I Grew Up In a “Holler” Not a “Hollow”

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Abandoned bus in Tennessee
Abandoned bus in Tennessee

I did not grow up in the kind of neighborhood the television shows I watched as a kid presented.  There was no oversized two-story home on the outskirts of some major metropolis for me and there certainly wasn’t any bustling sidewalk or manicured lawn near my home.

Instead, my childhood homeplace was a three-bedroom mobile home that stood at the entrance to our family’s 300-acre black angus farm.  We were in the same predicament as most every other farmer in 1980s Wythe County, Virginia: We were land rich and dollar poor.

Each year, our main goal was to simply break even when it came to farming so that we could survive to do it all over again the following year and somehow, between the loads of sold firewood, bales of hay and fall bull sales, my dad always ensured we did just that.

Our home was about a half-mile from the “service road”, a black topped county road that had no name just the route number “F0145”.  Behind our home was the wonderland of our farm, hundreds of acres of Southwest Virginia’s rolling hills and lush pastureland.

To get to this Appalachian wonderland, however, we’d have to travel the gravel road that linked our home to our large barn — a road that was surrounded by two large hills on either side.

Though our  farm had no official name, I grew up hearing and using a simple phrase to describe any place past the barn “Up the Holler”.

To this day, I can still say that I’ve never seen the Big Apple and my feet have never stepped a single foot into California or Europe; however, I have seen and done some things “up the holler” that most kids could only imagine.

As a 5-year-old child, I learned to drive a pickup truck using a stick to mash the gas and brake pedals while my father tossed hay bales out of the truck bed to a herd of hungry cows up the holler.  As I grew older, I found myself steering a Massey Ferguson tractor up the holler.  When I became a teenager, I found the holler to be a great hiding place after dark — yes, I learned just about everything there was about life “up the holler”.

Interestingly, it was not until I left the holler that I learned that the place I had known so well and spent so much time was actually pronounced “hollow” — or at least that’s what I was told.

I can still remember hearing the laughter generated while I was at college in South Carolina when I mentioned to someone about how our home was at the “mouth of the holler” and our barn was at the “head of the holler”.

After I got done explaining what I thought was commonsense, that the mouth was the beginning and the head was the end, I soon found myself being lectured about the fact that “holler” was actually spelled and pronounced “hollow”.

It turns out that in Appalachian English, the dialect I have since grown proud to claim as my own, we are often prone to substitute an “-er” sound when a long “o” appears at the end of a word. For example, tobacco is often pronounced “backer”, potatoes are more often than not called “taters”, and tomatoes are pronounced “maders”.

It is for this reason that I and so many others pronounce “hollow” as “holler”.

While in the early years of my adult life I attempted to conform my pronunciations to those dictated to me by folks in distant cities. As I have gotten older, however, I have become resolved to the notion that people who did not grow up in a holler have no business telling me how to pronounce it and it is for this reason that I proudly declare to everyone, “I’m from the holler”.

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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