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7.5: Appalachian American English (AE)

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    7.3.1 Appalachian English (AE), from Sarah Harmon

    Video Script

    Let's start talking about one of these geographic dialects that, I have to say, holds a little bit piece of my heart. Appalachian English is the English that is spoken in and around the Appalachian Mountains; think Tennessee, Kentucky, bits of the Carolinas, the southern and eastern part of Pennsylvania, and that area. It holds a place of my heart from my family but indirectly; I have three aunts and all three of the married folks from that part of the world. I remember hearing them and realizing that the way they spoke was really beautiful and, even though they downplayed how they spoke—in fact they often said, “Don't sound like me; sound like you. You're a Californian and you sound better than I do”—that basically started me down this road of trying to understand a little bit more about Appalachian English.

    Despite what you may think, it is a distinct dialect from what you speak if you go into the Delta or the Gulf area, think of Alabama, Mississippi and that area. It is different than in the Ozarks; think Southwest Missouri, Arkansas, northeast Texas, and that area. It is different than what you speak in the Plains region; think Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, and that area. It is different also from Midwest English; think Indiana, Ohio, and even parts of Illinois and Michigan.

    Appalachian English is truly unique, and it is also really well studied; in fact, it is one of the best studied dialects in the United States. I don't just mean recently; I mean historically. We have about 100 years of data and analysis on this dialect alone. That's why I want to focus on it, and hopefully either you are interested in it, or it makes you interested in a different dialect for the same reasons that I love it.

    I love starting off with this little graphic.

    Pittsburghese poster

    There have been many versions of this in Pittsburgh; they're very proud of their cultural background, and of course it's very tied to the Appalachians. In many ways, Pittsburgh is the northern tip of where the Appalachian dialect starts, and it pretty much goes south and east from there. They are so proud of it; they have all sorts of souvenirs with Pittsburghese graphics. What it reminds me of mostly is how unique Appalachian English is, so let's take a closer look at it.

    Let's start with the phonology and build up. When we talk about Appalachian English, the big difference with the phonetics is the vowels. This is a theme you're going to hear with respect to English: English vowels are very different across the different dialects. The consonants don't change too much, although we will see some changes, but most especially it's the vowels that suffer or change from one dialect to another. In the case of Appalachian English, we have a modification of all vowels—not just front vowels or back vowels, not just high vowels are low vowels, but all vowels. A lot of times it has to do with going from tense to lax—if you think about the [i] in pinch and pinch it's not an [i], but an [ɪ]. In Appalachian English, it's going to go high, it’s going to tense up: [pʰiɲtʃ]. Instead of [tʰɛn], like the number ten, it's going to be [tʰin]. Think [θiŋk] becomes [θæŋk]; rather [ɹæðɹ̩] becomes [ɹʊðɹ̩], and push [pʊʃ] becomes [puʃ]. You modify the vows, you making them more tense, most of the time, but you're also moving them higher or lower more front or more back, and it just kind of gets jumbled up.

    Before you think that this is just random, know this is actually historical. Appalachian English, in many ways, has fossilized aspects of the language that was brought over by the colonizers of that area of that time. Most of those colonizers came from a couple different spots within England, and so they neutralize those two dialects, and then it gets fossilized because they're isolated within the Appalachian region. In many ways, what we see here with the vowels represents a lot of the sounds that we heard; if we have that magic time machine and we could travel back to when English settlers first came to the Appalachian Mountains.

    We also have metathesis. If you recall when we talked about that, I said that the verb ask actually started off life as [æks] or [æksian]. We see it here in Appalachian English; it's kept, but it is not the only area that we see metastasis we actually see it in a lot of cases when we have r’s and l’s. For linguists, that's not uncommon; r’s and l's, or approximates if you will do funny things in all languages and even across dialects. In fact, whatever your native language is, whether it's English or something else, I guarantee you the approximates have changed over time and they change from one dialect to another. Here, instead of [æskt] it's [ækst]. Instead of [pɹivel], it's [pʌɹvel]. Instead of [ælbəm], it's [æbləm].

    We also have syllable initial stress in Appalachian English. If you think about Standard or Mainstream American English, you realize that sometimes it's the first syllable that is stressed, and other times it's not. But with Appalachian English, there's a real pull to make sure that that the primary stress syllable. You say these terms as: Détroit, cigar, directly, Nóvember.

    For some of you, that just might sound like ‘Hillbilly talk’, or like I’m making fun of them. However, this is truly Appalachian English as its core. All of these three phonological processes are not unique to Appalachian English, and we certainly hear them in other dialects in the region, African American English Vernacular as one example. But these are characteristics that have a long history of documentation, at least with respect to American dialectology.

    Let's move from phonology to morphology. When we talk about morphology, it's not just the pieces coming together; it's actually the morphology and syntax coming together. We have an a- prefix; this is something that happens in a few dialects of English and it's actually a preservation of something we saw in old English. When I was living in Texas, I certainly heard it down there. He came a-running. I knew he was a-telling the truth. I was a-washing one day. These are way to mark that something is in progress and frequently has an emphatic element to it.

    A number of the irregular past tenses that are frequently connected to umlaut—that change of vowel that signifies that there's an inflection—remain in Appalachian English. Many of these irregular past tense forms have been changed over in Mainstream American English and many other dialects of English, to have the common -ed inflection. However, in Appalachian English there are fewer that have; quite a few that have remained: climbed for them is still clumb, heated is still hit, raked is still ruck, and dragged is still drug.

    We also have a series of double modal verbs, meaning you use two different models—a type of auxiliary verb like must, do or did, can or could, will or would—and they can have multiple roles. Frequently this is connected to something that we call aspect, what we talked about when we talked about deixis. We're connecting two different types of aspect and again there's some history. In this case, it is connected to some things that we used to do in Old English that in a number of the dialects in more remote areas of England, they were still doing into the early 20th century.

    Multiple negation is also something that we frequently do in Appalachian English. Realistically, when we talk about multiple negation, we need to remind ourselves that Mainstream American English and higher, more prestigious dialects of English have poo-pooed the idea of multiple negation. The reality is that it exists in many dialects, not just of English, but throughout the world. Certainly, if you have ever learned a Romance language or a Celtic language or many other Indo-European languages, you know that multiple negation is a common thing; it's actually a very common thing in the world languages.

    Overarchingly, when we talk about Appalachian English, there are these are the seven key areas that we need to focus on. Combined along with the lexical differences, they helped to create a different dialect. In an upcoming journal assignment, you will be listening to a little bit of Appalachian English. At first it will be difficult to understand, but realize that it is English, and when they slow down, you can understand them. There might be differences and certainly it does not sound like what we say here in California, or even in mainstream English. But it is English, it is an American dialect of English, and we can understand it pretty well.

    7.5: Appalachian American English (AE) is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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