Appalachian language and other myths about the region

September 12, 2018 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: grammar, history, journalism, writing.

You’ve probably heard this rural legend (as opposed to urban legend): The people of Appalachia speak a dialect of English that harkens back to the English of Chaucer; it’s older even than the English of Shakespeare.

No, they don’t.

Just as everyone else’s English has done, the English of rural Appalachia has constantly evolved and is the product of multiple influences.

That’s the argument that Chi Luu, a computational linguist, makes in an interesting and arresting article in JSTOR Daily: The Legendary Language of the Appalachian “Holler” | JSTOR Daily

Language has an important place in the folklore of Appalachia and has evolved to become something quite different from its original linguistic sources. It’s one of the ways Appalachian communities show solidarity and belonging. Language lovers may marvel at this unique linguistic quilt, a thing of threads and patches, that extends across a region that often seems to have little else going for it. But in some ways, the folksiness, the romanticized hearkening back to the past, holds the region back from telling a more nuanced story about itself, where it came from, and where it might be going.

Luu posits that Appalachia should be recognized for its diversity — cultural as well as linguistic — rather than being thought of as fiercely and exclusively white descendants of Scots-Irish stock. Movement in and out of Appalachia was just as prevalent as in any other part of the country.

We may think of Appalachia as poor, rural, white, backward, and uneducated (and, in today’s political climate, angry). But to do so makes us the fools rather than the people of this fascinating region. Or, as Luu puts it:

So the theory of the poor, white, rural Appalachian mountain men going it alone, preserving a pure and unchanging strain of archaic British English, isolated in a hardscrabble place far from civilization, could not be further from the truth. Without the influence of diverse communities of other Appalachians such as African American Appalachians, the southern Appalachian speech and culture simply would not be what it is today. To ignore their contributions to culture and language means Appalachia will always be a distant story, burdened by the myths and legends written by others, left half told.


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