Born in southwestern Ohio, my native accent is best described as General American. Yet significant periods of my youth were spent in southeastern Kentucky. When I was 14, I returned to begin my freshman year of high school with what one senior girl described as “the cutest Kentucky accent.”
I blushed, feeling a sense of pride mixed with flattery. It made me feel connected to my grandparents, whom I’d spent the summer with, and with my ancestors and the culture from whence they, and by proxy I, came.
In truth, I probably always had some semblance of an Appalachian accent. I grew up in a community of Appalachian outmigrants in Dayton, Ohio. Most of my elderly neighbors came from “down home” and sounded so similar to my own grandparents – who moved back to Kentucky when I was a child – that I didn’t realize they even had accents until I returned after many years away.
Yet, as Dr. Kirk Hazen, a professor of linguistics and the director of the West Virginia Dialect Project, would teach me, everybody has an accent.
“Dialects are a natural part of being human,” he said, “and they are a natural resource for education about language.” The West Virginia Dialect Project, as it is known, “was created to bring together scholarship and education about language variation into one unit.” By researching, studying, and teaching about language variation in and around West Virginia, Dr. Hazen and his colleagues hope to “better understand how language variation operates in the mind and society.”
That variation, Dr. Hazen said, “is part of everyone’s cultures” and “an important part of what makes human language so different” from the way other animals communicate. “Understanding how language works is a big part of understanding ourselves, and that is a foundation of education.”
This is more important than many may realize. What I did not understand in high school was that this accent – whatever it was – came with more than a century’s worth of baggage and misinformation. The notion of Appalachian English as some ancient dialect preserved in time like a butterfly in amber, is as old as it is wrong. In March of 1899, The Atlantic published an essay about Appalachia by William Goodell Frost – then president of Berea College in Kentucky. “It is a longer journey from northern Ohio to eastern Kentucky than from America to Europe,” he wrote in the opening paragraph, “for one day’s ride brings us into the eighteenth century.” Appalachia, he reasoned, was not just geographically distinct – but a region full of “primitive folk” who are “pathetically belated” in that they lack modern conveniences, education, and speechways.
The essay – entitled “Our Contemporary Ancestors in the Southern Mountains” – was a sensation, coining the phrase “Appalachian Americans” and helping to solidify the notion of our region as not only geographically distinct but culturally anachronistic and barbaric.
In perhaps no way was this truer, Frost thought, than in our language. “The rude dialect of the mountains is far less a degradation than a survival,” he wrote. Comparing our language to that of Chaucer – the 14th-century author of The Canterbury Tales – Frost insisted the dialect my ancestors spoke with and handed down to me had, by that point, “been dropped by polite lips.”
With that, the hillbilly – and the stigmatization of his or her accent and dialect – was born. “People really passed that myth about Appalachia,” Dr. Hazen told me. “It became really romanticized. So people started making assumptions about the dialects in Appalachia that somehow they were older.”
This is not the reality. Language is an evolving phenomenon, and Appalachia is no further removed from this process than any other region of the nation. “There are not even lexical items that are uniquely Appalachia. Things like ‘poke’ for bag or ‘buggy’ for cart are found in several different places,” he explained. Nor is there a singular Appalachian dialect. A region stretching – by its governmental definition – from Mississippi to New York and encompassing a wide range of diverse peoples, “it’s simply not been the case that there has been one variety of English in the region at any point,” Dr. Hazen said.
Yet the idea of an Appalachian accent, and the stigmatization that goes along with it, persist. Much of that stigmatization comes from our history – or perhaps more accurately, the way that history gets interpreted by outsiders. “Appalachia in the beginning of the country was the western frontier of the nation,” Dr. Hazen explained. “It was the wilderness. It was the untamed areas. And a lot of that got transferred over to writers from other places who characterized Appalachia as lawless and violent.”
By placing Appalachia outside the mainstream American culture and representing it in the national media as backwards and uncivilized, as well as presenting it as homogeneously white, the rest of the country was able to project onto our region anything it wanted. You’ll hear people “talk about the ‘Anglo-Saxon heritage’” of the region, Dr. Hazen said, as though “somehow Appalachia is where the Queen’s English or the white vernacular varieties” of English, purer and untainted by outside influences, persist. “If that concept rings any warning bells, that’s because in recent decades it has been picked up by white supremacists.”
Self-avowed racists are not the only ones who project their neuroses onto our region and its language. More recently, J.D. Vance – the infamous author of Hillbilly Elegy and current Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Ohio – has used the region to justify neoliberal economics and a politics of class warfare against the poorest among us. In doing so, Elizabeth Catte argued in her book What You Are Getting Wrong about Appalachia, that “Vance has placed himself in a disturbing lineage of intellectuals who relished what they presumed to be the malleable whiteness of Appalachia for its ability to either prove or disprove cultural beliefs about race.”
Whereas white supremacists might argue that Appalachia proves a “purer” version of whiteness exists but has been lost elsewhere, Catte contended that Vance uses our region to “discount the links between structural racism and inequality” by pathologizing poverty and ignorance he associates with Appalachia and those who call it home. Much in the same way as African American Vernacular English is seen as ignorant or corruption of “the Queen’s English,” dialects associated with Appalachia are frequently marked out as uneducated or inferior to more mainstream accents. “For many conservatives,” she wrote, “the beauty of Hillbilly Elegy was not just what it said about the lot of poor white Americans, but what it implied about [B]lack Americans as well… retroactively vindicat[ing] them for viciously deploying the same stereotypes against nonwhite people for decades.”
This has real consequences for the people who live here or sound like they should. That was certainly a lesson I learned in my college speech classes, where I was encouraged to lose the accent I’d picked up from years spent in Eastern Kentucky. The rich, sweet twang that characterized my speech became a mark of the beast I desperately tried to hide. It was a tell-tale sign that I was vulgar, lower-class, and from an uneducated brood of degenerates out of step with the middle-class mainstream I longed to access.
At 20 years old, it was gospel. So, I did my best to revert to a General American accent. From then on, in business meetings and social encounters alike, I made a conscious effort to speak like I’m from Ohio, not Kentucky – despite the fact that Appalachia exists in parts of both states and I’d spend most of my life outside the region. I went so far as to put my mother’s hometown in North Carolina, my college town, and even London, England, as my “hometown” on Facebook, so anxious was I to divorce myself from the mantle of “Appalachia.”
Getting beyond that shame is “a Sisyphean kind of effort,” Dr. Hazen said. It is one he and the WVDP are up against. “We publish academic articles so other scholars can learn about social and linguistic patterns in Appalachia,” Dr. Hazen told me. “We also design and distribute Dialect Units to teach about how language variation works for secondary schools.” He hopes to demystify and destigmatize language and dialect through education.
Ending more than a century of stigmatization is the work of multiple lifetimes. Dr. Hazen believes it can be done, though. In the 1850s people had a very definite ranking of languages. They thought that some were superior to others—similar to how folks today believe that if “people sound a certain way, because they have certain vowels in their mouths, that that reflects their intelligence.”
No one today ranks languages, though, and that provides hope that we may one day move beyond judging people based on how they sound. “My approach for the last few decades has been to try to explain how language works,” Dr. Hazen said.
“To try to explain the beautiful complexity of it, how it works through the human species, and get people to understand that all dialects have grammars, they all have sound systems, and that some of those sound systems are stigmatized.”