Friday, August 28, 2015

Mountain Talk


Karen Stuebing  In the corner of Appalachia where Tennessee meets Virginia, where this photo was taken, dialect is more southern. Mountaineers like to talk and you can tell what part of Appalachia people come from by the words they use.

Hi, Y’all.

Maps are essential in locating and describing where people live in our country.  Some who are proficient in map talk, refer to latitude and longitude when pinpointing a specific state, town or region.

However, people who live in the heart of the Appalachia region spreading across the mountains of  West Virginia, southwestern Virginia, western North Carolina, northwestern South Carolina, northern Georgia,  Alabama,  eastern Tennessee and Kentucky are quickly and easily identified not by lines on a map, but  by their dialect. 

My home is located high in the mountains of West Virginia — Latitude: 38.28 N, Longitude: 80.84.  I speak the mountain dialect of the central coalfields of West Virginia: “Hi, How are Y’all?  I live in the holler by a crick close to my kin.”

My parents migrated to central West Virginia from Southwest Virginia. They held on to their Virginia accent which was noticeably different from their children’s speech.  They said things like: wite, nite, lite, youins.

West Virginia is the boundary state between the North and South. There is no single West Virginia dialect. Instead it depends on what part of the state you live in.

For example, if you live in the northern part of the state, which borders Ohio and Pennsylvania, the accent is more northern. The primary marker being the long “l” sound. Residents in the interior of the state speak more like people from Kentucky or southern Virginia. Residents of the southern counties have a very pronounced southern twang.

Regardless of where you live in West Virginia, we are all blessed with a bit of that southern twang.  The further you go into the mountains – the more twang and colloquialism you will find. Karen Stuebing Change direction in the mountains and you change dialect.

So, come with me on a dialect journey into the Appalachian Mountains.

Linguists refer to the southern mountain dialect as the folk speech of Appalachia. The archaic speech can be narrowed down to sort of a Scottish-flavored Elizabethan English. Dialect variations can be traced to immigration patterns.  The southeastern coalfields of West Virginia were settled by miners immigrating from Ireland, Scotland and Wales.  Along the Ohio River, which was more industrialized, a large number of the immigrants came from Eastern Europe.

There are communities in the southern part of the state that are almost entirely African-American.  Mine owners brought in former slaves during the mine wars of the 1800s to replace the striking miners, and because these communities remained segregated, the dialects of the southern slaves lived on in the speech.

I have compiled a list of words and phrases commonly used in mountain dialect and their standard English translation:

Holped – helped

Heered – heard

Deef – deaf
Afreared – afraid
Blinked milk – sour milk
Weary – worry

Near – nigh
Reckon – suppose

Backset – Backset of the flu

Ill – bad-tempered

Gom – Mess

Fillum – Film

Pert-near – almost

Ahr —  hour 

Am-Bew-Lance  — ambulance    (Call an am-bew-lance.) 

A-mite —  a little    (You're lookin' a-mite peak-ed today.) 

Arthur-itis —  arthritis    (Dad’s arthur-itis is really actin' up.)

Bar —  bear   (Llnes, tagers and bars, oh my.)

Battree —  battery    (The car’s battree is daid.)

Beholden  — owe   (I don't want to be beholden to you.)

Briggity — egotistical   (The young man is acting briggity agin.)

Book Red —  educated  (He went  to college -- he's book red.) 

Cheer —  chair   ( Pull up a cheer and set a spell.)

Choirpractor — chiropractor   (If you are down in the back, go to the choirpractor.)

Co-cola —  Coca Cola, any brown soft drink  (I ordered a co-cola at the diner.)  

Crick – stiffness  (I’ve got a crick in my neck.)

Decoration Day – Memorial Day  (We visited the family cemetery on Decoration Day.)

Ate Up – completely infected  (Dave’s ate up with the cancer.)

Elm  — "m"    The thirteenth letter of the alphabet.   (Dial Elm for Murder.)

Far —  fire    (The mountain is on far.)

Haint —  ghost (from haunt) (I’m afraid I will see a haint in that house.)

Hard — hired    (He was the hard hand on the farm.)

His people — relatives  (His people came from Ireland.)

Het —  upset   (She got het up over the contract.)  

