The History of Appalachian English: Why We Talk Differently

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“Where are you from?”  An annoying question asked in a condescending tone I have been forced to endure nearly my entire life.  Whether I travel north into Yankeedom or south into Dixie, it seems that the way I (and everyone I grew up with) talk just seems oddly out of place.

We don’t have a Yankee accent, but we also don’t really speak with a southern drawl. Ours is an accent that is entirely unique and though it’s often the subject of scorn and ridicule, the Appalachian dialect is an ancient connection to our rich heritage and deserves to be safeguarded and honored.

The language we speak is known as Appalachian-English and actually serves as one of the oldest varieties of English spoken in this nation.

But why do we speak it and where did this dialect come from?

Like nearly all things related to Appalachia, there is no one clear answer to this question; however, extensive research has been conducted on this very topic for the better part of a century in order to determine why so many of us pronounce words such as “wire,” “fire,” “tire,” and “retired” as “war,” “far,” “tar,” and “retard” respectively.

Appalachian-English also places an “-er” sound at an end of a word with a long “o”.  For example, “hollow”— a small, sheltered valley— is pronounced like “holler”.  Other examples are “potato” (pronounced “tader”), “tomato” (pronounced “mader”), and “tobacco” (pronounced “backer”).

H retention occurs at the beginning of certain words as well. “It”, in particular, is pronounced “hit” at the beginning of a sentence and also when emphasized. The word “ain’t” is pronounced “hain’t”.

The noun “grease” is pronounced with an “s,” but this consonant turns into a “z” in the adjective and in the verb “to grease.”

And then of course there is the unending and longstanding feud regarding what is the proper way to pronounce the region itself, “Appalachia”.  People who live in the Appalachian dialect area pronounce the word with a short “a” sound (as in “latch”) in the third syllable, while those who live outside of the Appalachian dialect area or at its outer edges tend to pronounce it with a long “a” sound (as in “lay”).

Of course on this subject, we all know it’s “App-ah-latch-uh”… or I’ll throw an apple-atch’a!

But why is it that we speak so uniquely?

The predominate theory is that the existence of Appalachian-English is the result of the isolation the mountains beyond the Blue Ridge ensured — making our dialect one of the most ancient and protected dialects in the nation.

While our high-browed relatives who moved to the big city and lost their accent may frown upon our words and pronunciations, it is believed that the Appalachian dialect is a remnant of Elizabethan English.

An evidence of this is the use of words such as “afeared”, a Shakespearean word that is largely forgotten by most English speakers outside of the Appalachian region.

Other ancient phrases include the use of “might could” for “might be able to”, the use of “‘un” with pronouns and adjectives (e.g., young’un), the use of “done” as a helping verb (e.g., “we done finished it”), and the use of words such as airish, brickle, swan, and bottom land all of which were common in Southern and Central England in 17th and 18th centuries.

Interestingly, Appalachian-English has virtually no Native American influences (with the exception being place names, e.g., “Appalachia”, “Tennessee”, “Kanawha”, etc.) while so many other regional dialects in the nation do contain heavy influences from Native Americans.  This is noteworthy, as it showcases something we know and realize today — the people who settled this region are not easily influenced by the accents and languages of others, even if they become displaced, Appalachian-English is a hard dialect to lose.

Further evidence of this reality may be found in several areas in the State of Texas.

Nearly two centuries ago, the sons of Virginia’s Appalachian region (Stephen F. Austin & Sam Houston), as well as men of Tennessee (Davy Crocket) and Kentucky (James Bowie) made the decision to leave the mountains and head into the land of Tejas — eventually forming a new Republic, built by the blood and sweat of Appalachia’s sons.

Despite being some 1,200 miles apart, Appalachian-English is still alive and well in multiple Texas localities.  There, in the Lonestar State, you’ll hear phrases such as “Like’t’a”, proving that you may take the man out of Appalachia, but you won’t be able to take the Appalachia out of the man.

Like articles like this? Then you would love Appalachian Magazine’s Mountain Voice: 2017: A Collection of Memories, Histories, and Tall Tales of Appalachia!  Click here to check out the book on Amazon!

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76 COMMENTS

  1. This is an enlightening article to explain why my Kentucky relatives talked strangely to my Texan ears. My Dad was born and raised in Whitley County later to be divided to create McCreary County. He moved to Texas in his 20s, and my immediate family was raised in Texas with the remainder of my relatives living in Kentucky. We always enjoyed our summer visits to Somerset and McCreary County, but we always noticed the unusual usage and pronunciation of many words. This article explains the origin of the pronunciation of many of those words including the reasons for said pronunciation. I appreciate you taking your time to write this article. After all these years, I am beginning to understand.

