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Maps are essential in locating and describing where people live in our country. Some who are proficient in map talk, refer to latitude and longitude when pinpointing a specific state, town or region.
However, people who live in the heart of the Appalachia region spreading across the mountains of West Virginia, southwestern Virginia, western North Carolina, northwestern South Carolina, northern Georgia, Alabama, eastern Tennessee and Kentucky are quickly and easily identified not by lines on a map, but by their dialect.
My home is located high in the mountains of West Virginia — Latitude: 38.28 N, Longitude: 80.84. I speak the mountain dialect of the central coalfields of West Virginia: “Hi, How are Y’all? I live in the holler by a crick close to my kin.”
My parents migrated to central West Virginia from Southwest Virginia. They held on to their Virginia accent which was noticeably different from their children’s speech. They said things like: wite, nite, lite, youins.
West Virginia is the boundary state between the North and South. There is no single West Virginia dialect. Instead it depends on what part of the state you live in.
For example, if you live in the northern part of the state, which borders Ohio and Pennsylvania, the accent is more northern. The primary marker being the long “l” sound. Residents in the interior of the state speak more like people from Kentucky or southern Virginia. Residents of the southern counties have a very pronounced southern twang.
Regardless of where you live in West Virginia, we are all blessed with a bit of that southern twang. The further you go into the mountains – the more twang and colloquialism you will find.
So, come with me on a dialect journey into the Appalachian Mountains.
Linguists refer to the southern mountain dialect as the folk speech of Appalachia. The archaic speech can be narrowed down to sort of a Scottish-flavored Elizabethan English. Dialect variations can be traced to immigration patterns. The southeastern coalfields of West Virginia were settled by miners immigrating from Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Along the Ohio River, which was more industrialized, a large number of the immigrants came from Eastern Europe.
There are communities in the southern part of the state that are almost entirely African-American. Mine owners brought in former slaves during the mine wars of the 1800s to replace the striking miners, and because these communities remained segregated, the dialects of the southern slaves lived on in the speech.
I have compiled a list of words and phrases commonly used in mountain dialect and their standard English translation:
Holped – helped
Heered – heard
Deef – deaf
Afreared – afraid
Blinked milk – sour milk
Weary – worry
Near – nigh
Reckon – suppose
Backset – Backset of the flu
Ill – bad-tempered
Gom – Mess
Fillum – Film
Pert-near – almost
Ahr — hour
Am-Bew-Lance — ambulance (Call an am-bew-lance.)
A-mite — a little (You’re lookin’ a-mite peak-ed today.)
Arthur-itis — arthritis (Dad’s arthur-itis is really actin’ up.)
Bar — bear (Llnes, tagers and bars, oh my.)
Battree — battery (The car’s battree is daid.)
Beholden — owe (I don’t want to be beholden to you.)
Briggity — egotistical (The young man is acting briggity agin.)
Book Red — educated (He went to college — he’s book red.)
Cheer — chair ( Pull up a cheer and set a spell.)
Choirpractor — chiropractor (If you are down in the back, go to the choirpractor.)
Co-cola — Coca Cola, any brown soft drink (I ordered a co-cola at the diner.)
Crick – stiffness (I’ve got a crick in my neck.)
Decoration Day – Memorial Day (We visited the family cemetery on Decoration Day.)
Ate Up – completely infected (Dave’s ate up with the cancer.)
Elm — “m” The thirteenth letter of the alphabet. (Dial Elm for Murder.)
Far — fire (The mountain is on far.)
Haint — ghost (from haunt) (I’m afraid I will see a haint in that house.)
Hard — hired (He was the hard hand on the farm.)
His people — relatives (His people came from Ireland.)
Het — upset (She got het up over the contract.)
Hisself – himself (He built the barn hisself.)
Ideal – idea (Try to come up with a good ideal.)
Ink pin – pen (Give him the ink pin.)
Kin – related (He is kin to most of the people in this holler.)
Outsider — A non southern West Virginian (Mountain folk are skeptical of the outsider.)
Parts — neighborhood (It is good to see you back in these parts.)
Pizen — poison (That snake is pizen.)
Plain spoken — honest or genuine (The people trusted Jim because he was plain spoken.)
Poke — bag or a sack (She carried the groceries home in a poke.)
