Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio
(Return to Web Text-ures)
THE MOUNTAIN DIALECT
One day I handed a volume of John Fox’s stories to a neighbor and asked him to read it, being curious to learn how those vivid pictures of mountain life would impress one who was born and bred in the same atmosphere. He scanned a few lines of the dialogue, then suddenly stared at me in amazement.
“What’s the matter with it?” I asked, wondering what he could have found to startle him at the very beginning of a story.
“Why, that feller don’t know how to spell!”
Gravely I explained that dialect must be spelled as it is pronounced, so far as possible, or the life and savor of it would be lost. But it was of no use. My friend was outraged. “That tale-teller then is jest makin’ fun of the mountain people by misspellin’ our talk. You educated folks don’t spell your own words the way you say them.”
A most palpable hit; and it gave me a new point of view.
To the mountaineers themselves their speech is natural and proper, of course, and when they see it bared to the spotlight, all eyes drawn toward it by an orthography that is as odd to them as it is to us, they are stirred to wrath, just as we would be if our conversation were reported by some Josh Billings or Artemas Ward.
The curse of dialect writing is elision. Still, no one can write it without using the apostrophe more than he likes to; for our highland speech is excessively clipped. “I’m comin’ d’reck’ly” has a quaintness that should not be lost. We cannot visualize the shambling but eager mountaineer with a sample of ore in his hand unless the writer reports him faithfully: “Wisht you’d ’zamine this rock fer me — I heern tell you was one o’ them ’sperts.”
Although the hillsmen save some breath in this way, they waste a good deal by inserting sounds where they do not belong. Sometimes it is only an added consonant: gyarden, acrost, corkus (caucus); sometimes a syllable: loaferer, musicianer, suddenty. Occasionally a word is both added to and clipped from, as cyarn (carrion). They are fond of grace syllables: “I gotta me a deck o’ cyards.” “There ain’t nary bitty sense in it.”
More interesting are substitutions of one sound for another. In mountain dialect all vowels may be interchanged with others. Various sounds of a are confused with e, as hed (had), kem (came), keerful; or with i, grit (grate), rifle (raffle); with o, pomper, toper (taper), wrop; or with u, fur, ruther. So any other vowel may serve in place of e: sarve, chist, upsot, tumble. Any other may displace i: arn (iron), eetch, hender, whope or whup. The o sounds are more stable, but we have crap (crop), yan, clus, and many similar variants. Any other vowel may do for u: braysh or bresh (brush), shet, sich, shore (sure).
Mountaineers have peculiar difficulty with diphthongs: haar (hair), cheer (chair), brile, and a host of others. The word coil is variously pronounced quile, querl or quorl.
Substitution of consonants is not so common as of vowels, but most hillsmen say nabel (navel), ballet (ballad), Babtis’, rench or rinch, brickie (brittle), and many say atter or arter, jue (due), tejus, vascinator (fascinator — a woman’s scarf). They never drop h, nor substitute anything for it.
The word woman has suffered
some strange sea-changes. Most mountaineers pronounce it correctly, but some
drop the w (’
On the other hand, some words that most Americans mispronounce are always sounded correctly in the southern highlands, as dew and new (never doo, noo). Creek is always given its true ee sound, never crick. Nare (as we spell it in dialect stories) is simply the right pronunciation of ne’er, and nary is ne’er a, with the a turned into a short i sound.
It should be understood that the dialect varies a good deal from place to place, and, even in the same neighborhood, we rarely hear all families speaking it alike. Outlanders who essay to write it are prone to err by making their characters speak it too consistently. It is only in the backwoods, or among old people and the penned-at-home women, that the dialect is used with any integrity. In railroad towns we hear little of it, and farmers who trade in those towns adapt their speech somewhat to the company they may be in. The same man, at different times, may say can’t and cain’t, set and sot, jest and jes’ and jist, atter and arter or after, seed and seen, here and hyur and hyar, heerd and heern or heard, sich and sech, took and tuk — there is no uniformity about it. An unconscious sense of euphony seems to govern the choice of hit or it, there or thar.
