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The Legendary Language of the Appalachian "Holler"

Is the unique dialect a vestige of Elizabethan England? Left over from Scots-Irish immigrants? Or something else altogether?

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Where it gets interesting are the many grammatical changes from the standard dialect. Michael Montgomery and others have used grammatical evidence, which is generally slower to change than pronunciations, to track Appalachian speech back to their origins from the predominantly Scots-Irish immigrants that settled in the area, along with others. For example, most are familiar with the pronoun “y’all” but there are also unusual constructions such as “might could/should” (“we might should tell him”), “done” (“they have done landed in jail again”), a-prefixing (“he come a-running at me”), “like to/liketa” (“I got lost and liked to never found my way out”).

Language has an important place in the folklore of Appalachia and has evolved to become something quite different from its original linguistic sources. It’s one of the ways Appalachian communities show solidarity and belonging. Language lovers may marvel at this unique linguistic quilt, a thing of threads and patches, that extends across a region that often seems to have little else going for it. But in some ways, the folksiness, the romanticized hearkening back to the past, holds the region back from telling a more nuanced story about itself, where it came from, and where it might be going.

To many Americans, Appalachia is a frustrating cultural cipher in more ways than one. Its uncertain borders seem to ebb and flow with its fortunes. Appalachian historian Ronald Eller wrote that “we know Appalachia exists because we need it to define what we are not. It is the “other America” because the very idea of Appalachia convinces us of the righteousness of our own lives.” People don’t always agree on what counts as the Appalachian region, except, it seems, no matter where you are geographically on the mountain range, if you’re poor, white and rural, you must be in Appalachia. And that’s a difficult definition, separating an Appalachian underclass from the rest of the country with negative epithets like “hillbilly,” “white trash,” and “redneck.” These labels have often been reclaimed and worn as a badge of local pride, yet are no closer to the full story.

So while the Appalachian dialect can be paradoxically praised for being “pure,” and for preserving a prestigious archaic form of the language, the people who speak it are frequently socially stigmatized as ignorant and uneducated for using “incorrect” English, just as other non-standard varieties of English are, such as African American Vernacular English (or AAVE). A verb like “reckon” (as in, I reckon it’ll take five minutes) is regularly used in Australian and British English vernacular, yet the exact same usage in Appalachian English is stigmatized as backwards hillbilly talk. American language attitudes show a marked disrespect and prejudice for marked dialects like Appalachian English. Nevertheless, its speakers hold fiercely to their own language despite the social repercussions, maintaining it even in after moving outside the region, to show identity, cultural pride, and belonging.