Polecat — skunk (A polecat ran under the old building.)
Put Out — angry or upset (The mayor was put out with the council’s decision.)
Red Light – stop light or traffic signal (My town has one red light.)
Skittish — nervous (The boy was skittish when asked to recite a Bible verse.)
Spell — a while. (She stayed on the mountain for a spell.)
Spell — being lightheaded or dizzy. (The woman had a spell in the doctor’s office.)
Thar — there (Thar’s a pretty little pony in the field.)
Wrastlin’ – wrestling (My son is on the wrastlin’ team.)
Actin’ Up — hurting (His injured knee was actin’ up.)
Agen — against
Bile – boil
Brung — brought
Carry — take or drive
Churched — excommunicated
Drug — dragged Et — eaten
Holt — hold
Kindly — nearly
Learned — taught
Mosey — go to
Pack — carry
Peart — well
Plumb — completely
Reckon — guess
Retched — reached
Rinch — rinse
Sangin’ — digging up ginseng
Worsh — wash
Monday a week — next monday
Shore — sure
Down in the back — back injury
Cut the light on — turn the light on
I don’t care — Yes, please. I would like some. (Do you want more coffee? I don’t care.)
Worshington – Washington
One North Carolina scholar uses the term “constellation of features” in describing the distinctive mountain speech.
For example, the letter “t” is added at the end of words such as “across” and “twice” making the words “acrosst” and “twice” becomes “twicet”. This pronunciation was common among English speakers centuries ago and Appalachia is the only region that has held on to the pronunciation.
The pronunciation of the letter “i” is much different in certain words such as “light” and “fire” than in other parts of the U.S. “Light” sounds like “laht” and “fire” sounds like “far”.
Hollow becomes Butcher Holler in Loretta Lynn’s song about her East Kentucky homeplace, Coalminer’s Daughter.
Mountain folk are famous for coining their own words to express a thought or observation. The word “sigogglin,” for example, means something that is crooked.
In rural Southern Appalachia an “n” is added to pronouns indicating “one” or ownership. So, “his’n” means “his one”, “her’n” means “her one” and “yor’n” “your one,” i.e., “his, hers and yours.” Another example is the word “yernses” or yours. “That new car is yernses.” Use of the word “dove” as past tense for dive, “drug” as past tense for drag and “drunk” as past tense for drink are grammatical features characteristic of older Southern American English and the newer Southern American English.
Outsiders are often confused by the use of the word y’all, meaning the second person plural of you. When speaking about a group, y’all is general. You know the group of people as a whole. All y’all is more specific. This means you know each and every person individually in that group. Y’all can also be used with the standard “s” possessive. “I’ve got y’all’s assignments ready.”
Here are some other expressions contributed by some of my Facebook friends: Virginia Winebrenner Sykes: This is a good site,” idn’t” it? I hear so many people, including my mountain girl self, say “isn’t” this way. Another one, I don’t say, but have heard said is brefkast instead of breakfast.
Anna Dennison Circle: Whoppin – whipping; boosh – bush; dropped her calf – gave birth; peak’ed – pale; gone and done it again; smitten – likes; yonder – over there; and nary – none,
Shirley Tinney: “If’n” is a word I’ve heard.
Sue Underwood Mergler: How about “over yonder”? My boys pulled me aside one day after a visit to West Virginia and wanted to know were Yonder was, because Granny was always talking about it.
Builder Levy: Back in the early ‘ 70s when I was visiting and photographing in Mingo County and I would ask Nimrod Workman and other old timers I would meet, how are you doing, the answer would be, “Terrible!”
Pat Williams: Feeling “tolable like” meaning pretty good.
Karen Butler Britt: Stilts or Tom Walkers; toboggan-hat or sled; Jennie or mule; church key or bottle opener; leather britches aren’t pants but dried green beans. Hominy is corn kernels soaked and cooked in lye to remove it from its kernel. Huckleberries are wild blueberries. Icebox was a refrigerator with a huge block of ice to keep food cool. Mule trader wasn’t someone who traded mules but would trade pretty much anything for a good deal.
Although this unique mountain dialect is changing, losing some of its distinctiveness, it is not going to disappear in the near future — with 20 million people living in the Appalachian region.