    • My mother is from London. She moved to Spencer County in the mid 50s. She still has a very heavy mountain accent. Her mother’s maiden name was Smith.

  2. Really I can tell you this 85% of the people in West Virginia ,We do not Talk with the wVA accent So get Over it !!!!!!!!!! PROUD to Be From WEST VIRGINIA Our Ole Saying(. WEST BY GOD.Virginia)

    • I don’t understand do you mean you don’t have a mountain accent? Or do you mean you do? Sorry I don’t understand how you wrote this. I have a accent from Virginia’s coal fields. But like most young people we can turn it on and off when needed.

  3. Is this magazine available in hard copy or just digital?
    I grew up in Bristol and this article hit home for me.

  4. I was in Ohio once and walked into a fast food joint. The waitress asked me what part of Texas I was from. I told her West Virginia. She said I haven’t heard anyone from WV talk like you do. I said, ” darlin’ you ain’t been far enough south in WV ” . When I was in the service, during basic, I only could understand folks from Georgia, Texas, and Kentucky. Lol

  5. We reckon. We say, “I reckon”, “near as I can reckon” or “reckon up that bill for me.” Also said as “tote up”. Some places we even still “cipher”. We give businesses our “custom” (why do you think we are called customers?) and “put the quietus on” things that need to cease. We go ” ‘sangin’ ” for ginseng root and on Thanksgiving and at family reunions we often “founder” ourselves. Things that were hastily thrown up are “gimcracked” and if they aren’t built plumb to boot, they might be called “si-gogglin’ ” or “cattywampus”. We tend to say “I’ve not” rather than “I haven’t” and use “right” as a superlative modifier as in “he’s in a right hurry” or “he’s a right nasty old man” (in some cases, I can see this as a contraction of “downright”, which we also use). And we still don’t have much truck with those “revenuers”. My Scottish friend once told me my dialect was very close to hers in some ways, but I used some words she had mainly only heard from her grandparents’ generation. My cousin married a man from the SC barrier islands that are now largely paved under big resorts, but he spoke a dialect of English unique to that place that has largely died out now. Let’s not let ours go the way of the dodo as well.

  6. Nice article! A man who once did work for us was from the mountains of East Tennessee. He would say that our tools needed a “drap of ile”, meaning a drop of oil.
    Almost Shakespearian to say the least!

    • I was raised in East Texas and this article could just as well have been written about East Texas. Appalachian words in this article did not at all seem strange or out of place to me. “Win-der” for window just as one might say holler for hollow. However my ancestors did come from Appalachia but, goodness gracious, that was well over two hundred years ago.

  7. Very interesting article. This theory is similar to the one my college professor used to tell us about. He said the reason people in the Appalachian Mountains say far instead of fire and tard instead of tired is because their isolation in the mountains prevented their language from making the Great Vowel Shift that occurred in Europe. The vowels in English used to be pronounced at the back of the throat, but that practice shifted so that the vowels became pronounced at the front of the mouth. This resulted in a change in the way words were pronounced. Many of those living in the Appalachian Mountains came to the New World long before the shift took place. They became isolated in the mountains and did not have contact with outsiders, and; therefore, the vowel shift never reached them.

  8. Haven been born and raised in the Virginia mountains all these words and terms are very familiar to me. I never used most of them, nor did my family but there were many who did. Thanks for the article. It is very informative.

  9. Thank you for sharing this. My uncle always said “Young’uns” when referring to us kids. My father said the word amongst quite a bit. My grandmother spoke in this dialect and had the strongest accent. Many of the kids in my Detroit area neighborhood spoke like this as our fathers moved north to work in the auto-industry. The teachers made darned sure it was beat out of us.

  10. I’m Ozarkian, and many of the things you’ve mentioned apply to Ozark English as well. That’s probably because the Ozarks were settled by people moving from the Appalachians.

  11. Really good article! I moved from Colorado to Gallia County, Ohio four years ago. It’s amazing how I picked up the ear of difference, yet couldn’t quite determine the subtle dialects. Boy did they pick me out fast though. Working in West Virginia has been interesting. I’ve learned to incorporate words I didn’t use in the Colorado and still the locals can tell I’m not an Appalachian.