Hisself – himself  (He built the barn hisself.)

Ideal – idea   (Try to come up with a good ideal.)

Ink pin – pen  (Give him the ink pin.)

Kin – related  (He is kin to most of the people in this holler.)

Outsider —  A non southern West Virginian  (Mountain folk are skeptical of the outsider.)

Parts —  neighborhood    (It is good to see you back in these parts.)

Pizen —  poison   (That snake is pizen.)

Plain spoken —  honest or genuine   (The people trusted Jim because he was plain spoken.)

Poke —  bag or a sack    (She carried the groceries home in a poke.)

Polecat —  skunk   (A polecat ran under the old building.)

Put Out —  angry or upset    (The mayor was put out with the council’s decision.)

Red Light – stop light or traffic signal  (My town has one red light.)

Skittish —  nervous    (The boy was skittish when asked to recite a Bible verse.) 

Spell —  a while.   (She stayed on the mountain for a spell.)

Spell —  being lightheaded or dizzy.    (The woman had a spell in the doctor’s office.) 

Thar — there    (Thar's a pretty little pony in the field.) 

Wrastlin’ – wrestling  (My son is on the wrastlin’ team.)
Actin' Up —  hurting   (His injured knee was actin’ up.) 
Agen —  against    

Bile – boil

Brung — brought 

Carry — take or drive

Churched — excommunicated    

Drug —  dragged    
Et — eaten 

Holt —  hold    

Kindly — nearly   

Learned —  taught  

Mosey — go to    

Pack — carry    

Peart —  well    

Plumb — completely

Reckon —  guess    

Retched —  reached    

Rinch —  rinse    

Sangin' —  digging up ginseng

Worsh —  wash

Monday a week —  next monday

Shore —  sure   

Down in the back — back injury

Cut the light on —  turn the light on 

I don’t care — Yes, please.  I would like some.  (Do you want more coffee?  I don’t care.)

Worshington -  Washington 

One North Carolina scholar uses the term  "constellation of features" in describing the distinctive mountain speech. 

Betty Dotson-Lewis Here are some of my Kentucky relatives, Jean D. Fuller on the left and Judy D. Coyle on the right. There is a commonality between the dialect spoken in Southwestern Virginia and Eastern Kentucky. For example, the letter “t” is added at the end of words such as “across” and “twice” making the words “acrosst” and “twice” becomes “twicet”.  This pronunciation was common among English speakers centuries ago and Appalachia is the only region that has held on to the pronunciation. 

The pronunciation of the letter “i” is much different in certain words such as “light” and “fire” than in other parts of the U.S.   “Light” sounds like “laht” and “fire” sounds like “far”.

Hollow becomes Butcher Holler in Loretta Lynn’s song about her East Kentucky homeplace, Coalminer’s Daughter.

Mountain folk are famous for coining their own words to express a thought or observation.  The word “sigogglin,” for example, means something that is crooked.

In rural Southern Appalachia an "n" is added to pronouns indicating "one" or ownership. So, "his'n" means "his one",  "her'n" means "her one"  and "yor'n" "your one," i.e., "his, hers and yours."   Another example is the word “yernses” or yours.  “That new car is yernses.”
 Use of the word "dove" as past tense for dive, "drug" as past tense for drag and "drunk" as past tense for drink are grammatical features characteristic of older Southern American English and the newer Southern American English. 

Outsiders are often confused by the use of the word y’all, meaning the second person plural of you.  When speaking about a group, y’all is general.  You know the group of people as a whole. All y’all is more specific. This means you know each and every person individually in that group.  Y’all can also be used with the standard “s” possessive.  “I’ve got y’all’s assignments ready.”

Here are some other expressions contributed by some of my Facebook friends:
Virginia Winebrenner Sykes: This is a good site," idn't" it? I hear so many people, including my mountain girl self, say "isn't" this way. Another one, I don't say, but have heard said is brefkast instead of breakfast. 

Anna Dennison Circle: Whoppin – whipping;  boosh – bush;  dropped her calf – gave birth; peak’ed – pale; gone and done it again; smitten – likes;  yonder – over there; and nary – none,

Shirley Tinney: "If'n” is a word I've heard.

