My Appalachian Accent: You Aren’t From Here Are You?

This week I met a woman who seemed surprised that I still have an accent after living in Northeast Indiana for nearly five years.

Her surprise made me think about the regular conversations I have about my accent and dialect. The following is an example of a typical exchange that occurs multiple times a week, still, with new colleagues, business people, clerks, tellers, and others I talk to as I go about my life (I talk a lot).

Me: Hi, how’re you?

Midwesterner: Fine. You aren’t from here are you? You sound Southern. (It really comes this quickly.)

Me: No

Midwesterner: Where are you from? (Sometimes they guess and when they do it is most often Texas, Georgia, Tennessee, or Kentucky in that order. The people who guess the last two know accents. The first two are way off).

Me: I am from Virginia.

Midwesterner: Really? What part? (As it turns out, many people do not consider Virginia Southern or Appalachian and are shocked that my accent could come from Virginia.)

Me: Southwestern Virginia in the mountains near Kentucky.

Midwesterner: Oh, yeah, West Virginia.

Me: No, but West Virginia is only about 15 minutes from my Mommy’s house.

Midwesterner (usually looking confused): When did you move?

Me: Four and a half years ago.

Midwesterner: Oh. Really? You’ve been here a while. (Looking shocked).

People assume that after five years I would talk differently, less like me and more like them. Sometimes they say it directly and others just offer a surprised “oh.”

This is the problem when you have a pronounced accent and dialect and you don’t do a lot of code switching. Code switching is defined by dictionary.com as the alternate use of two or more languages or varieties of language, especially within the same discourse. Code switching as it relates to Appalachian dialects and accents is discussed in a delightful post on The Revivalist.

My accent and dialect are pretty standard Central Appalachian. I do not have the thickest accent compared some other people from the mountains of Southwest Virginia, Southern West Virginia, Eastern Kentucky, East Tennessee, and Western North Carolina. My accent and dialect have not changed much since leaving home in 1997. Although I have noticed that occasionally instead of saying r-eye-ght I will say right in a more neutral accent and ain’t slips out far less than it used to. My brother-in-law recently called me out for saying “soda” instead of “coke” or “pop.” Otherwise, my accent is pretty static.

When I moved to the Midwest I assumed that people would take note of my accent as it happens quite often in other places, even in some parts of Central and Northern Virginia. I dealt with this in college at the University of Virginia, as I have traveled through the United States and the world, and most recently and intensely in my time in the Midwest.

Most people are nice about it, even though they sometimes point out my accent as though they are pointing out a pimple or a gray hair. They say that they think it is cute or charming. Sometimes this goes too far when I am asked to “talk some more” as though I am a performer. While others, not realizing how personally I take the way I talk, might crack a joke about my family tree or being a hillbilly or redneck, but they are not the worst. There is a small group that I encounter from time to time who judge me immediately as ignorant, racist, or wrong.

My accent immediately gives people information about me and it is always filtered through the listener’s opinions of Southerners, and more specifically Appalachians. Recently, I’ve heard “maybe if you stay here long enough you’ll learn how to talk.” This Midwesterner was teasing when she said it, but I believe, as it has often been said, that there is an ounce of truth in all teasing. Then there was “it’s because you sound so different,” offered as a reason for the people not being welcoming. Right or wrong, it is clear that people have a hard time ignoring or accepting a different accent without question or comment.

When I moved to the Midwest I realized that I could hear my own accent. Everyone else sounds different and it makes my accent audible to me, which was a first. At home I don’t notice, because everyone sounds similar. So, I know what my accent sounds like and I am okay with it. In fact, I love it. I love it because I hear the mountains in my voice. I hear words and sayings that my parents use and things my grandmother said. There is history, heritage, and culture in my accent and dialect. I think it is interesting and special. As the writer in The Revivalist post noted “Appalachian accents are like no other.”

But I have noticed that I am a bit weary of explaining the way I talk. There is a kind of lonely in living in a place where no one talks the way I do. It certainly draws people in and creates conversation, but not always in a comfortable way. And there is a fear that those that ask about it and some who don’t are assuming the worst about me.

Over the years I have heard friends from home say that they hate our accent. Many of those friends moved away and made a conscious effort to change the way they talk. While I will never consciously change my accent or dialect, I understand better now why others do. I will work hard to keep my accent, but my experience in the last five years makes me empathetic for my Appalachian friends and family who made those changes. I get why they did it.

It can be tough living in a place where no one sounds like you.

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9 thoughts on “My Appalachian Accent: You Aren’t From Here Are You?

  1. I am a friend of your Mom and Dad….My brother is Dick Ooten he and W.J. went to school together…He lives maybe 40 miles or so from you in Defiance Ohio.I lived there 5 years 2002 to2007 then came back to Abingdon…I experienced the same thing with my accent (which I am going to die with)……Ask a young man at work one day if he had laid out all night he looked at me as if I were speaking a foreign language…He ask me what I meant!!!! Only one of many….Enjoyed your article….I always enjoyed Fort Wayne the Mall was pretty good…..Next time tell them your just from Grundy and they must not be a world traveler or they would know where you are from!!! Sherry Ooten Bowman

  2. I have been working on a similar piece for the last couple of weeks (mostly about first impressions). I get this all the time in Central VA too, and for some reason people seem to like to point at me and say, “You’re not from Virginia” which has come to really grate on my nerves. (Literally, they point at me–why??). Also, “say ice! say ice!” Aaaargh!

    The whole thing has honestly made me a quieter person (and I was already quiet). And I agree about the loneliness of it, I always feel better when we stop somewhere on the way home– sometimes Pembroke, sometimes Princeton–and I hear someone who sounds like me. I just want to hug that person. Makes me feel at home no matter where I am.

    On a separate note, when we were out West last summer people didn’t seem to pay nearly as much attention to the accent, and the reaction was much different. If someone guessed, they guessed Texas. Completely different stereotypes go along with Texas, I suppose.

  3. Loved reading this! Hope you will get a chance to check out my blog, Appalroot Farm. It is geared towards Appalachian migrants, and written to inspire those with Appalachian roots to celebrate their heritage. My parents migrated from Eastern Kentucky in the 1950’s. http://www.appalrootfarm.com

  4. As a Southwest Va gal myself, I can relate. I only moved to western Ky 10 years ago. Here, everyone assumes I’m from eastern Ky. They can’t fathom how a Va girl could talk like I do. I tell them I grew up 15 minutes from Ky, but Virginians can be Appalachians too!

  5. Hi! Western NC here and I enjoyed your piece. You are correct, our accents carry generations of voices who came to America and settled in isolated mountain terrain. Our accents carry culture, tradition and even the landscape. I truly do hate to hear that some of your friends despise their own voices and have chosen to alter them. I did not make the choice myself. My eldest brother stared working on lessening my accent when I was a small child. I remember him saying I would be judged, made fun of and would not get a good job due to the way I talked. This was when we had more tourists and transplants coming in to the area in the late 70s early 80s. Now, locals would not think I was from here based on voice alone but I do understand why he did it, and luckily I can still turn it on or off. This is where I would normally make a joke about being bilingual. Point being, I would not have made this choice on my own. I am proud of my roots. Who cares what delusional people who believe they do not have accents, and that everyone should talk exactly like them, think? 99% of the time, those are the ones who have the harshest judgments and pre conceived notions. Believe me, I hear them all on my job because people often assume I am not one of the backwards, inbreeding, trailer having, old car driving, banjo playing hillbillie trash. The only thing they have managed to prove is their love for Deliverance and lack of critical thinking skills. Let them harp, and keep holler’in.

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