Since the Appalachian
people have a marked Scotch-Irish strain, we would expect their speech to show
a strong Scotch influence. So far as vocabulary is concerned, there is really
little of it. A few words, caigy (cadgy), coggled, fernent, gin for if,
needcessity, trollop, almost exhaust the list of distinct Scotticisms. The
Scotch-Irish, as we call them, were mainly Ulstermen, and the
Scotch influence does
appear, however, in one vital characteristic of the pronunciation: with few
exceptions our highlanders sound r distinctly wherever it occurs, though
they never trill it. In the British Isles this constant sounding of r in
all positions is peculiar, I think, to
In some mountain districts we hear do’ (door), flo’, mo’, yo’, co’te, sca’ce (long a), pusson; but such skipping of the r is common only where lowland influence has crept in. Much oftener the r is dropped from dare, first, girl, horse, nurse, parcel, worth (dast, fust, gal, hoss, nuss, passel, wuth). By way of compensation the hillsmen sometimes insert a euphonic r where it has no business; just as many New Englanders say, “The idear of it!”
An editor who had made one
or two short trips into the mountains once wrote me that he thought the average
mountaineer’s vocabulary did not exceed three hundred words. This may be a
natural inference if one spends but a few weeks among these people and sees
them only under the prosaic conditions of workaday life. But gain their
intimacy and you shall find that even the illiterates among them have a range
of expression that is truly remarkable. I have myself taken down from the lips
Seldom is a “hill-billy” at a loss for a word. Lacking other means of expression, there will come “spang” from his mouth a coinage of his own. Instantly he will create (always from English roots, of course) new words by combination, or by turning nouns into verbs or otherwise interchanging the parts of speech.
Crudity or deficiency of the verb characterizes the speech of all primitive peoples. In mountain vernacular many words that serve as verbs are only nouns of action, or adjectives, or even adverbs. “That bear ’ll meat me a month.” “They churched Pitt for tale-bearin’.” “Granny kept faultin’ us all day.” “Are ye fixin’ to go squirrelin’?” “Sis blouses her waist a-purpose to carry a pistol.” “My boy Jesse book-kept for the camp.” “I disgust bad liquor.” “This poke salat eats good.” “I ain’t goin’ to bed it no longer” (lie abed). “We can muscle this log up.” “I wouldn’t pleasure them enough to say it.” “Josh ain’t much on sweet-heartin’.” “I don’t confidence them dogs much.” “The creek away up thar turkey-tails out into numerous leetle forks.”
A verb will be coined from an adverb: “We better git some wood, bettern we?” Or from an adjective: “Much that dog and see won’t he come along” (pet him, make much of him). “I didn’t do nary thing to contrary her.” “Baby, that onion ’ll strong ye!” “Little Jimmy fell down and benastied himself to beat the devil.”
Conversely, nouns are created from verbs. “Hit don’t make no differ.” “I didn’t hear no give-out at meetin’” (announcement). “You can git ye one more gittin’ o’ wood up thar.” “That Nantahala is a master shut-in, jest a plumb gorge.” Or from an adjective: “Them bugs — the little old hatefuls!” “If anybody wanted a history of this county for fifty years he’d git a lavish of it by reading that mine-suit testimony.” Or from an adverb: “Nance tuk the biggest through at meetin’!” (shouting spell). An old lady quoted to me in a plaintive quaver:
“It matters not, so I’ve been told,
Where the body goes when the heart grows cold;
“But,” she added, “a person has a rather about where he’d be put.”
In mountain vernacular the Old English strong past tense still lives in begun, drunk, holped, rung, shrunk, sprung, stunk, sung, sunk, swum. Holp is used both as preterite and as infinitive: the o is long, and the l distinctly sounded by most of the people, but elided by such as drop it from almost, already, self (the l is elided from help by many who use that form of the verb).
Examples of a strong preterite with dialectical change of the vowel are bruk, brung, drap or drapped, drug, friz, roke or ruck (raked), saunt (sent), shet, shuck (shook), whoped (long o). The variant whupped is a Scotticism. Whope is sometimes used in the present tense, but whup is more common. By some the vowel of whup is sounded like oo in book (Mr. Fox writes “whoop,” which, I presume, he intends for that sound).
In many cases a weak preterite supplants the proper strong one: div, driv, fit, gi’n or give, rid, riv, riz, writ, done, run, seen or seed, blowed, crowed, drawed, growed, knowed, throwed.
