Imaginary Appalachia

Appalachia, the amorphous region in and around the Appalachian Mountains (known locally as “the holler”), has been a source of fascination for linguists for decades. The “holler” refers (generally) to the valleys of the region; a local pronunciation of the geographical term “hollow”. The fact that inhabitants of Appalachia hold the word “holler” in such high regard says a couple things about Appalachian culture: that it is defined by physical isolation (along with socioeconomic isolation), and that Appalachians very consciously place value on their dialect. In her article, Chi Luu addresses the unique quality and heritage of Appalachian English, along with some of the myths that still pervade the discourse surrounding this remarkable dialect.

Opinions on Appalachian English tend toward extremes. The most common language attitude towards Appalachian English is that it is “ungrammatical” and indicative of an unsophisticated and unintelligent speaker.[1] In the U.S. it, along with most other varieties of Southern English, is used as cultural shorthand for an uneducated and/or bigoted individual. Many in the scholarly community, on the other hand, have made the bold claim that Appalachian English is “the oldest living English dialect, older than the speech of Shakespeare;” essentially preserved in the amber of harsh rural isolation.[2] Josiah Combs went so far as to say that the people of Appalachia are “the conservators of Old, Early, and Elizabethan English in the New World.”3 This would make Appalachian English one of the “purest” forms of English in contemporary usage.

Interviews with residents of Appalachia from the documentary Mountain Talk.

While these claims are difficult to prove empirically, there are aspects of Appalachian English which seem to be retained from much earlier varieties. Two features which I have studied in the past are a-prefixing and double modals:

(1) He’s a-playin’ over yonder
(2) I might could use a hand with these

Walt Wolfram traced the a-prefixing in (1) all the way back to Old English, where what are now present participles were verbal nouns.[4] These verbal nouns were introduced with prepositions, leading to utterances such as I went on hunting. Eventually the prepositions underwent lenition and in Appalachian English they became the a-prefix. In his research, Michael Montgomery has found that double modal constructions such as (2) are highly influenced by region’s history of Scots-Irish settlement.[5] Already this poses a problem for the claims that Appalachian English is a “pure” descendant of Early Modern English: try telling Englishman in the 16th Century that a Scot speaks “correct” English.

But, as Luu correctly points out, focusing too much on the European roots of Appalachian English risks missing another of its major influences: African American Vernacular English. Black Appalachians are all too often erased from the region’s culture, but both Montgomery and Wolfram acknowledge that they significantly contributed to at least one major feature of Appalachian English. During the the decreolization of African American Vernacular English, Southern varieties of English began to pick up its affinity for copular deletion.[6] [7] To this day, copular deletion remains one of the most recognizable features of both African American Vernacular English and Appalachian English.

The perception of Appalachia as a monolithically White culture is enduring, but interestingly it is currently undergoing something of a minor reckoning. Recently, popular Kentuckian singer-songwriter Tyler Childers urged his fellow Appalachians to remember their shared history of fighting state-sanctioned violence in company towns before condemning the Black Lives Matter movement: “If we didn’t need to be reminded, there would be justice for Breonna Taylor, a Kentuckian just like me, and countless others.” Last week Childers released a surprise album, Long Violent History, with seven instrumental compositions (a banjo, itself an encapsulation of how important Black Appalachians have been to the region’s culture, prominent throughout them) preceding the title track; a plea for a showing of solidarity and empathy from his rural White audience.

The album cover depicts Childers posing in front of a patch of kudzu, the invasive vine planted throughout the South in the 1940s. Initially thought to control soil erosion, for decades it has choked out native flora to an alarming degree. Forgetfulness of the former oppression that Appalachians felt at the hands of law enforcement, it suggests, is a similarly invasive and destructive force that threatens the region’s deep roots of class solidarity.

Works Cited:

1. Cramer, J. (2018). Perceptions of Appalachian English in Kentucky. Journal of Appalachian Studies, 24(1), 45-71.

2. Wolfram, W. (1977). On the Linguistic Study of Appalachian Speech. Appalachian Journal,5(1), 92-102.

3. Williams, C. (1978). Appalachian Speech. The North Carolina Historical Review,55(2), 174-179.

4. Wolfram, W. (1976). Toward a description of a-prefixing in Appalachian English. American Speech, 51 (1/2), 45-56.

5. Montgomery, M. (1991). The Roots of Appalachian English: Scotch-Irish or British Southern? Journal of the Appalachian Studies Association,3, 177-191.

6. Wolfram, W. (1974). The Relationship of White Southern Speech to Vernacular Black English. Language,50(3), 498-527.

7. Montgomery, M. (1993). The Southern Accent—Alive and Well. Southern Cultures, 47-64.

About Josh Amaris

Linguist, Musician, Leftist, Cook, Gardener. Or at least some approximation thereof.
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