Sue Underwood Mergler: How about "over yonder"? My boys pulled me aside one day after a visit to West Virginia and wanted to know were Yonder was, because Granny was always talking about it.

Builder Levy: Back in the early ' 70s when I was visiting and photographing in Mingo County and I would ask Nimrod Workman and other old timers I would meet, how are you doing, the answer would be, “Terrible!"

Pat Williams: Feeling "tolable like" meaning pretty good.

Karen Butler Britt: Stilts or Tom Walkers; toboggan-hat or sled; Jennie or mule; church key or bottle opener; leather britches aren't pants but dried green beans. Hominy is corn kernels soaked and cooked in lye to remove it from its kernel. Huckleberries are wild blueberries. Icebox was a refrigerator with a huge block of ice to keep food cool. Mule trader wasn't someone who traded mules but would trade pretty much anything for a good deal.

Although this unique mountain dialect is changing, losing some of its distinctiveness, it is not going to disappear in the near future -- with 20 million people living in the Appalachian region.

Bye y’all. 




Eastern Kentucky coal miners refer to each other (and those they are talking with) as "buddy." 

"I'll tell you now, buddy, it's hard work." "Hey, buddy, pass me some salt." 

I don't know if the use of "buddy" in this familiar, friendly way extends to West Virginia coal mining places.

Southern Highlands of Appalachia

Wonderful post!! I live in the Southern Highlands of Appalachia-born and raised as they say-and most all the words shared in this post are familiar to me. I write about all things Appalachian at Each month I have an Appalachian Vocabulary Test-you can go here to see them:

My favorite part of your post-is where you state our lovely dialect isn't going to dissappear anytime soon-I so agree. The wonder of the Appalachian Dialect is alive and well in my neck of the woods-and I'm trying to ensure it stays that way too!!

Thank you for celebrating our rich language.



One thing I didn't see on the list that I say and hear people say all the time is, "fixin".

Like, "I'm fixin to leave."

A friend of mines brother from New Hampshire heard me say that and said, "You're fixin? What are you fixin?" So I had to explain to him that it meant, about to.

Our phrases

Even though I went off to school and came back, I feel that I did lose some of my accent.  I realize that I should be proud of my Appalachian twang and the phrases my parents used (and I still use).

I was in Connecticut a few years ago.  I was at a conference and someone asked me how I was going to get back to the airport in a couple days.  I told them that I had a ticket to take a shuttle van back to the airport.  The new colleague said, "Would you like to ride with me to the airport."  I responded, "I wouldn't care to."  She looked at me funny and asked, "Does that mean you want a ride or you don't want a ride?"  I explained to her that when people say "don't care to," that basically means they wouldn't mind it...which in this case also meant I'd definitely like a ride.  She and the others in my group at the conference talked about that for days. 

When I was in graduate school (up North), I had a professor (also a very good friend) hear me say "I was gettin' above my raisin' " when I was talkin' about somethin' (or other).   He was a Jewish guy from New York.  He started laughing when he heard that phrase.  He said he'd never heard that phrase before, but he knew exactly what it meant the second he heard it and it make complete sense.  He agreed that too many people were gettin' above their raisin'!

My wife is a Hoosier (I know, I know), and she looks at me funny when I say certain things:

Shopping buggy (shopping cart)

Dust shovel (dust pan to sweep dirt from the floor into)

"I'll get to it DRECTLY."  ...meaning I'll get to it directly, or I'll get to it soon or afterwhile or later

I had a former colleague do a phone interview last summer with a former student of mine.  The colleague was from California (not the place you ought to be) and she interviewed the student (a teacher) from SE KY.  The former student said that, in class, I "tickled her to death."  My colleague said all she could picture was me, the teacher, tickling the poor student until she died.  That is funny, but I told my colleague she was now a better person for getting to speak to someone from Eastern Kentucky....and she was!

Great article and keep those phrases coming.  It makes me think of my family, especially the ones that are no longer with us.

"Residents in the interior of

"Residents in the interior of the state speak more like people from Kentucky"

 What part of Kentucky?  I'm from Letcher County, in the far southeastern corner, and my wife is from Johnson County, in the mideastern part.  There is some overlap in the speech patterns between the two, but there are also distinct differences.  Speech patterns in Lexington differ from both, as do speech patterns farther west, and there are small pockets all over the state where the speech is so different from that of the surrounding area, you'd swear you were separated more by time than distance (which may be true, in a way...)

