With the arrival of the vibrant fall foliage, it is time to take stock in our wonderful traditions of being a proud West Virginian. But occasionally, I get E-mails from those who like to poke a little fun at themselves. One such item relates how a Mountain State couple drove several miles down a country road, not saying a word.
An earlier discussion apparently had led to an argument and neither wanted to concede their position. As they passed a barnyard of mules and pigs, the wife sarcastically asked, “Relatives of yours?” “Yep,” the husband replied, “in-laws!”
Martha Stewart’s tips for Mountaineers go something like this: Never take a beer to a job interview; Always identify people in your yard before shooting them; It is considered tacky to take a cooler to church; If you have to vacuum the bed, it is time to change the sheets; Even if you’re certain that you are included in the will, it is still considered tacky to drive a U-Haul to the funeral home.
One part of our culture in the mountains that is ridiculed the most and understood the least is the way we talk. Contrary to what some might think, our manner of speech in the hills is to be revered most highly. It is because we in Southern West Virginia and surrounding Southern states of Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee still speak the purest form of English.
The rich dialect of the hills often has been akin to the Elizabethan English of Shakespeare, or the purest form of “Virgin English.”
Scholars who stay up nights studying that sort of thing all seem to concur that our dialect developed because of the merging of four different British dialects when America was still young.
Once European settlements began to thrive along the Atlantic coast, it did not take long before overcrowding fueled a westward migration. But because the Appalachian Mountains were rugged and tough on shoe leather, many of the Englishmen stayed on to hunt the abundant wildlife and build their homes.
Over the centuries, the Scottish, Irish, English, and German dialects merged into the tongue that it is today. And the relative isolation of the mountains for roughly 300 years has insured the quality of speech that is reminiscent of earlier times.
Life in the mountains is slow to change. We have developed laid-back habits and the way we talk is testament to this lifestyle. For instance, the hard R that we use is a product of the Irish dialect, and the way we sometimes run two or more words together, such as “jeat” instead of “did you eat” is a product of the Elizabethan English influence of Shakespeare’s time. The dialect of Appalachia, especially that of our region in Southern West Virginia, is recognizable for its distinct flattened and merged vowel sounds.
Notice, for instance, that to some speakers, the sounds of “Don” and “Dawn” are virtually the same. At the same time, some “a” and “e” sounds have traded places, like in the sounds in “fail” and “fell.”
Still, many people attribute the lack of education to the dialect of the Appalachian people. This could not be further from the truth. Our dialect is a direct result of the merging of our European ancestors when America was in its infancy. Language is a system that moves our ideas; it is a tool of communication. But when we think of what people do with it, language is much more than that. Language is part of how we create our own identity.
Even the subtle differences in pronunciation of words and phrases in our dialect are related to the cultural influences of our past. Isolated physically and culturally by our seemingly impenetrable mountains, the same narrow winding roads that limited our social and cultural horizons has also helped to maintain our sense of identity and preserve a way of life lost to the rest of the world.
When I first enrolled at Concord College, I was labeled a hillbilly apparently because of my Appalachian accent. During my first semester, my new friends who lived on my floor at the dorm all referred to me as “McDowell,” because I was born in our state’s most southern county.
I vowed to wear the appellation proudly. When I heard someone call out “Hey, McDowell,” I was barely able to contain a smile, for if ever words were music, it was when I heard myself referred to in a way that helped ease my feelings of freshman homesickness.
Then, when I became a senior at Marshall, one of my professors paid me a wonderful compliment. He told me after a class one day that I had a most beautiful accent. “Don’t ever lose it,” he said, smiling. I felt myself blush, but I knew he was sincere. I assured the scholar that I had no intentions of changing it.
The mountains have a way of keeping alive large patterns of old ways by simply isolating people. It is too bad that most educators fail to see the value of a folklore curriculum in the West Virginia’s educational system.
What is more, many state residents seem to prefer a more polished picture of the Mountain State’s rich legacy of folklore and culture than their true origin. A kind of homogenized view of the state’s history is preferable to one that simply rhapsodizes about the ragged people who settled the state.
What is happening today is that children are not having their regional culture presented to them in a positive way. So they would rather forget it. The competing mass popular culture is taking its toll. In an era of cyberspace and MTV, of Interstates and Amtrak, of cell phones and laptops, we are losing part of our psychic connection to our ancestors.
As a result, we are losing the antique speech of the mountain people, commonly called “the old tongue,” that derives from the “Old Scotch” dialects of Northern England and low-land Scotland and is found in many folk songs of West Virginia. In other words, our children are in danger of becoming culturally confused—not knowing why they speak, think, and see things the way they do.
I am not offended when people refer to West Virginians as hillbillies. So-called “hicks” exist in every state of the Union. The original hillbilly was a fiercely independent person who could live without any help from the local or federal government. As West Virginians, some of us have gotten away from our ancestors’ pride and work ethic.
Too many in our state list their employment status as being “on checks” as if it were a legitimate skilled or learned occupation. Some out-of-state folk lampoon those mountaineers who are on “disability,” especially those who have turned into full-time hunters and fishermen. Once after a high school softball game I heard one of the parents exclaim emphatically, “Why do I want to work? The government pays me nearly $2,000 a month to stay home and fish.”
A few years ago, I asked a Charleston man to pose for a photograph with a 49-pound catfish he had hauled out of the Kanawha River and he declined, saying. “Take my son’s picture, will you? I’m on disability.”
That is when I realized that we mountain folk need to have a better understanding of our regional folkways so we can relate to America’s larger conventions. If we can understand our own cultural values, we can better understand other people’s principles, beliefs, and ideals. Maybe we can become better citizens, more tolerant, more understanding, and less judgmental.
If this process is realized, we might become better critical thinkers, better creative thinkers.
The people of West Virginia have contributed much to our nation. Many of my former classmates and students have become educators, professors, researchers, physicians, attorneys, engineers, pharmacists, journalists, soldiers, and successful businesspeople.
I am proud of where I live. Nobody is going to make me ashamed or insecure about my heritage. Some college bands from neighboring states might poke fun at or lampoon our culture in the Mountain State, audiences might even guffaw at the Beverly Hillbillies—it only makes me that much prouder of the gentlest souls that God ever created.
Top o’ the morning!