There are many corrupt forms of the verb, such as gwine for gone or going, mought (mowt) for might, dim, het, ort or orter, wed (weeded), war (was or were — the a as in far), shun (shone), cotch (in all tenses) or cotched, fotch or fotched, borned, hurted, dremp.
Peculiar adjectives are formed from verbs. “Chair-bottoming is easy settin’-down work.” “When my youngest was a leetle set-along child” (interpreted as “settin’ along the floor”). “That Thunderhead is the torndowndest place!” “Them’s the travellinest hosses ever I seed.” “She’s the workinest woman!” “Jim is the disablest one o’ the fam’ly.” “Damn this fotch-on kraut that comes in tin cans!”
A verb may serve as an adverb: “If I’d a-been thoughted enough.” An adverb may be used as an adjective: “I hope the folks with you is gaily” (well). An adjective can serve as an adverb: “He laughed master.” Sometimes a conjunction is employed as a preposition: “We have oblige to take care on him.”
These are not mere blunders of individual illiterates, but usages common throughout the mountains, and hence real dialect.
The ancient syllabic plural is preserved in beasties (horses), nesties, posties, trousies (these are not diminutives), and in that strange word dummerunses that I cited before.
Pleonasms are abundant. “I done done it” (have done it or did do it). “Durin’ the while.” “In this day and time.” “I thought it would surely, undoubtedly turn cold.” “A small, little bitty hole.” “Jane’s a tol’able big, large, fleshy woman.” “I ginerally, usually take a dram mornin’s.” “These ridges is might’ nigh straight up and down, and, as the feller said, perpendic’lar.”
Everywhere in the mountains
we hear of biscuit-bread, ham-meat, rifle-gun, rock-clift, ridin’-critter,
cow-brute, man-person, women-folks, preacher-man, granny-woman and
neighbor-people. In this category belong the famous double-barreled pronouns:
we-all and you-all in
The mountaineers have some queer ways of intensifying expression. “I’d tell a man,” with the stress as here indicated, is simply a strong affirmative. “We had one more time” means a rousing good time. “P’int-blank” is a superlative or an epithet: “We jist p’int-blank got it to do.” “Well, p’int-blank, if they ever come back again, I’ll move!”
A double negative is so common that it may be crowded into a single word: “I did it the unthoughtless of anything I ever done in my life.” Triple negatives are easy: “I ain’t got nary none.” A mountaineer can accomplish the quadruple: “That boy ain’t never done nothin’ nohow.” Yea, even the quintuple: “I ain’t never seen no men-folks of no kind do no washin’.”
On the other hand, the
veriest illiterates often startle a stranger by glib use of some word that most
of us picked up in school or seldom use informally. “I can make a hunderd pound
o’ pork outen that hog — tutor it jist right.” “Them clouds denote rain.”
“She’s so dilitary!” “They stood thar and caviled about it.” “That exceeds the
measure.” “Old Tom is blind, but he can discern when the sun is shinin’.”
“Jerry proffered to fix the gun for me.” I had supposed that the words cuckold
and moon-calf had none but literary usage in
Our highlander often speaks in Elizabethan or Chaucerian or even pre-Chaucerian terms. His pronoun hit antedates English itself, being the Anglo-Saxon neuter of he. Ey God, a favorite expletive, is the original of egad, and goes back of Chaucer. Ax for ask and kag for keg were the primitive and legitimate forms, which we trace as far as the time of Layamon. When the mountain boy challenges his mate: “I dar ye — I ain’t afeared!” his verb and participle are of the same ancient and sterling rank. Afore, atwixt, awar, heap o’ folks, peart, up and done it, usen for used, all these everyday expressions of the backwoods were contemporary with the Canterbury Tales.
A man said to me of three of our acquaintances: “There’s been a fray on the river — I don’t know how the fraction begun, but Os feathered into Dan and Phil, feedin’ them lead.” He meant fray in its original sense of deadly combat, as was fitting where two men were killed. Fraction for rupture is an archaic word, rare in literature, though we find it in Troilus and Cressida. “Feathered into them!” Where else can we hear to-day a phrase that passed out of standard English when “villainous saltpetre” supplanted the long-bow? It means to bury an arrow up to the feather, as when the old chronicler Harrison says, “An other arrow should haue beene fethered in his bowels.”
composing a form of oath for the new mail-carrier, remarked:
“Let me study this thing over; then I can edzact it” — a verb so rare and
obsolete that we find it in no American dictionary, but only in
A remarkable word, common in the Smokies, is dauncy, defined for me as “mincy about eating,” which is to say fastidious, over-nice. Dauncy probably is a variant of daunch, of which the Oxford New English Dictionary cites but one example, from the Townley Mysteries of circa 1460.
