for release Friday September 16, 2005
by Melodie Davis
We Talk The Way We Hear
(see end for “translation”)
Does this look like a foreign language, or at least a strange dialect? Or perhaps you recognize every word of my attempt to write down the richness of spoken English.
Two summers ago my family traveled to Eastern Kentucky as part of our family vacation. I had spent a year there as a volunteer preschool teacher and community worker between high school and college, but hadn’t been back to the community in about 29 years. The list of words above comes from a book I wrote about that year, On Troublesome Creek (Herald Press, 1981, out of print but still available from some online used-book sellers).
As we stepped into the local K-Mart store in Hazard, Kentucky (no retail chains like this were there 30 years ago) and I heard people talking, many memories of that distinctly Appalachian accent and manner of expressing themselves came flooding back. And I realized in a new way that we grow up talking the way the people around us talk. It was not uneducated or redneck or hillbilly or any other put down, it was just different, like a different dialect.
However, we have this huge prejudice against people who talk non-standard English. Why? I guess because it sounds uneducated or impoverished, when it is really neither.
One website called “Trish’s Going Home” points out that while the U.S. has been a melting pot of nationalities, in terms of those who are born and stay in the hills of Appalachia, “the very isolation of the mountains kept the language [the same] from one generation to the other. The English who first came to Appalachia were the neighbors of William Shakespeare … Instead of mountain English being bad English it is in reality older in its forms and vocabulary and, in that sense, a purer English.” http://trishgood1.tripod.com/terms.html
One might argue with parts of that, but it is certainly true that language changes less where people are isolated. Islands and mountains are two very common forms of isolation. For instance, on Tangier Island, Virginia, which is accessible only by boat, the natives speak a very distinctive form of English, similar to Elizabethan English.
There’s a huge prejudice against people from West Virginia—as anyone who is from there or nearby can attest. Now I enjoy “redneck” jokes and Jeff Foxworthy’s ability to take a prejudice by the horns and make a killing off of it, but too often the term “redneck” is used as a disparaging term to put down a whole group of people in a way that no respectable person would tolerate if the same person were to use other racial or ethnic put downs.
Dr. C. George Boeree, professor at Shippensburg State (Pa.), points
out that two dialects are still seen as being substandard by many
Americans, Appalachian and Black English. “Unlike other dialects, they have
considerable grammatical differences,” he says pointing out interesting
similarities between the two. “In Appalachia, for example, they say us’ns and
you’ns. Both Appalachian dialect and Black English speakers often double
negatives (he ain’t got none), double comparatives and superlatives (more
bigger, most biggest, gooder, bestest), over-regularize the past tense (stoled
or stealed), and over-regularize plurals (mouses, sheeps, childrens).” He goes
on to point out that “Black English is in fact a variation on the Southern
dialect, with input from Gullah and other slave creoles, plus the constant
creation of slang, especially in northern urban areas.”
Why go on about the use of language (perhaps interesting only to English majors like me or dialect specialists)? It is because every day we judge people by the way they use language, or don’t use it. And this occurs in whatever country or region you live in. We not only judge them, but we assign them worth and status according to how they talk. Like the Bible says at one point, “This ought not to be!” Watch yourself today: do you judge others in a bad way by the way they talk? Why? What does that say about you? A person grows up speaking like the language they hear around them.
“Translated” terms: Poke: bag or sack. Narry: None. Rait chere: Right here. Tared: Tired. H’its: Its. H’ain’t: Is not. Least ‘un: Youngest. Flare: Flower.
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Melodie Davis is the author of seven books and has written her column since 1987. She taught feature writing and has won awards from the National Federation of Press Women, Virginia Press Women and the American Advertising Association. She and her husband have three daughters.
NOTES TO EDITORS: text = 755 words; end material = 105 words
We would appreciate it if you would include the "Globe Syndicate" bug at the end of the column.
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