A couple of additional usages from my part of the state: "corbin" for "carbon", and "kyarn", something nasty - best I can figure, it's a corruption of the word "carrion".

Oddly enough, I once asked a waitress at a McDonald's in Lexington what part of southeastern Kentucky she was from, only to discover that she was from a small town in California.

From southeastern Kentucky,

From southeastern Kentucky, my Dad still says "Year" for "Ear".  As in, "I've got something in my year".  I have to call him down on that one!

"Swarpin'" and "cohortin"

Having done more than my share of both, I'd like to throw out two interesting words: swarpin and cohortin.

My father, until his death not long ago, used the word "swarpin'" to explain what he thought my year-younger brother and I often did on Saturday night when we were teens. "You boys have been out swarpin' again, I see," he'd say. We didn't have to ask. We had been. Nobody ever explained what the word meant, and I haven't attempted to look it up, but I'm sure it meant that we were doing what a not-long-ago country song said somebody else had been doing: We'd been having too much fun.

Fast forward from those teen years to this one, I was in a phone conversation with a classmate and we were discussing our pending 45th high school class reunion when he said that, as a deputy sheriff back home, he has been dealing with a lot of people who have been out "swarpin'". The county is Martin and we grew up near Lovely, only three miles from Beauty, making us Lovely, Kentuckians, and most people aren't.

The other word is "cohorin'", taught to me by my wife, who is from Kingsport, Tenn., just three hours south of Lovely via U.S. 23. She said her parents accused her of "cohorin'" about the same time mine were accusing me of "swarpin'". The difference being, reckon, was that my brother and I were drinking beer and she was spending too much time with a boy.

Until cable television, you could participate in conversations in and around Lovely that people away from there might not have been able to completely understand, if you know what I mean.

Besides being a Lovely, Kentuckian, I'm fortunate to be from a place where people are authentic, and where being called "two-faced" was a shame and a disgrace, and to be avoided at all costs. That's why East Kentuckians are such genuine people. What you see is what you get, and what you hear is what they're thinkin'.

Homer Marcum

I am dating a man who speaks

I am dating a man who speaks in a mountain dialect peculiar to the mountains between Roanoke and Floyd Counties in SW VA. He says [of a midwife], "The woman who borned me." He says, "Came here that it stormed last night." I had heard neither of these expressions elsewhere in this part of Appalachia. he is 63.

might could

This great article focuses on diction, but another feature of mountain speech involves distinctive verb tenses. Shaina's "fixin' to " is a perfect example.

Another is "I might could go..." Conditional? Subjunctive? In any case, it's meaningful. 

Your Years

My Dad, age 83, has always lived in southeastern Kentucky.  Hi says "years" for "ears", as in "His years need cleanin'."  I have to call him down on that one!

"I got a bad case of the can't-help-its"

I've heard that one around a lot (as a matter of fact, I just said it to a co-worker...)  It's been one of those days when I "ain't got no gumption ay-tall"!  Just don't have the energy to do anything, let alone go around "a-heavin' and a-settin'".

I'm familiar with Beauty in Martin County.  Used to go through there two or three times every weekend from Paintsville to Inez or Kermit, WVA (that was back when I was doing some swarpin' of my own...)

Meet'cha up 'air in a few

I grew up in the tiny town of Burton, Wetzel County, WV, just a stone's throw from the Mason-Dixon line. While both parents were college educated, my dad was originally from the area where I grew up but my mom was from New Jersey and did most of our raisin'. So, I feel like I picked up a lot of the "twang" but not quite as much of the dialect.

I've had lots of people tell me I have a hillbilly twang, except that I sometimes seem to go in and out of it (so I've been told). I do have a tendency to say "ool" for oil, "far" for fire, "tar" for tire, stuff like that. My brothers and I also use "air" a lot, like "up 'air" or "over 'air" or whatever.