Photo by Arthur Keith
“Till the skyline blends with the sky itself.” — Great Smokies. N. C. from
A queer term used by
In the vocabulary of the mountaineers I have detected only three words of directly foreign origin. Doney is one. Another is kraut, which is the sole contribution to highland speech of those numerous Germans (mostly Pennsylvania Dutch) who joined the first settlers in this region, and whose descendants, under wondrously anglicized names, form to-day a considerable element of the highland population. The third is sashiate (French chassé), used in calling figures at the country dances.
There is something
intrinsically, stubbornly English in the nature of the mountaineer: he will assimilate
nothing foreign. In the Smokies the Eastern Band of Cherokees still holds its
ancient capital on the
In our county some Indians always appear at each term of court, and an interpreter must be engaged. He never goes by that name, but by the obsolete title linkister or link’ster, by some lin-gis-ter.
Many other old-fashioned
terms are preserved in
We have in the mountains many home-born words to fit the circumstances of backwoods life. When maize has passed from the soft and milky stage of roasting-ears, but is not yet hard enough for grinding, the ears are grated into a soft meal and baked into delectable pones called gritted-bread.
In some places to-day we still find the ancient quern or hand-mill, jocularly called an armstrong-machine. Someone who irked from turning it invented the extraordinary improvement that goes by the name of pounding-mill. This consists of a pole pivoted horizontally on top of a post and free to move up and down like the walking-beam of an old-fashioned engine. To one end of this pole is attached a heavy pestle that works in a mortar underneath. At the other end is a box from which water flows from an elevated spout. When the box fills it will go down, lifting the pestle; then the water spills out and the pestle’s weight lifts the box back again.
Who knows what a toddick or taddle is? I did not until my friend Dargan reported it from the Nantahala. “Ben didn’t git a full turn o’ meal, but jest a toddick.” When a farmer goes to one of our little tub-mills, mentioned in previous chapters, he leaves a portion of the meal as toll. This he measures out in a toll-dish or toddick or taddle (the name varies with the locality) which the mill-owner left for that purpose. Toddick, then, is a small measure. A turn of meal is so called because “each man’s corn is ground in turn — he waits his turn.”
When one dines in a cabin back in the hills he will taste some strange dishes that go by still stranger names. Beans dried in the pod, then boiled “hull and all,” are called leather-breeches (this is not slang, but the regular name). Green beans in the pod are called snaps; when shelled they are shuck-beans. The old Germans taught their Scotch and English neighbors the merits of scrapple, but here it is known as poor-do. Lath-open bread is made from biscuit dough, with soda and buttermilk, in the usual way, except that the shortening is worked in last. It is then baked in flat cakes, and has the peculiar property of parting readily into thin flakes when broken edgewise. I suppose that poor-do was originally poor-doin’s, and lath-open bread denotes that it opens into lath-like strips. But etymology cannot be pushed recklessly in the mountains, and I offer these clews as a mere surmise.
Your hostess, proffering apple sauce, will ask, “Do you love sass?” I had to kick my chum Andy’s shins the first time he faced this question. It is well for a traveler to be forewarned that the word love is commonly used here in the sense of like or relish.
If one is especially fond of a certain dish he declares that he is a fool about it. “I’m a plumb fool about pickle-beans.” Conversely, “I ain’t much of a fool about liver” is rather more than a hint of distaste. “I et me a bait” literally means a mere snack, but jocosely it may admit a hearty meal. If the provender be scant the hostess may say, “That’s right at a smidgen,” meaning little more than a mite; but if plenteous, then there are rimptions.
To “grabble ’taters” is to pick from a hill of new potatoes a few of the best, then smooth back the soil without disturbing the immature ones.
If the house be in disorder it is said to be all gormed or gaumed up, or things are just in a mommick.
