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Southern Mountain Dialect

We should be very proud of our Appalachian mountain dialect spoken by our ancestors. There are many terms used to describe this dialect. Most linguists will refer to the folk speech of Appalachia as Southern Mountain Dialect. You can still hear some of these words spoken today in Scott County, Tennessee and other counties located in the beautiful Cumberland Mountains and the Southern Appalachian Mountain range in general. Most of the first white settlers that came to this region were the "Scotch-Irish". Much of the Southern Appalachian landscape reminded the early settlers of their homelands of Ireland and Scotland. Many of the expressions heard throughout this region can be traced to the days of Queen Elizabeth I. Some of the words and the way they were spoken by my ancestors would be considered Elizabethan English with a Scottish and Irish flavor sprinkled in. Some of these can be found in the works of great English authors such as Shakespeare, Alfred and Chaucer. These are just a few of the names I could mention. Many of these expressions and words can be heard throughout the region today. I am very proud of my Scotch-Irish ancestry and the dialect handed down to me from generation to generation.
The families from England, Scotland and Ireland which settled our area loved the land very much. We come from a strong stock that enjoyed and valued their privacy. They built their homes on the mountains and down in the "holler's" of our beautiful landscape. In doing so, they isolated themselves from the rest of the country and what was considered the mainstream of the American life. Through this isolation from mainstream America their way of speech was preserved and handed down from generation to generation. I will also note that over the years this mountain dialect lost favor in mainstream America. People in America in general were changing with the times and that included the way they spoke and used the English language. Many words and phrases fell out of fashion with most areas of the country. Many of our ancestors tucked away in the mountains, coves and hollows of the Southern Appalachian Mountain range remained the same in many ways including their speech.
Many families in this area did not feel the full extent of the way things had changed in America until the 1930's. President Franklin Roosevelt ask Congress to pass the TVA Act on May 18, 1933. This was one of his most innovative ideas of the "New Deal" to lift the nation out of the depths of the Great Depression. The Tennessee Valley Authority started building dams on the Tennessee River. Electricity generated by these dams brought this area into the 20th Century. Electric lights and modern appliances made a dramatic change in the life of the mountain people. Radio brought the rest of the country into their homes. Electricity also drew many industries into this area which provided desperately needed jobs. We were not isolated so much anymore and we were influenced to a certain degree by the "outsiders". I would like to note that my mother's parents did not get electricity into their home until the early 1950's. There were still many homes during this time without electric or indoor plumbing.
Many families including some of my own people had never been more than twenty or thirty miles from their home. Their way of life had pretty much remained the same for many, many years. Our culture was and still is very unique. We had our own regional accent and speech, our own way of living from day to day and our own unique music and singing just to name a few. Anyone who enjoys country and bluegrass music will know you can trace its roots back to our ancestors that lived in these mountains. Of course these same roots will go back to Scotland and Ireland and their style of music.
Many people think that all people from the South talk the same. This is simply not true. The speech of the mountain people from Tennessee is a totally different dialect than what you will hear in Memphis and the deep South. There are many different dialects throughout the Southern states. Our dialect as I have stated is mainly derived from the Scotch-Irish influence which happens to be most of our ancestors. People that speak the Southern mountain dialect loves to use vivid descriptions and colorful phrases. One phrase comes to mind is, "It's hotter 'n the gates of hell out there!" Sometimes it is hard for us to simply say, "It is hot today." This is one reason why people with a Southern mountain dialect tends to be great storytellers! We love to embellish our words and use colorful phrases to enhance what could be just another boring story if told by someone else.
Our country in general embraces diversity. There is more acceptance of different cultures, languages and regional dialects. Speech has a way of changing over the years. Many words and phrases commonly used by people in this area 50 years ago are now used by a small fraction of the people today. Our Appalachian dialect has been diluted by people from other states moving to the area and local people moving away. Many local people will live for years in other states and then move back to the area. Their way of talking has changed mainly due to the influence of other regional dialects from different areas of America. I feel most people will try to adapt to the area they live so as not to appear different. I have found through research many people that move back to the place they were born will fall back into the local way of speaking to become part of the community again. If not then some will be accused by a few of the local people as "getting above their raising".
