Appalachian English: Why We Say “Warsh Rag” & “Low Tar”

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Cousni Pn

The world that I knew as a kid was far different than that of most other children; however, at the time, I had no idea.  I thought that every child had grandfathers who were coalminers, a father who bucket fed orphaned calves, a grandmother who spoke about Jesus as though she knew him personally and a mother who wasn’t above forcing her disobedient son to snap a green branch from the willow tree out in the front yard.

I grew up Appalachia and Appalachia was all I knew.

It was not until I reached the golden age of 18 and moved away to college in a distant city that I slowly began to realize just how unique and wonderful my life’s experiences had been compared to so many others.

My first day of living in a freshman dormitory, I evoked the laughter of the entire floor when I used the word “warsh rag” to describe the newly purchased wash cloths my mother had included in my bag of necessities.

In the world that I came to age in, that’s what they were called and that was the only thing they were called.

In the days, weeks and years that followed, I would one by one learn that the way we spoke as a child was far different than how most others talked.

To my astonishment, I discovered that a “mountain holler” was actually spelled an pronounced as “hollow”, I also faced criticism for pronouncing wire as “war”, fire as “far”, and tired as “tarred”.

Through the years, my classmates, teachers and employers have all attempted to either correct my pronunciations or berate me for speaking this way; however, I have since learned to be proud of my Appalachian-English and that there are many linguistic experts who have come to our defense in recent years.

There is a predominate theory that those of us raised in the hills and hollers of Appalachia were raised to speak differently than the rest of the nation due to the isolation the mountains provided — this isolation protected the English dialect from the same types of corruption it experienced in many other more populous places, making our dialect one of the most ancient 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.

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.”

If you’re fluent in Appalachian English, be proud and do not allow society to rob you of your incredibly rich and wonderful heritage… keep saying “warsh rag”!

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

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