When a man is tired he likely will call it worried; if in a hurry, he is in a swivvet; if nervous, he has the all-overs; if declining in health, he is on the down-go. If he and his neighbor dislike each other, there is a hardness between them; if they quarrel, it is a ruction, a rippit, a jower, or an upscuddle — so be it there are no fatalities which would amount to a real fray.
A choleric or fretful person is tetchious. Survigrous (ser-vi-grus) is a superlative of vigorous (here pronounced vi-grus, with long i): as “a survigrous baby,” “a most survigrous cusser.” Bodaciously means bodily or entirely: “I’m bodaciously ruint” (seriously injured). “Sim greened him out bodaciously” (to green out or sap is to outwit in trade). To disfurnish or disconfit means to incommode: “I hope it has not disconfit you very bad.”
To shamp means to shingle or trim one’s hair. A bastard is a woods-colt or an outsider. Slaunchways denotes slanting, and si-godlin or si-antigodlin is out of plumb or out of square (factitious words, of course — mere nonsense terms, like catawampus).
Critter and beast are usually restricted to horse and mule, and brute to a bovine. A bull or boar is not to be mentioned as such in mixed company, but male-brute and male-hog are used as euphemisms. 9
A female shoat is called a gilt. A spotted animal is said to be pieded (pied), and a striped one is listed. In the Smokies a toad is called a frog or a toad-frog, and a toadstool is a frog-stool. The woodpecker is turned around into a peckerwood, except that the giant woodpecker (here still a common bird) is known as a woodcock or woodhen.
What the mountaineers call hemlock is the shrub leucothoe. The hemlock tree is named spruce-pine, while spruce is he-balsam, balsam itself is she-balsam, laurel is ivy, and rhododendron is laurel. In some places pine needles are called twinkles, and the locust insect is known as a ferro (Pharaoh?). A treetop left on the ground after logging is called the lap. Sobby wood means soggy or sodden, and the verb is to sob.
Evening, in the mountains, begins at noon instead of at sunset. Spell is used in the sense of while (“a good spell atterward”) and soon for early (“a soon start in the morning”). The hillsmen say “a year come June,” “Thursday ’twas a week ago,” and “the year nineteen and eight.”
Many common English words are used in peculiar senses by the mountain folk, as call for name or mention or occasion, clever for obliging, mimic or mock for resemble, a power or a sight for much, risin’ for exceeding (also for inflammation), ruin for injure, scout for elude, stove for jabbed, surround for go around, word for phrase, take off for help yourself. Tale always means an idle or malicious report.
Some highland usages that sound odd to us are really no more than the original and literal meanings, as budget for bag or parcel, hampered for shackled or jailed. When a mountain swain “carries his gal to meetin’” he is not performing so great an athletic feat as was reported by Benjamin Franklin, who said, “My father carried his wife with three children to New England” (from Pennsylvania).
A mountaineer does not throw a stone; he “flings a rock.” He sharpens tools on a grindin’-rock or whet-rock. Tomato, cabbage, molasses and baking powder are used always as plural nouns. “Pass me them molasses.” “I’ll have a few more of them cabbage.” “How many bakin’-powders has you got?”
Many other peculiar words and phrases are explained in their proper place elsewhere in this volume.
The speech of the southern highlanders is alive with quaint idioms. “I swapped hosses, and I’ll tell you fer why.” “Your name ain’t much common.” “Who got to beat?” “You think me of it in the mornin’.” “I ’low to go to town to-morrow.” “The woman’s aimin’ to go to meetin’.” “I had in head to plow to-day, but hit’s come on to rain.” “I’ve laid off and laid off to fix that fence.” “Reckon Pete was knowin’ to the sarcumstance?” “I’ll name it to Newt, if so be he’s thar.” “I knowed in reason she’d have the mullygrubs over them doin’s.” “You cain’t handily blame her.”
“Air ye plumb bereft?” “How come it was this: he done me dirt.” “I ain’t carin’ which nor whether about it.” “Sam went to Andrews or to Murphy, one.” “I tuk my fut in my hand and lit out.” “He lit a rag fer home.” “Don’t much believe the wagon ’ll come to-day.” “Tain’t powerful long to dinner, I don’t reckon.” “Phil’s Ann give it out to each and every that Walt and Layunie ’d orter wed.”
