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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Tickled and Other Words Midwesterners Don’t Say

I recently spent a lovely evening looking at art with fellow Southern refugee, CLW. When we are together there is no absolutely no dead air and the conversation moves quickly from one topic to the next. Like, it will make your head spin quickly. But neither of us really notice, we just roll with the laughter. As we chatted a few classic Southern words crossed my friend’s lips. Words that I never hear anymore, because Midwesterners just don’t talk like Southerners. Here are a few that I miss . . .

No one in the Midwest is “tickled.” Well, they might be but instead they would say happy, amused, pleased, or excited. In the South we are tickled if we get a sweet gift or a nice compliment. Or as you might recall from the epic Southern tear=jerker, Steel Magnolias, if you are Southern you might find yourself “tickled pink.”

Also, no one here gets any “sugar.” You know, come on over here and so I can “give you some sugar.” Sugar as in affection – hugs, kisses, love. It is sweet! Literally and figuratively.

I have not seen anyone in FW that would admit that they were “fit to be tied.” If you are angry then you are if you are fit to be tied.

When someone stays out late having a “big time” my Daddy would say that they “laid out.” If Daddy says you laid out last night then he also thinks you were drunk.

Piddly. No one says piddly in the Midwest. It means little, insignificant, or inferior. Like she came over here on that piddly ole bicycle or your raise might have been piddly. Piddly always reminds me of kindly . . . that box is kindly small for your present.

If you don’t know the name of something or someone it is a thingamajig, whatchamacallitwhatshisname, whatshername, or a hootenanny. Of course, you can also lay out and have a big time at a hootenanny.

Now, I don’t recommend or advise that you call people names but some women are huzzies. my Mommy on occasion calls The Queen a “huzzy” when she is being difficult. It means a female of ill repute, if you will. People don’t say that here.

If you are poor in the Midwest, you are just poor. In the South “you don’t have a pot to pee in.” We like graphic images.

In the South after dinner, you might “be about to pop” or be “full as a tick.” Here you just had too much to eat, booorring.

If you are talking ugly about someone in the South you are probably “bad-mouthing” them.

Where I am from “cain’t never could do nothing.” In the Midwest you do hear an “ain’t” here or there but folks here have not graduated to “cain’t,” as in cannot, yet. We like to compound our negatives, proper English be damned.

What’s really sad is that no one here knows what it means if you are gonna “run down to the Pig.” Ahh, I miss the Piggly Wiggly. “The Pig,” as it was affectionately referred to, is the first grocery store I remember. Later it changed to the Food City, but it took years for Mommy to stop calling it The Pig.

Southern talk never gets old and it always sounds sweet even when it is not. That is why when I chance to spend time with my fellow Southern expatriates arises I jump on it like a duck on a junebug!

Here’s a little country from one of my favorite Southern women (introduced by my favorite muppet) . . .

 

Family Talk, Southern Style

I have established that Southern speak is its own form of English. Where else does your mama look at you and say something like “well, honey, you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear”.  I submit to you, no where.

Now imagine not just one Southern mother in a room but several.  Then imagine that they are all related.  Then add in their husbands, children, and grandchildren.  This is like a festival of sayings, slang, and general entertainment.

I was recently home for an extended visit due to the death of my beloved Auntie O. In the South when death occurs many visits and countless food deliveries follow. Luckily, my family loves to eat and there are plenty of us to do it. I have 13 first cousins ranging in age from 6 to 58, 14 second cousins, and 5 third cousins with one on the way.  These are just the cousins in my immediately family – on my father’s side they go on forever. In fact, there is one holler in town where I am related to everyone in it.  These 33 cousins are just the beginning. And, I know that this is not the proper legal designation for cousins – no need for some smart wills and estates lawyers to correct me here.  Of all those family members at least 29 were present at this sad occasion. In one house. Amongst the crowd were three lawyers, three physicians assistants, three nurses, five teachers, two ultrasound technicians, a speech language pathologist, nurse practitioner, a pilot, and a “hell of an engineer” as my Daddy says.

Below are some random comments that I overheard throughout one evening (please note that there is no way for me to put all these into context).  This will give you a taste of a close Southern family in all its glory.  Enjoy!

“I reckon we can tie a chain to it an pull it out?”

“That was the time we got that VW Beetle stuck in Bath County during the snow storm, that is what they are talking about.”

“We lived at the good end of the bottom, on the other side of the restaurant.”

“What is that (referring to a cousin’s tattoo)?”

“Donald slept in the Rambler that whole summer.”

“You were a happy baby, you just did not sleep.”

“Am I related to all these people?”

“Which one is your Dad?”

“Are you all still talking about the dogs?”

“Don’t give away my pickled beets.”

“Does he [vegetarian cousin] know that those green beans were made with fatback?”

“No, but I can’t wait to tell him.”

“She knew how to boss.”

“She hid the chicken and dumplings.”

“She made me give her a dip . . . the color drained out of her face . . . then she was laid out on the front porch throwing up.”

“This is no place for someone with a headache.”

“I can’t tell you I love you enough.”

“I can’t listen enough.”