‘A Serious Look at Our Local English’ reveals distinct Appalachian vernacular

A younger Stacy Guffey with his late grandfather Robert Guffey (center) and his father, Jerry Guffey.

Deena C. Bouknight
Contributing Writer

Stacy Guffey can trace his heritage in the Appalachian Mountains back at least seven generations, he explained during his presentation for the Jan. 20th “Speaker Series” at Cowee School Arts & Heritage Center where he is director. From a young age, Appalachian English, or “mountain talk,” as it is often called, has fascinated Guffey. Thus, the topic of the presentation, “A Serious Look at Our Local English,” was both personal and academic.
“I’m not a linguist, but I’ve been studying language since I was a teenager,” he said. “It’s always been a real interest of mine.”
By researching maps, family dialects, and historical accounts of language, he pieced together an informative and visual lecture that drew a diverse crowd to the “Speaker Series” that is offered monthly at Cowee School.
Although titled “A Serious Look …,” Guffey introduced the presentation with a humorous story – and then proceeded to sprinkle throughout general light-hearted observances regarding Appalachian language.
He explained initially that his grandfather never learned to drive a car, so when Guffey obtained his driver’s license as a teenager, “Granddaddy” wanted to travel in the car whenever an opportunity arose.
“One time we were coming up from Columbia, South Carolina, and we stopped at a convenience store and purchased two Sprites and Granddaddy said, “Put my dope in the poke.” Guffey said he had to explain to the bewildered cashier that the “Cokes” needed to be placed into a bag. [The term “dope” was used as a slang term for Coke at one time because Coca-Cola included traces of cocaine due to the original recipe involving an extract of the coca leaf, used to make cocaine, which was not harmful in small doses and used for medicinal purposes.]
Guffey said a “Pop vs. Soda” map reveals much when considering regional differences in phrases and language. He showed the audience a map, the result of a 400,000 person survey, which conveys that most people in the Appalachian Mountains refer to all brands of soda as “Coke.”
Webster’s dictionary defines the word “dialect” as “a regional variety of language distinguished by features of vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation from other regional varieties and constituting together with them a single language.”
Guffey pointed out that the way words are sometimes pronounced in the Appalachian Mountains originated with settlers to the area who often immigrated from countries in the United Kingdom. For example:
– fire – pronounced “far”
– wash – pronounced “warsh”
– ocra – pronounced “ocree”
“And that dialect did – and does – often vary from person to person and family to family,” he said. “There is wide geographical distribution.”
Another commonality is adding “st” to the end of some words; across becomes “acrosst” and once becomes “oncest.”
Plus, the common mountain talk expression of “pre-fixing” results in adding “a” to words, as well as dropping the “g” in “ing” suffix words: “a-cryin’,” “a-fishin’,” “a-changin’.”
Other commonalities are such expresses as: “Born on the wrong side of the blanket” or “Nervous as a cat in a room full of rocking chairs.” Also, there is sometimes a comfort level with using what an English teacher would instruct are double, triple, or even quadruple negatives, such as this comment: “I ain’t never seed no men folk of no kind do no warshing.” Or nouns are turned into verbs: “He’s out squirreling.” Verbs are sometimes created out of nouns: “I seed him coming before I heared him.”
Airy and nary are also old speech constructions from colonial times. “Do you have airy shovel? I ain’t got nary one.”
Guffey shared a quote referencing a Western Carolina University 2016 study on how Appalachian English is still viable, but is being replaced as more people move into the area and newer generations are influenced by television and social media culture: “Vocabulary varies mainly by sub-region within Appalachia or by the age or “ruralness” of the speaker. More modern, national terms have been rapidly displacing older, rural counterparts, especially among younger inhabitants. A recent study of students … found a dramatic loss of regional vocabulary; for instance, living room, gutters, mantel, and attic had completely replaced big house, eaves trough, fireboard, and loft.
“Vocabulary is continually becoming more standardized. But it is and has been slower to change in the mountains.”
He pointed out that one of the reasons for abandoning mountain talk is that “for a century and a half now, Appalachian English has been stigmatized … . But people shouldn’t be ashamed of it because it’s just an older form of standard English. Still in my family, we use “you-ins,” which has been eclipsed locally by “ya’ll.” Research shows that people might still use you-ins at home and ya’ll in less formal situations and ‘you all’ in more formal situations.”
Guffey said his intention for the presentation was two-fold, to clear up misconceptions about mountain talk’s origins, and to show the importance of preserving it as part of local history.
“There is social pressure to use standard English in certain situations, but my hope is that people still use [mountain talk] at home, and that the younger generation will record or write down words and sayings so that the mountain talk isn’t completely lost. Some of it will be, but we can preserve some of it and pass it down and be proud of it. It’s a window into our past. A connection with our ancestors.”
He added later after the presentation: “I feel fortunate to have been around grandparents and great-grandparents to learn the heritage and the talk. I have one son and three grandchildren. It’s funny because my oldest grandchild was riding in the truck with me the other day. She said something about the police, and added, “Or, as you would say it, the ‘po-lice.’ Why do you talk the way you do?’ I just laughed.”