“Howdy, Tom: light and hitch.”
“Reckon I’d better git on.”
“Come in and set.”
“Cain’t stop long.”
“Oh, set down and eat you some supper!”
“Won’t ye stay the night? Looks like to me we’ll have a rainin’, windin’ spell.”
“No: I’ll haffter go down.”
“Well, come agin, and fix to stay a week.”
“You-uns come down with me.”
“Won’t go now, I guess, Tom.”
“Giddep! I’ll be back by in the mornin’.”
Rather laconic. Yet, on occasion, when the mountaineer is drawn out of his natural reserve and allows his emotions free rein, there are few educated people who can match his picturesque and pungent diction. His trick of apt phrasing is intuitive. Like an artist striking off a portrait or a caricature with a few swift strokes his characterization is quick and vivid. Whether he use quaint obsolete English or equally delightful perversions, what he says will go straight to the mark with epigrammatic force.
I cannot quit this topic
without reference to the bizarre and original place-names that sprinkle the map
Many readers of John Fox’s
novels take for granted that the author coined such piquant titles as Lonesome,
Troublesome, Hell fer Sartin, and Kingdom Come. But all of these are real names
Personal names applied to localities are common enough, but they are those of actual settlers, not of notables honored from afar (Mitchell, LeConte, Guyot, were not the highlanders’ names for those peaks). Often a surname is put to such use, as Jake’s Creek, Old Nell Knob, and Big Jonathan Run. We even have Granny’s Branch, and Daddy and Mammy creeks.
In the main it is
characteristic of our Appalachian place-names that they are descriptive or
commemorate some incident. The Shut-in is a gorge; the Suck is a whirlpool;
Pinch-gut is a narrow passage between the cliffs. Calf-killer Run is “whar a
meat-eatin’ bear was usin’,” and
The qualities of the raw
backwoodsmen are printed from untouched negatives in the names he has left upon
the map. His literalness shows in Black Rock, Standing Stone, Sharp Top, Twenty
Sometimes even his
superstitions are commemorated. In
A sardonic humor, sometimes
smudged with “that touch of grossness in our English race,” characterizes many
of the backwoods place-names. In the mountains of Old Virginia we have Dry
Tripe settlement and Jerk ’em Tight. In
Allowing some license for
the mountaineer’s irreverence, his whimsical fancies, and his scorn of
sentimentalism, it must be said that his descriptive terms are usually apposite
and sometimes felicitous. Often he is poetically imaginative, occasionally
romantic, and generally picturesque.
The writer recalls with
pleasure not only the features but the mere titles of that superb landscape
that he shared with the wild creatures and a few woodsmen when living far up on
the divide of the
Sonorous names, these, which our pioneers had the good sense to adopt from the aborigines.
To the east were Cold
Spring Knob, the Miry Ridge, Siler’s Bald, Clingman’s Dome, and the great peaks
at the head of Okona Lufty. On the west rose Brier Knob, Laurel Top,
Thunderhead, Blockhouse, the Fodder-stack, and various “balds” of the Unakas
What matter that the plenteous roughs about us were branded with rude or opprobrious names? Rip Shin Thicket, Dog-hobble Ridge, the Rough Arm, Bear-wallow, Woolly Ridge, Roaring Fork, Huggins’s Hell, the Devil’s Racepath, his Den, his Courthouse, and other playgrounds of Old Nick — they, too, were well and fitly named.
9 So also in the lowland South. An extraordinary affectation of propriety appeared in a dispatch to the Atlanta Constitution of October 29, 1912, which reported that an exhibitor of cattle at the State fair had been seriously horned by a male cow.
10 Pronounced Chee-o-ah, Chil-how-ee, Cow-ee, Cul-lo-whee, High-wah-see, Nan-tah-hay-lah, O-ko-na, Luf-ty, San-teet-lah, Tel-li-co, Tuck-a-lee-chee, Tuck-a-see-gee, Tuh-loo-lah, Tus-quit-ee, Wah-yah (explosively on last syllable), Wau-ke-chah, Yah-lah-kah (commonly Ah-lar-ka or ’Lar-ky by the settlers), You-nay-kah.