bronx, I said. “I’ve been here for years, he said…someone must have told you.” Nope, he still had that distinct dialect of a born and raised Bronx native although he was beginning to get a Knoxville Tennessee wang with it! Ha
    I was at a antique sale, when a guy came through looking at a few things and conversation began. “You’re a long way from home.” I said. He said, “No, I teach here in Tennessee about seventy five miles from here.” I laughed and said…”No, I mean your native home, Scotland!” He jerked around and said, “My wife, must have told you!”…and asked me if I knew him from school…I said, “No, I picked up on your dialect!” There were only just a handful of sound of the words he used that gave it away. He was amazed and said of all the years he had been here he never had that happen to him before…
    I can or used to be able to tell the difference between say Cocke County, TN and Western, NC. Tennessee folks more Southwest of us and the native folks around here. Folks near the ocean in SC and NC speak different from Western NC…etc. Very hard for me to tell the difference nowadays.
    My Appalachian English is beginning to flatten out…so to speak! I try to keep it alive by throwing out a few phrases or words when meeting someone new…I love to see eyes pop or force them to ask where I am from….NO, I am definitely from around here…HA
    Thanks Tipper….loved this post and all the comments…

  • Reply
    Ricky Stonecypher
    September 20, 2017 at 2:33 pm

    Tipper your article reminded me when I was on the road working up north. They had hard time with my name (Stonecypher) .So they would just call me Stoney.I new then why all my old kin all the way back to Revolutionary war were called Stoney. So proud to be called Stoney even though alot of people couldn’t understand it.

  • Reply
    Ricky Stonecypher
    September 20, 2017 at 2:25 pm

    Tipper article reminded me of my mom Phisical Therapist from eastern Ky.came in spoke her eyes lit up she’d work hard. She had vacation, then other patients for about a month. PT assistance could only get so much out of her .When Ashley came back to finish up the time. She would hear her accent do twice the work. They were from similar parts of Appalachia .Know doubt the voice was a big key. Even though the Physical Therapist had 6 year’s from UT. I’m sure the accent she loved. My mom has Alzheimer’s.

  • Reply
    Jim Casada
    September 20, 2017 at 2:09 pm

    Tipper–Today’s post is deeply meaningful to me. I had a call from an elderly woman in Swain County the other day who was reacting to one of my weekly columns in the little local newspaper. We had a fine conversation and at the end of it I told her how much I had enjoyed talking to her and that her accent, a true old-time mountain one in tone, and her vocabulary, again totally in tune with the mountain way of speaking, had meant more to me than she could imagine. Her reply was classic: “I think that’s the finest way anyone has ever let me know that I’m a hillbilly.”
    I’ve sent you a personal e-mail on a new website that contains a wealth of information on mountain talk. You may want to share in with readers, because it comes from Michael Montgomery, the scholar who finished up Joe Hall’s wonderful “Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English” you use so frequently.
    Jim Casada

  • Reply
    Lee Mears
    September 20, 2017 at 2:04 pm

    I’ve been asked or teased many, many times. My son in CO and two grandsons in Atl don’t have it. They speak very properly. My German and Swiss friends can’t hear the difference in US regions. Funny how you can so easily tell if someones from App, Eastern NC, SC, Sav, Ala. MS. Theres Southern then there’s Appalachian.
    More odd to me is Massachusetts Irish who add an R to words ending with an A. As in Cubar or Lisar.?
    ‘We’re’ trying to drop those R’s down here.

  • Reply
    TMc
    September 20, 2017 at 1:12 pm

    Oops posted before I meant to, they sound like folks I’m familiar with.

  • Reply
    TMc
    September 20, 2017 at 1:10 pm

    I get a kick out of the video series of word pronunciations shzz if I spelt that one right.

  • Reply
    Ken
    September 20, 2017 at 11:59 am

    Tipper,
    When I was in the 8th grade, our bunch went to see the USS Battleship Memorial at Wilmington. Before we got there, our Trailway Bus stopped to gas-up and we could go to the bathroom. Inside the huge bathroom, we met a big class of boys from Michigan, and they were just fascinated by the way we talked. We became good friends and it didn’t matter to us if they didn’t know how to talk good Appalachian. They’d ask us a lot of questions just to hear our response. We had a good time meeting friends from another part of our country. …Ken

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    September 20, 2017 at 10:49 am

    When accosted about my dialect I am apt to deny being a hillbilly. Not because I ashamed to proclaim my heritage but because I don’t want slight the other half of me. I am also a redneck! A full blooded Appalachian Hillbilly Redneck!

  • Reply
    Ann Applegarth
    September 20, 2017 at 10:49 am

    Oh, Tipper, your charming way of saying things is probably the main reason (among many) that I love Blind Pig! To my way of thinking, the Southern accent (in all its variations) is the loveliest sound on earth. It makes me very sad that regional accents are fading. I think this is because of TV — children grow up hearing un-accented English day in and day out as they watch TV, and so that’s how they learn to speak. It’s a shame. I have an East Texas accent and vocabulary still, and though folks in New Mexico don’t tease me much, many people in Oregon did.

