Monday, June 4, 2012

Southern Appalachian Speech

Originally published April 2012
This past Saturday, my local genealogy society, the Genealogical Forum of Oregon, was fortunate to have J. Mark Lowe as the speaker for our spring seminar. He is a talented and engaging speaker and we all enjoyed his presentations. It makes for a great day when you can laugh as you learn.

After the seminar several of our group had dinner with Mark, and we shared a delightful evening. We talked shop, of course, and he entertained us with many of his family stories. I come from a family of southern storytellers so I especially enjoyed his.

At one point during the evening, the conversation turned to the speech of the Southern Appalachian region. I said something like “they were just piddlin’ around” which Mark caught right away. We talked about other terms we used or were familiar with like you all, y’all and you-uns. Mark explained you-uns was used in a section of Eastern Tennessee and was of Scots-Irish origin. We discussed the fact that the local dialects are being lost, especially with the advent of television and the internet, and unfortunately, because people poke fun at us hill folk.

I don’t always say y’all here in Oregon, but I do say “you all”. I’ve never given it much thought; to me “you” is you, the person reading this and “ you all” is everyone who reads this post, which is exactly how y’all and you-uns are used. It was brought to my attention when a friend was looking over an Editor’s letter I had written. She nicely pointed out my “you all”, and suggested I change it to you. I decided to keep the “you all”; the letter was from me to the readers (plural) and it was a reflection of me and my heritage, my voice.

Often this Appalachian vernacular is regarded as the speech of an uneducated, unsophisticated population. However, many of the words and phrases considered to be poor English are, in reality, derived from the speech of the early settlers of the area, especially the Scots-Irish. In the early history these regions were quite remote, and the language was preserved and adapted to the lifestyle.

In the eighteenth century, as the land in Pennsylvania and Tidewater Virginia was settled, newcomers began pushing south and west to new frontiers. A large number of these settlers were Scots-Irish, or Ulster-Scots. As gaps in the mountain were discovered and explored, the most notable the Cumberland Gap, emigrants poured into the regions, especially after the Fort Stanwix Treaty opened the land south of the Ohio River to the settlers.

As a matter of fact, I am surprised to learn how many of the terms I am familiar with (and sometimes use) are attributed to the Scots. Word like:

Bottom. Low lying land along a watercourse
Chancy. Uncertain, dangerous
Mend. Heal
Skiff. A small amount.

I must confess, there were times when I had no inkling that some of the terms I heard stemmed from historical use: might could, I done told you, and needed done, for example. Or the letter r added to words; warsh instead of wash is one of the most common.

I’m happy to say that I am proud of my heritage and delight in using the words and phrases I learned from my family. It happens most often when I am around people with the same sort of heritage. Hence, I might automatically say” piddlin” and “y’all” when talking to Mark.

If you hear a word or phrase and don’t quite know the meaning or origin, look it up. You might be surprised by what you found. Mark brought up a word used by his parents and our friend Peggy Baldwin grabbed her smart phone and searched for the meaning. To our pleasant surprise, it was an Irish word, with a meaning consistent with its use in the Lowe household. I’m not going to tell you the word, I suspect Mark will be sharing that.

I don’t pretend to be anything close to an expert on this topic, although it interests me greatly. We genealogist are determined to preserve the history, the artifacts and photographs, the letters and documents of our ancestors. Before it is too late, let’s preserve this aspect of our heritage as well.

So, I would like to challenge you all. Save the words and speech patterns that are disappearing. This speech has been around for hundreds of years, part of our heritage. Take note of those words and phrases. If possible record the voices of your families. Use them in your family history, in the stories you tell. They will add life to you narrative and help preserve some beautiful history.

Let’s not lose our heritage. That dog just won’t hunt.

Bye y’all.

1 comment:

  1. I sometimes wonder how the differents 'accent's of our nation came about. Southern, Boston, NY...
    Apparently, Southern CA has an accent too. But I think it is just a way of speaking. :-)