Combatting Stereotypes about Appalachian Dialects.

Kirk Hazen, professor of linguistics at West Virginia University (i.e., he’s not some bloviating amateur), has a good piece at The Conversation on “the hillbilly problem”:

Many qualities come prepackaged with the hillbilly stereotype: poverty, backwardness and low levels of education. One of the most prevalent is the idea that the way the people of Appalachia speak – the so-called Appalachian dialect – is somehow incorrect or malformed.

From years of research, linguists understand that this perception is simply untrue. But few people are actually interested in discrediting it.

In 1998, I founded the West Virginia Dialect Project to conduct research on the different and changing dialects of West Virginia, a state wholly contained within Appalachia. The language variations that we have identified are far more nuanced than the kind that appear in the media.

He discusses the “frozen in time” myth (which goes back to an 1899 article by Berea College President William Goodell Frost) and goes on to an interesting feature of the dialect, the “leveled ‘was’”:

One pattern of language variation that has existed in English since its beginning in A.D. 449 is the fluctuation between “were” and “was.” The variation of “we was” and “we were” is widespread in English today, and linguists call the “we was” form “leveled” because the same form is used for every subject.

In West Virginia in the early 1970s, the usage rate of the leveled “was” hovered around 70 percent in the speech of the residents of Mercer and Monroe counties. However, looking across generations at the end of the 20th century, usage rates of the leveled “was” declined. Fifty-four percent for speakers born before 1947 used it, while only 8 percent of speakers born after 1980 did so.

The story is actually more complex: the leveled “was” can be used as a social flag, waving to show a person’s rural identity or in-group status. Plus, certain related forms, such as contracted “was” (“We’s out late last night”) aren’t declining, but seem to operate under the radar of social evaluation.

He says “There’s no monolithic ‘Appalachian dialect,’ and language variation – an important component of language everywhere – is just as diverse within Appalachia as it is outside of the region,” discusses the stereotypes, and ends with a hopeful account of dialect-focused projects that are attempting to fight them. As I said at MetaFilter, where I found the link, “The Appalachian dialect is quite similar to the Ozark dialect of my (father’s) people, so I bristle in solidarity when people mock it and its speakers.”


  1. Jim Parish says

    I remember, when I was taking phonetics at UCSB – must have been ’76 – our instructor brought in speakers of various languages and English dialects for us to train our ears on. One of the speakers was from Appalachia, and the instructor warned us ahead of time, quite sternly, not to show any sign of mockery. I think we followed instructions, but it’s sad that they had to be given.

  2. “Leveled was” was common among New England speakers, as well.

  3. Speakers in Britain who follow the Northern Subject Rule also level the past of be, though typically to were.

  4. I once read an answer on Quora in which the writer said that he ‘loved the English language’ but despised his native dialect, which was Appalachian. Although he admitted that when he returned home he occasionally used expressions like ‘acrorst the creek’ to fit in with local friends, he had made unrelenting efforts to expunge the language of his youth from his speech.

    I was rather saddened by his attitude. The man was very much a prescriptivist, but it seemed to me truly appalling that someone who purports to love English can have such loathing for one particular variety. Standard English is wonderful in the right hands, but professing to love it while rejecting the soil that it grows in seems to me a misguided attitude.

  5. Unfortunately, I’m sure he was taught from an early age that his native dialect was wrong and bad, and the only path to success and being seen as a real person/American was to get rid of it. Hard to resist that imprinting.

  6. For public consumption, in order to be taken seriously, I changed my accent into something that’s been called almost Mid-Atlantic (in the old-movie sense). I didn’t do this deliberately, but I think I must have been felt an obscure motivation that if the Yankees wouldn’t let me speak my own language, I’d be damned if I’d talk like them. I also retained, or recovered, with some effort, the ability to speak home language when appropriate.


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