  12. I spoke to an English teacher(from West Virginia) about something similar. Her goal was to try to remove the dialect so that the children could grow up and get better jobs. The key for her though was to teach the children not to conflict with their parents about usage. I disputed the need to make the children lose the dialect but rather embrace it and learn “standard English” as a second language. Things like double negatives are common in the Romance languages. In America, words that we have taken from other languages have also been adapted pronunciations.
    I understand that one reason Associate Justice Clarence Thomas speaks very little in SCOTUS hearings is that he speaks a dialect particular to the region he grew up in. He has done pretty well for himself.

  13. Great article! My only issue is the pronunciation of Appalachia. My maiden name is McCoy, yes, the real McCoys, lol. My family heritage is in Pike County, KY. and Logan County, WV. I was born in Cabell County, WV., part of the first generation “down out of the mountains.” We’ve always pronounced it with a long A, as in Appa-lay-chian. That is also the Webster’s Dictionary pronunciation. I’ve always thought that it’s the outsiders who pronounce it with “latch”. Lol

    • That’s interesting. I’m from Logan County and although I left there 50+ years ago I still have family up there. I went to college at MU and that’s where I first heard anyone pronounce Appalachia as you say e.g. with a long A., and they were from Northern W. Va. and folks from above the Mason-Dixon Line.

  14. “It is believed that the Appalachian dialect is a remnant of Elizabethan English”

    “The Shakespearean English idea was formulated and promoted by people born and bred outside the mountains, first by educators and clergymen … and later by journalists, travel writers, and amateur philologists. … Actually, the contention that mountaineers talk like Shakespeare can withstand little objective scrutiny. Here are some reasons why:
    First, supporting examples are few and selective, often only half a dozen in number used to make
    far-reaching assertions about mountain language in general. … Second, the evidence is not persuasive. Although they may not be known to educated, middleclass, city-dwelling outsiders who write about Shakespearean English, the terms they cite can usually be found in many parts of North America and the British Isles. … Third, these accounts mix facts and images, places and times, even immigrant groups from very different parts of the British Isles. … Fourth, writers make other sweeping and improbable statements, such as that mountain children have a natural affinity for Shakespeare. … Finally, the Shakespearean English idea ignores many things that linguists know to be true. All varieties of language change, even isolated ones, and contrary to popular impression mountain culture has been far from isolated over the past two centuries. In vocabulary, mountain speech actually has far more innovations (terms not known in the old country) than holdovers from the British Isles.”
    –Michael Montgomery

    • As for the “Shakespearean English” theory being promoted by educators, my father had a story from his youth. He was born in Appalachia and attended William and Mary College from 1928-30. One year when his father (born in 1865) came to the school to bring him home, my father introduced him to one of his college professors, perhaps an English teacher. She was much taken with my grandfather’s accent and asked to make a recording of him speaking because it was, she said, “an example of a true Elizabethan accent” and talked of how the dialect had been preserved so well in our isolated mountains. Those were the days when people from outside were coming into Appalachia to record the old songs and study our dialect, so I imagine how that theory gained traction among linguists and English teachers. I’ve always wanted to go to William and Mary and see if I could find the recording of my grandfather’s voice.

  15. Nice article but a possible correction: I thought the Austins of Texas were originally from Connecticut, specifically the little town of Durham. Or at least Moses Austin was.

  16. It’s getting rarer and rarer but It’s still a pleasant and unexpected surprise when I hear it spoken naturally.

  17. I grew up in northeastern Kentucky, in Morehead. In 1959 in my junior high school year my English teacher used us as a laboratory to complete her doctorate. She would ask us about old middle English words and ohrases we used in every day conversation….they were passed down almost uncorrupted……back then, the whole population was 99% descended from the British Isles. Our people were protestants.

  18. Many years back, traveling alone by motorcycle from Ohio to Georgia, I was somewhere in western NC, night came, I was tired from riding all day and stopped at a little mom and pop motel in a small town for the night. The next morning I really wasn’t sure exactly where I was. As I loaded my gear on the bike I noticed a young girl cleaning rooms so I approached her, said good morning, and asked, “Can you tell me how to get to Boone?” Her reply, “Well which away do ye awanna go?” I asked her which way she would go and she replied with two choices, “Well, ye canna go through the holler or ye canna go (some other route, I don’t remember exactly how she described that 2nd route). She was very sweet. Though we had some difficulty communicating, I did get to Boone, and I’ll always remember that delightful conversation.

