Why eastern Kentuckians talk the way they do and why they shouldn’t worry about it
Like most Appalachians, eastern Kentuckians often get kidded about the way they talk.
People call them “briarhoppers,” “hillbillies,” and “country bumpkins,” just to name a few.
Television and Hollywood don’t help with shows like The Beverly Hillbillies or Ma and Pa Kettle. It seems every time the media portrays people as behind the times and uneducated, they talk the way people in Appalachia talk.
But is that fair?
Of course not.
Language experts call the different way people talk “dialects.”
Mostly, the dialect of eastern Kentucky results from one main influence: Scots-Irish English.
The Scots-Irish, sometimes called Scotch-Irish, originally lived in the Lowlands and Border Country of Scotland until the 1600s, when they were granted lands in Northern Ireland, mainly in the Ulster province—mostly Scottish Presbyterians in a predominantly Roman Catholic country, ruled by Anglican England.
Because of religious intolerance, famine, and clashes over land rents, the Scots-Irish began migrating to what is now the United States during the early 1700s, and continued throughout that century.
Most landed in Philadelphia and met with the continued religious intolerance from Anglicans, who controlled much of life in early America.
With most of the good land taken, the Scots-Irish moved westward toward the mountains and hill country of Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and on to Tennessee, northern Alabama, Georgia, most of Kentucky, then Arkansas, the Ozarks, and parts of Texas.
The Scots-Irish in eastern Kentucky were a hardy and hard-working people who somehow scratched a meager living from the hills and hollers of eastern Kentucky. Typically, these settlers built sturdy cabins and made, grew, or hunted whatever they needed.
The Scots-Irish placed great emphasis on family, with many words of affection and reverence for relatives—for grandmother words like “granny,” “mammaw,” “grandma,” “memaw,” and “momaw,” and for grandfather words like “pappaw,” “pappy,” “popaw,” “granddaddy,” and “grandpa.”
Other regions use some of these same words, but there aren’t nearly as many of them.
Scots-Irish are also patriotic and brave people, with soldiers like General Andrew Jackson, General U.S. Grant, and General George Patton among them.
But what distinguished the Scots-Irish from the rest of early Americans was the way they talked.
Mind your r’s and a’s
Even today, some of the speakers in the 13 original colonies speak what scholars call an “r-less” dialect. In certain places in their speech, particularly after a vowel, they drop the “r” sound. In Boston, for instance, “car” is pronounced something like “caw,” while in parts of South Carolina the same word sounds like “cah.”
But today, the vast majority of people in the United States aren’t r-less speakers, in part because of the influence of the Scots-Irish. Brian Williams, Katie Couric, and Charles Gibson deliver the news in Broadcast English, where the “r” sound is distinctly pronounced if preceded by a vowel.
But there are some interesting differences in Appalachian speech.
One of the most obvious signs of an Appalachian speaker is “a-prefixing,” a practice that died out in other parts of America and is on the decline in Appalachia, too, though many speakers still use it. When an eastern Kentuckian says, “Here she comes a-crying and a-moaning,” the speaker is illustrating a-prefixing, the addition of an “a” sound in front of certain verbs.
People who study dialects don’t agree where it came from: some say it’s a leftover from earlier English, others say from the Gaelic language, originally spoken in Ireland and Scotland. But nobody knows for sure.
A-prefixing demonstrates one important aspect of eastern Kentucky language: some forms that have died out in other parts of the English-speaking world are still alive in Appalachia.
For example, in parts of eastern Kentucky, some speakers say, “He clomb a tree,” while the rest of the country says, “He climbed a tree.” Speakers in eastern Kentucky may say, “I’m agin that idea,” while many others say, “I’m against that idea.” In both instances, the eastern Kentucky speakers are using an older form.
That’s because for many years most of Appalachia was largely inaccessible to the rest of the country, with few good roads in and out. As a result, the speakers in Appalachia had less contact with other parts of the country, and consequently were not aware of the change elsewhere.
Does that make those who use these older forms speak “bad English” or “incorrect English”?
Just because somebody speaks a different dialect doesn’t mean that person is using “bad grammar.”
Senator Edward Kennedy and former President Jimmy Carter sound different from people who deliver the nightly news, but we don’t see them as speaking “bad English.”
But eastern Kentuckians have an additional burden, something called “dialect prejudice”: the feeling on the part of one speaker that another speaker’s English marks that person as lacking in education or behind the times.
Like all prejudices, it isn’t fair.
Language is like dress. You adjust your language to the audience and situation. Just as you wouldn’t wear a formal gown or a tuxedo to a backyard barbecue, you would choose an appropriate brand of English for the audience and situation.
So if you’re talking to an educated audience, you would use a different brand of English. But if you’re grilling hamburgers, nobody expects you to sound like Queen Elizabeth.
Civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. illustrated this. When he appeared on Meet the Press, he spoke a brand of English marking him as an educated man. But when he spoke to an audience of black people, he used African-American Vernacular English, a more informal English. He adjusted his English to the audience and situation.
Appalachian English is slightly different from Broadcast English in ways most people elsewhere don’t even notice.
Typically, people in eastern Kentucky use different forms of contractions, combining two words into just one word. Speakers outside Appalachia say, “I haven’t got my taxes done,” while many eastern Kentuckians say, “I’ve not got my taxes done,” combining “have” with “I,” rather than joining “have” with “not.”
Others say, “I want to pay my bill,” while many from eastern Kentucky say, “I’m wanting to pay my bill,” differences most don’t even notice.
But most from outside the region do notice that eastern Kentuckians, as well as many others in the South, say “right” that sounds to outsiders like “rat.” It’s a different pronunciation, certainly, but not necessarily wrong.
And eastern Kentuckians at times put the stress on the first part of a word with several syllables. They say THANKS-giving, while others say Thanks-GIVING. So that little town in Casey County is pronounced “YO-se-mite” in eastern Kentucky, while outside the region they say “yo-SEM-i-te.”
There are other differences between the speech of eastern Kentuckians and people elsewhere, but when you get right down to it, eastern Kentuckians speak a dialect rich in tradition and influence, uniquely reflecting their world.
And besides, isn’t there enough prejudice in the world without prejudging people by the way they talk?
TEST YOUR MOUNTAINESE
See if you can re-phrase the following in Broadcast English:
1. You want a poke for those groceries?
2. I don’t care to help you.
3. It’s right smart hot today.
4. At school he was always cutting up.
5. For supper, we had roasting ears.
6. She wants her play-pretty.
7. He lives about Pikeville.
8. I got a cold and can’t get shed of it.
1. You want a sack for those groceries?
2. I don’t mind helping you.
3. It’s very hot today.
4. At school, he was always misbehaving.
5. For supper, we had corn on the cob.
6. She wants her toy.
7. He lives near Pikeville.
8. I’ve got a cold and can’t get rid of it.
How did you do?
You need to make a trip to the mountains!
Listen to more country music.
You’ve climbed some hills in your time.