A Lexington Herald-Leader writer, Anna Tong, recently wrote an article on a UK speech professor’s study as to whether people with an “Appalachian” accent and grammar as less employable.
I can answer that quickly. It’s “Yes!” in bold letters.
But, Ms. Tong’s resources are a bit shaky.
She quotes several university professors, most of whom wouldn’t know Appalachian speech if they heard it, then quotes a native of Nelson County, which would be very offended to be labeled Appalachian, on the problems he had when he went off to school in California. Another interviewee was from Glasgow in Western Kentucky.
Near the end Ms. Tong did quote somebody from Harlan, and there’s no doubt that Harlan County is Appalachian.
Actually, there is probably no such thing as an Appalachian accent. It may be southern, or slow, but the dialect is what sets the Appalachian speech patterns apart.
Ms. Tong quotes some familiar examples, but the one I took offense with may reflect where I came from, relatively coal-free Elliott County. She wrote that people in Eastern Kentucky said something like “Nasty as karn,” and that “karn” was a byproduct of coal mining. To quote: “’He's sorrier 'n karn’ (Karn is a mining term meaning a pile of rocks.)”
My mother said “Nasty as quairn,” and Jim Wayne Miller told me that her version was the early English pronunciation of “Carrion.” Or, as Bob Dylan put it, “Dead skunk in the middle of the road, stinking to high-high heaven.”
All the writers and professors would do well to read the works of the late Jim Wayne Miller of Western Kentucky University and of Cratis Williams, the Lawrence County native who knew more about local dialect than anybody before or since, who could listen to an Appalachian native for two minutes and pretty well place you in the exact county or community where you grew up.
Williams essentially invented “Appalachian Studies” and Miller, a North Carolina native, loved the language and helped me frequently with the meanings and original word usage when parts of our dialect stumped me.
A Lexington “accent reduction specialist” tells about learning how to “code-switch,” the ability to alternate between a native dialect and standard American English. In 1964 I wrote a paper for a speech class at Berea College on the exact same topic, the many levels of English we had to instinctively switch between, but I didn’t know there was a scholarly explanation.
Many of us from Appalachian Kentucky learned decades ago that the only way to get a toe in the door in most of the country was to speak standard English, and we learned to do so. I have always written the same language as Northerners and city folk, but when I speak it’s a different story. I can, when I have to, speak proper English.
I don’t like to, and it doesn’t sound natural, but sometimes it’s necessary.
Especially if you’re interviewing for a job.
About 20 years ago I made lots of people mad in a Herald-Leader essay when I wrote that many Eastern Kentucky young people needed to learn a second language – English – if they wanted to function in the rest of the world. It’s wrong when people assume that the Kentucky dialect equates to ignorance, but it’s a fact.
I hope UK isn’t spending very much money on the research.
All of us from Appalachia already know the answer.
As a writer of fiction, poetry, history, essay, and humor, Garry Barker has earned much recognition and numerous awards. His University of Tennessee Press books are The Handcraft Revival in Southern Appalachia, 1930-1990, and Notes From A Native Son: Essays On The Appalachian Experience.
Barker wrote a series of entries for the Appalachian Encyclopedia, and his works are included in anthologies, teaching guides, and textbooks.
Over the decades Barker has published hundreds of magazine articles, essays, editorials, and works of fiction, mostly about Kentucky and the mountain regions.
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