  19. There are other pockets of Appalachian dialect. Southern Illinois, particularly along the Wabash River border with Indiana, is one such. The sweep of Appalachians who moved off to find work leaves a trail of vernacular clues, including “Hit, hain’t, if you don’t care to, you’uns, and more. They also refer to farmland along the river as “bottomland,” and incorporate the term into specific place names, such as “Bennington Bottoms.”

    • Thanks for bringin’ in the old ‘homeland’. I’m from the other side of Southern Illinois (Dongola, Union County) and was often asked in Navy Boot Camp (Great Lakes, IL) what part of south Georgia I was from. My ancestors were of German decent (Lingel) and came to Southern Illinois from East Tennessee/Western North Carolina. Proud of my mountain connections.

  20. Please stop perpetuating this myth. Yes, Shakespeare used the word ‘afeard’ a total of 31 times. (see for yourself at https://www.opensourceshakespeare.org/concordance/) However, it was a common word in Old English (5th – 11th centuries; see https://www.etymonline.com/word/afeared ), so we can’t use that one word to link Appalachia to Elizabethan English.

    The double modal, might could, isn’t a relic from days long gone. It’s likely that Scottish settlers brought it, but it’s also likely that it came from Germany. The use of double modals are still common in those areas today. They aren’t ‘ancient phrases.’ (look up anything by Dr. Daniel Hasty)

    You can read Dr. Michael Montgomery’s piece debunking even more of this myth online. (http://lrc.ohio.edu/lrcmedia/Streaming/lingCALL/ling270/myth9.pdf)

    One good thing is there’s no mention of Chaucer. Too many articles and books say words used by Chaucer show that Appalachian English is Elizabethan. The problem is that Chaucer was writing about 300 years before Elizabeth became queen.

  21. I understand differences in spoken dialect. But the grammar in this article is appalling. Starting with the second clause of the first sent
    sentence of the fifth paragraph — which, as written, is an incomplete thought, to the use of the word “predominate” where the word “predominant” is called for, this article doesn’t exactly make the case that Appalachian English should be preserved.

    • It may be that the need for survival was so great back in those days that education wasn’t nearly as important as staying alive. In fact, I’m sure of it. Have you ever been to Roaring Fork in TENNESSEE? You should take a ride one day and drive the route, exploring the few scattered cabins still standing that are miles apart. Imagine, if you will… the souls that lived on that isolated mountain and what they must have endured when a loved one grew sick or was hurt. People joke about those folks marrying cousins and such so long ago but this adventure you should take into those vast and sometimes cruel mountains might change your mind and put some perspective on the challenges our ancestors faced EVERY day. To make light of our language not being forgotten because of grammar issues you see is an insult.

  22. Another idiosyncrasy of the spoken language I have noted as a native of southwest Virginia are the many first names (or given name) ending in -a that are pronounced -ie/-y. Here are the examples from my family in Carroll County: Saba (pronounced Sabie), Rosa (…Rosie), Sidna (…Sidney), Alva (…Alvie).

    • I’ve noticed this, too. My grandmother Martha was called Marthie by my grandfather and others closest to her. I always thought it was a way of making a name an endearment or diminutive, a nickname showing you were close to that person.

  23. In the part of southeastern Kentucky, where I’m from, we say “yuns” instead of “y’all”. I had often wondered about that. Thanks.

  24. Love this nice to,know how it is all put together ..had a hard time learning to spell l,was told Sound it out ..I did but our speech and my sounding it out did not look like what I was seeing in the words …could read fine could write short stories very well but the spelling just went out the window 😌😌😌

    • So True! I have an interesting one. I have often heard, and used, the term “half again as much” to mean one and a half times as much. I had to explain that to my sons a few years ago. We live in Knoxville now, I am from WV. Has anyone else heard or used “half again as much”? I am from rural Wayne County WV.

  25. Great article. I have read Hog Killing in Appalachia, great book. I highly recommend Fred Cook’s books.

  26. Alive and well in rural north Florida too. Had a visitor from rural area of Englan who said we spoke like the folks she grew up with.

  27. As a graduate of AppaLATCHian State I deeply appreciate this lesson in mountain etymology. I am from Asheville NC and have spoken and heard spoken these words all my life. I am a Pastor now and try to preach on Sunday’s with what they call “highbrow” words. But when I’m off the pulpit, I’m back to the the words of my raisin’……and I am not making reference to fruit.