I always thought the WV dialect was interesting- northern rural people have the hillbilly twang, city folk sound like...well, city folk, people from the more southerly counties sound like they're from the Deep South. I always felt like regardless of accent, a lot of the language of the state is kind of a mixup of Southern words and dialect and Northern english, with a little bit of the Pennsylvania/Pittsburgh slang thrown in too- I hear lots of "yins," "youins," and "yinses" around this area.

FIxin dinner and Mess of ....

We were visiting friends in Vermont for the first time and I was talking about "Fixin" dinner.  Our host responded, why were you fixing it?  Was it broken?  Everywhere we visited that trip, our friend would introduce me and tell their friends, "you have to hear her talk." 

I grew up in McDowell County, the heart of the coalfields and though my accent is not as pronounced, I do find myself at times, using words or phrases that my Philly husband, doesn't undersstand.

Another ohrase is, I'm fixin a mess of greens or whatever one is cooking.  A mess is a large pot of something.

wonderful article!

I have enjoyed reading this terrific article and all the comments that have been submitted.  As I was growing up, one of my family's expressions that I still love to this day is "than which there ain't no whicher," meaning that something is so good, there is nothing to compare it to; it has no match in the world.

Thanks to all!

The way I talk

I grew up in eastern KY and remain here. Several times when I've traveled north and have told to someone where I'm from, they would begin to speak slower and louder similar to what folks do when they are speaking to a person who does not understand english very well. Hmm.

Over Yeaner

While growin up in the mountains of North Carolina I was infused with mountain talk. My mother being a born local and my father a Yankee if you will, brought forth an unusual way of speaking ! However my true and true mountain friends having both parents born if the south spoke so much sweeter! Yeaner was one word that comes to mind which meant yonder or over there, said my cousin. As most goes round here the further up the mountain you go or the deeper in the talk comes. Such words that I even have a hard time deciphering!! I loved this article and too believe that most words will stay within the mountains but from my early childhood until now I have noticed the loss of the music from our words!

turning nouns into verbs

We are  bad for turning nouns into verbs as in "I got sheriffed last night after I left the bar."  Of course the meaning is that the person got pulled over by the law.  Can you think of other nouns we turn into verbs??

Appalachian Dialect

I love your post.

Appalachian dialect, Tazewell County, Va.

I love this post and was especially interested to read that you can tell what part of Appalachia someone is from by their dialect. I was wondering if there are any words peculiar to Tazewell County, Virginia.

I am writing a historical play about real people and events and I want them to sound as authentic as I can. It takes place in 1891-92. One of the main characters was born and raised on a farm in Tazewell County. He joined the Confederate Army at age 15. He left Virginia in 1866 or '67 to join his folks, who had moved to Missouri. In 1887 he followed them to Idaho. Then he moved to Washington in 1888, and that's where the play takes place. He was living up in the hills in Washington working at farming and logging.

So because he lived in Virginia about 20 years and then he lived near his family up until 1888, I'm thinking he would still use the speech he grew up with. 


Vincent, KY - Owsley County

Speaking with a lady at a roadside store, I explained that we had just been to a funeral for my 93 year old uncle in Albany, KY. I had told her that I was originally from Pineville (Bell County). I also mentioned that Uncle Don had outlived three wives and led a full life. She said that she could tell by my accent that I'd probably forgotten my "mountain speech". Then she explained that mountain folk have a saying for a man like my uncle who outlived three wives. Can you imagine that, a saying to describe such a specific and rare situation? 

According to her the mountain slang for such is that "He tried to shoe the horse all the way round but only made three". 

Has anyone else heard this before?

Good one

We haven't heard the "shoe the horse" expression before, but it sure is a good one. Would it work for two wives -- getting half way round the horse?

Good one

Here is a word I heard while growing up.  "Byur". Any malt and barley based beverage, like Budweiser 

Appalachian word for shoes??

Has anyone ever heard the word "scops"?  My dad is from the Appalachian mountains in Maryland and he always referred to his shoes as scops.  "Let me get my scops on."  Sound familiar??  Thanks.

Anyone heard these?

Bath time at Grandma's was the time for getting rid of "those jakey beads" (dirty neck) and "toe jam" (dirty feet).  When we got nosey and wanted to know what was in the box , bag etc. It was always "layovers to ketch meddlers" in them. My husband is still trying to figure that one!