It always upset me when people from the rest of the country would refer to people living in my part of the country as "Hillbillies". A slang term which can mean many things but all with a negative view of people native to the Southern Appalachia region. I also resent the way Hollywood and television have portrayed us in a somewhat less than complimentary fashion. I grew up in the West Robbins community of Scott County, Tennessee in the 1950's and 60's. My parents would often move up north to find jobs. As a child I attended many schools in Ft. Wayne, Indiana and other northern cities. I would like to have a nickle for every time someone said a cruel and negative remark about my Southern accent and my home state of Tennessee. I think I would probably be rich! Kids will be kids. Today if I hear negative remarks I know it is simply people's ignorance on the subject. I am very proud I come from an area where even today one can hear a word or a phrase that was spoken during the Elizabethan period! Did you know that some of the so called "bad English" spoken by some people with deep roots in our part of Appalachia were used and spoken by the highest nobility of Scotland and England? One could argue who is speaking the English language correctly.
One personal story I will share with you concerning the words "ill" and "sick". We were living in Ft. Wayne, Indiana in the late 1950's. My brother and I were attending elementary school. It was during winter and I had a very bad cold and could not go to school one day. The teacher ask my brother about my absence. My brother Donny replied, "He is sick today". The teacher scolded him for using the word sick. She told him the proper word was ill. She also made a reference to our being from Tennessee and that we would have to learn to use good English. Needless to say this embarrassed my brother very much. Years later I was very happy to find out that the adjective "ill" was used since the 1300's to describe a person or animal as being "bad tempered" and not for being sick. Also that good English used the word "sick" to refer to bad health. The word sick was used long before people ever started saying "ill" to describe someone in bad health.
I want to share another personal story with you. In the early 1990's I was attending college in Scott County, Tennessee. One day a group of us were sitting outside having coffee during a break between classes. A lady made the statement that her mother had "holped" her with taking care of her children. A split second after saying the word holped she quickly said the word "helped". I don't think anyone but me noticed this. She was embarrassed and very relieved when she realized no one had picked up on the word "holped". I had not heard this word used in many years. As a child in the 50's I heard this word used by an elderly couple in the West Robbins community. I ask my mother about it and she said years ago many people would use the word "holp" and that it meant the same as the word "help". I look back now and realized this couple used many words and phrases which is considered today as a Southern mountain dialect which can be traced back to the Elizabethan period.
Some other words I can remember being used when I was a child that comes from the Elizabethan period are "heered" for "heard", "afeared" instead of "afraid" and "deef" for "deaf". Many people in this region will use the term "blinked milk" for describing sour milk. Most people today uses the term sour milk. The phrase "blinked milk" can be traced back to the early 1600's. Only in the late 1800's and very early 1900's did it fall out of favor with most of the country except in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. I can remember the word "hit" being used for the word "it". A sentence would be, "Hit don't make no differ." The word "hit" is Old English and has been used for over a thousand years. The usage of double negatives were considered proper English until someone in the eighteenth century decided that it should not be. It was very satisfying for me to find out that Shakespeare loved to use them! Well I didn't mean to mention so many words but since I have I will add a few more. The word "weary" was sometimes used for the word "worry". Instead of saying "near" some people will use the word "nigh". Another word is "reckon" which was used instead of "suppose". It is very common to hear some people today use what is called double barreled pronouns. Some of these pronouns are "you all", "we all" and "you-uns". Some of these words go back to Anglo-Saxon times. My Scots-Irish ancestors love the letter "r". They would add the intrusive "r" into many words. Some of the older generation will still use this in their mountain dialect. The word "wash" is one of the most common words used by adding the intrusive "r". An example of this word used in a sentence would be, "I'm a-goin' to warsh the car today". If you notice we are also big on adding the letter "a" in front of many words and sometimes we will leave off the letter "g" on most words ending with "ing". These are just a few examples. Creating this page for my web site I decided not to focus so much on the words and phrases but try to give "outsiders" a very brief history of our regional dialect.
We live in a time when many people sound the same. Listen to any news channel from any city across America and most reporters sound pretty much the same. You will also find this in movies and television shows. There is nothing wrong with this but on the other hand there is nothing wrong with people having a regional accent and using some words and phrases that are not heard in other parts of the country. It would be very sad and a great lost if in 50 or 100 years from now the Southern mountain dialect would become extinct and one would only be able to read about this unique speech in certain books found in a library!

Dan Gibson, author
Copyright 2003

back to: Scott County, Tennessee Memories