  • Reply
    Don Casada
    September 20, 2017 at 10:29 am

    I’ve taught 1-3 day pumping system classes in most of the states and several other countries. At the beginning of most classes, in giving a little of my work background, I’ll mention that I’m a certified hillbilly – that it says so right on my birth certificate. That goes a ways towards disarming anyone who’s inclined to look down their nose toward my accent.
    Interestingly, some folks who aren’t Appalachian really enjoy hearing the accent. In South Africa they called me “hillie-billie” in their own lovely accent. In upper New York State (Niagara Falls), my host got up at the end of the day and said that he’d learned a lot that day, but the most interesting thing he’d learned was that the word “head” had two syllables – as in heh-ud. Everyone laughed, including me.
    To say that someone has an Appalachian accent doesn’t tell the whole story, though. East Tennessee is different than western NC. I couldn’t describe the difference, but know it when I hear it. I recall coming to spend a weekend with Mama and Daddy one time when we were living in Knoxville. At church on Sunday, one of the members led a prayer. What I heard was an Appalachian accent; but more specifically, it was a Swain County accent, and I knew I was home.
    When teaching a class in England, there were fellows from various parts of the country. While I couldn’t tell the difference, they were able to figure out what specific part of England others were from, so I guess the localization of accent is universal.
    Sadly, I’m afraid that our distinctive way of talking will be gone in another generation. It’s largely gone now.

  • Reply
    David Templeton
    September 20, 2017 at 10:15 am

    The fading dialects and idiom of Appalachia have been a national treasure and the fading away is sad to see and hear. Sometimes we get to hear Tipper talk in some interview or on some YouTube presentation and we hear the remnants of that language. The language is still music to my ears.
    When the book was written about Ray Hicks, “The Hicks of Beech Mountain … The Last Chivaree” and from that, when I found interviews on YouTube of Ray and clips from his storytelling days, I realized how much is being lost with television’s “averaging” of our language and with the dying off of the last remnants of Appalachian-speaking people.
    No wonder I find such pleasure in Tipper’s daily magazine, “Blind Pig and the Acorn”, and her stories.

  • Reply
    Lisa Snuggs
    September 20, 2017 at 9:48 am

    For me, voices make the strongest, most long-lasting memories of all. Whether we hear our departed loved ones laughing, singing, or throwing out something seemingly unique to them, their voices stay with me. In particular, my sisters and cousins and I often use phrases we remember my paternal grandmother saying. My favorites are “You don’t mean it!” and “What’s yo’ hurry?” As usual, you’ve made me smile this morning. Thank you!

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    September 20, 2017 at 9:24 am

    I think you have hit on the reason I can never be sure whether I use the words in your vocabulary tests. For many of them, they are not ‘second nature’ but first nature. I can hear what is different from what I am used to but not what is the same.
    As preparation for her role in “The Dollmaker” Jane Fonda lived for two weeks with an elderly couple in Mt. Sterling, Ky.
    And Michael Caine, a Brit, said the best advice he got for speaking like a Texan in “Second Hand Lions” was from the man who told him that in Texas “the words kinda lean on each other”. While that is Southern and not Appalachian, it captures the essence of ‘drawl’.
    Our son is now in New York state and I keep wondering if his country will show. He is the only Southerner in his college department. But he says there is not a strong local accent there, about 80 miles from NYC.
    Three cheers for being oneself and liking it!

  • Reply
    Shirl
    September 20, 2017 at 9:18 am

    For many years at work I had to speak with large groups of people every day either during a tour or in the classroom. The folks from around the Louisville area would always ask me where I’m from. They couldn’t believe it when I said KY. Until that time I never thought I sounded different. But I know the folks who never left eastern KY still have a very unique language. I love to listen to them when I go in restaurants and stores while visiting there and don’t think I sound quiet as Appalachian.
    One of my most memorable classes was an OSHA required training session for deaf employees and their translator. The translator continued to study me for several hours. When we took a break, she told me it was eerie how much I looked and sounded like her sister’s mother-in-law. Come to find out, her sister was married to an attorney I knew from my hometown. That tells me we definitely have (air) own language.

  • Reply
    Julie Hughes Moreno
    September 20, 2017 at 9:02 am

    Tipper, I have been there. When I lived in Seattle one of the doctors I worked with told me that while he didn’t want to hurt my feelings, he wanted me to know my accent naught cause folks to think I was ignorant. It hurt my feelings as you can imagine. I told him they could think what they wanted. When I told my Mother she was livid. She threatened to call him and “give him a piece of her mind.” She told me, “we may be hillbillies but we would never be ugly and hurtful like that!”

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    September 20, 2017 at 8:38 am

    So true, I love hearing the beautiful voices. As some of you know I am a 5th generation Floridian, our state was a beautiful place with a lovely sound of it’s own which has gradually been lost by the influx of people from the north. Don’t let it happen to you. Keep your language and traditions. BTW our family originated in NC

  • Reply
    Bob Jones
    September 20, 2017 at 8:16 am

    Good Morning Tipper- Having worked in the public sector, I too heard many accents. When tourist season came I heard many of them. I live in New Brunswick, Canada just across the border from, Maine. Our town was a popular stop for tourists. The accents were as you said-‘music to my ears’. Now with internet and T.V., etc., we can here these accents whereas before they were all new to me, a small town employee. I have never been to Virginia (but would love to go there), but have been told more than once that our New Brunswick accent would fit right in as it is so similar. Inez Jones

  • Reply
    Rosamary Christiansen
    September 20, 2017 at 8:15 am

    Every time I hear an Appalachin accent, it’s more like they’re singin. I treasure my brother’s phonecalls, because he has a thick accent.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    September 20, 2017 at 7:26 am

    Tip, I used to work with guy who would occasionally say to me “Cindy, your country is showing.” He was of course referring to my Appalachian tinted speech. I would just laugh at my upstate New York friend.

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