  28. This article is very informative. I was born in the South Pacific. Came to the US at the age of four. Raised in the suburbs of St. Louis, Missouri. So I too have a weird accent. I can appreciate the accent of the Appalachian region. Now that I know a little more about the rich and unique background. Thanks for article.

  29. To those who contend the theory set forth in the article has been debunked, well give the author credit for saying that there are several theories out there. Also, Appalachian English is worthy of preserving if for no other reason than to use a word Mr. Kessinger does not understand to question his birth status.

  30. Love the instruction about saying AppaLATCHia correctly. Remember a strong influence on the language that has been overlooked is the King James Bible.

  31. The greatest threat to the dialect was the introduction “Big satellite” dishes in the 1980’s. Then everyone could hear what the world sounded like and hillspeak started to go away.

  32. Sharer is a shower,flareer is a flower,air is hour,whup is whip,olweul is oil,camp ramp damp all long a vowels.from southwest region of Virginia,Pulaski County(not pull its pewlaski).I live in South Carolina now.I get questions.My best friend in South Carolina visited my hometown with me.My nephew was crossing the road ,I asked him “shut ya do understand?”and he said “go in to take a sharer”.Her response was,”now I know where it comes from”.Loved this article.

  33. This brings back so many memories. Many of end of summer vacations up to my great grandmothers. I remember many words and find myself using them. You’uns, yuns, cattywampus, flire instead of flower, backer(that is what they grew on that mountain) h’amen instead of amen, and of course holler. I love it up there in Watauga County pretty country.

  34. Great article!
    I’d appreciate it more if the author hadn’t included the slur “r*tard.” We have so many words to choose from that aren’t hurtful

    • The word “retard,” was used in this article because that’s exactly the way many who speak “Appalachian-English” pronounced the word “retired”. Yes, the word can be used as a slur, but it actually dates back to the 1480s and is a verb, meant (according to Dictionary.com) “to make slow; delay the development or progress of (an action, process, etc.); hinder or impede.”

      “Retard” actually serves as the root word “tardy”.

      There was certainly no intent to malign anyone.

  35. My first grade teacher made me sit in the hall and write each word that I said with my accent write it ten times and pronounce it the correctly. She said I was too intelligent to speak like an ignorant hick. I have mixed feelings about this. Since now I can speak either way depending on who I am. Speaking with. But it made me shy and self conscious because she said the way I spoke was ignorant.

    • Sorry, Tanya. You had not only an ignorant but stupid teacher of abuse. Try to forget it. You can if you try. I am of SWVA BY GOD VER-GIN-YEE. Keep that accent prominent. I love it. Language experts of England and America agree by majority it is Elizabethan English. A Few, ‘sheep skinned’ idiots oppose it.

  36. So, you’re saying folks from Appomattox, VA sound like the people Northern Alabama? Or that the people from the Appalachia regions in New York and Pennsylvania sound like folks from East Tennessee? “Appalachia” runs from New York to Mississippi. There is no “Appalachian” accent. The accents you encounter vary from state to state and region to region.

  37. When I moved to England, my biggest surprise was that they have ‘streaky bacon” ( a little less salty than ours.) I had thought this was just a mountain thing since I had never heard of it elsewhere in the US. Definitely an Old World language connection.

  38. As a professional bread baker I can tell you that we use the word retard when referring to the action of slowing down the growth of yeast by putting the dough in the refrigerator or freezer if the room is very warm.

  39. All my family is from Chillicothe, Ohio and l get asked if Im from Kentucky or West Virginia . I admit I have a slang and especially when Im tired it comes out real thick. My dad says its just do to laziness. LOL My husband is from Warren Ohio and he is always correcting me but he talks like he is from New York or New Jersey. He pronounces New Albany as Al-bany but we that are from Columbus pronounce it All-bany.

  40. When I first moved here I asked one of the local gals if she would come with me to the doctors and her answer was ,”I don’t care to do it.” which left me totally puzzled not knowing if she meant she didn’t want to come with me or if she just didn’t care about coming with me. Now I understand the phrase to mean a person doesn’t mind doing whatever it is you have asked them about.

  41. I grew up in central Texas. My mother was from Mississippi and my father from Brooklyn, but I retain certain phrases that mark me as a Texan, such as “fixing to” as in fixing to cook dinner. Is “fixing to” from Appalachia?

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