Though its speakers are aging and fast declining in number, there are still places in West Virginia where you can hear people speak in what’s known as the Southern Mountain Dialect, more often called Appalachian Speech.
Wylene P. Dial was one of several authorities on the matter and studied it after she arrived in West Virginia in 1945 to attend Marshall University. She became enamored and was lucky to have been able to listen to the dialect as it was spoken in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s—before radio and television helped erode much of its pure form.
Though it was often mocked as uncouth, Dial defended it as well preserved. Isolated by the mountains, its speakers employed a form of speech that had not evolved as quickly as had speech in the open lands beyond.
“People from outside Appalachia frequently think the folk speech sounds strange or even downright uncultured,” Dial wrote in 1980 for the collection “Mountain Heritage.”
“This is because they don’t realize that what they are hearing is antique English. In the days of the first Queen Elizabeth, the highest-ranking nobles of the realms of England and Scotland employed many of the same words, expressions, and grammatical forms that can be heard today on the lips of living West Virginians.”
Thankfully, Dial collected many samples, examples of which can still be heard today in isolated areas, most particularly in the state’s southern mountains.
“All of the following samples are at least Elizabethan,” she wrote, “and many are considerably older.”
a sight of – a lot of. “There was a sight of folks come to the funeral.”
all fire and tow – said of a high-tempered person. “Man! She’s all fire and tow!”
brickle – brittle. “She’s not very work-brickle.” (She’s not a very good worker.)
board – table. “The food’s on the board.”
bum – the buttocks. “She’s getting so fat she’s a regular fatty-bum.”
clean – completely. “I clean forgot.”
fox fire – the phosphorescent light emitted by decaying timber.
heard tell – “I heard tell of that two weeks ago.”
fit – “Them two fellers fit for nigh onto an hour.”
git shed of – get rid of. “I cain’t git shed of these old cats nohow.”
least – smallest. “He’s my least ‘un.” (My smallest child.)
pair of beads – a string of beads.
plumb – shows degree. “He lives plumb to the head of the holler.”
poke – a paper bag. “Be sure to put my groceries in a poke.”
pearl – feeling well; to be sprightly or lively. (Not the same word as pert.) “Mamaw’s feelin’ right pearl today.”
press – a clothes closet or wardrobe. “Hang my clothes in the press.”
quietus – death, or something that quiets or oppresses. “There, that’ll put the quietus on him!”
right – very. “I’m getting right hungry.”
smouch – to kiss. Another old word meaning the same thing is buss.
tole – to lure. “Get an ear of corn, and tole the cow into the shed.”
“There is a Scottish flavoring to the dialect,” Dial pointed out, “because of the predominantly Scotch-Irish heritage of the region, and pronunciations such as whaur (where), daur (dare), deestrict schools (district schools), Commeesioner of Agriculture (Commissioner of Agriculture), feesh, eetch, and deesh (fish, itch, and dish), poosh and boosh (push and bush) and the like abound, and so, of course, do Scottish words. Backset, flinders, haet, inguns, skift, and how soon are all of Scots extraction.”
So are other very old words, she noted, such as—
again (frequently written “agin”) – means against. “I’m again the whole durn thing.”
craps – crops. “This hail won’t do the craps any good.”
drag – drop. “I’ve sware off-I haven’t touched a drap all month.
handwrite – handwriting. “It was right there in his own handwrite.”
let on – pretend. “You let on like you don’t know nothin’ about it.
my lone – “I’ve been sitting here all by my lone the live long day.”
residenter – a resident, usually one who has resided in a locality for a long time.
skutching – a whipping. “He give me a proper skutching.” This is used in other parts of Britain as well.
Dial also noted that Southern Mountain Dialect, as it is known by linguists, has a distinctly masculine flavor—robust and virile.
“It is spoken by a red-blooded people who have colorful phraseology born in their bones, and who are undoubtedly the best talkers in the world.”
“Their conversation abounds with such gems as, ‘Awkard? That gal was eighteen afore she could walk and chew gum at the same time!’ and ‘We went so fast we burned the wind.’
“Aunt Jenny Wilson said to me, ‘Gini, I want you to look at that feller. You could take his face and a jug of buttermilk and standoff judgment thirty days!’ And a doctor from Philippi told me of an old gentleman who used to say, gently, ‘She can’t help bein’ ugly, but she could stay home!’ ”
Tale of Big John’s ghost among West Virginia’s best-known coal mining legends
If you’ve ever had the opportunity to descend into a coal mine, you’ll likely come away with a sense of the absolute darkness that exists hundreds of feet beneath the surface. It’s not the kind of place you’d want to meet a ghost, but according to the legend, that’s exactly what happened to one miner. Read the story.