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Wednesday, 28 June 2006 00:00

Purt, nigh Lizabethan

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I’m no expert on regional linguistics, but through the years I’ve delighted in the dialect English still spoken here in the Smokies region. One sometimes hears or reads that it dates back to the Elizabethan era — that is, to the second half of the 16th century, when Shakespeare appeared on the literary scene — or even earlier.

On the other hand, Western Carolina University historian Tyler Blethen, who has studied the Scots-Irish movement from England to Ireland to North America and into the southern mountains, once advised me that the language dates more or less back to the Plantation of Ulster era—that is, from about 1620 to 1715 when Scots were settled in northern Ireland in great numbers.

Whatever its sources, the language is rich in dialect words and expressions. These are used to express a wide range of emotions and insights that can be insightful, mournful, blasphemous or humorous. To a certain extent, the dialect language still spoken here is fading due to the onslaught of outsiders and the media, but it still survives in various coves and hollers, coffee and barber shops, or wherever you might, by chance, overhear someone local speaking naturally. Some of the boys and girls (now men and women) that I’ve known here in Swain County for over 30 years are bilingual in the sense that they still speak the dialect language they learned as a child — but they can also switch over, if need be, to the language imposed on them in high school, college, and the modern-day work place.

Various regional historians, folklorists and authors have taken a particular interest in dialect expressions. Here are some of the words and/or expressions they recorded.

Under the heading Elizabethan English in his Western North Carolina: A History, 1730-1913 (1914), Western North Carolina historian John P. Arthur noted that “writers who think they know, have said that our people have been sequestered in these mountains so long that they speak the language of Shakespeare and of Chaucer. It is certain that we sometimes say ‘hit’ for ‘it’ and ‘taken’ for ‘took’; that we also say ‘plague’ for ‘tease,’ and when we are ‘willing,’ we say we are ‘consentable.’ If invited to accompany anyone and wish to do so, we almost invariably say, ‘I wouldn’t care to go along,’ meaning ‘we do not object.’ We also say ‘haint’ for ‘am not,’ ‘are not,’ and ‘have not,’ and we invite you to ‘light’ if you are riding or driving ... We have Webster for our authority that ‘hit’ is the Saxon for ‘it’; and we know ourselves that ‘taken’ is more regular that ‘took’ ... We may ‘mend,’ not ‘improve’; and who shall say that our ‘mend’ is not a simpler, sweeter and more significant word than ‘improve’?

But we do mispronounce many words, among which is ‘gardeen’ for ‘guardian’ and ‘pint’ for ‘point.’ The late Sam Lovin of Graham County was told that it was improper to say Rocky ‘Pint,’ as its true name is ‘Point.’ When next he went to Asheville he asked for a ‘point’ of whiskey ... Finally, most of us are of the opinion of the late Andrew Jackson, who thought that one who could spell a word in only one way, was a ‘mighty poor excuse for a full grown man.’”

East Tennessee native folklorist Paul Fink published a little dictionary titled Bits of Mountain Speech (1974) that used expressions to illustrate how each word was used. Here are some of his entries:

“Aidge = edge ... ‘He lived on the aidge of the cliff.’”

“Argufy = to argue ... ‘They’d argufy all night.’”

“Beal = to fester, as an abscess ... ‘I had a bealed ear.’”

“Bodaciously = completely, totally ... ‘I’m most bodaciously wore out.’”

“Coon = climb or crawl ... ‘I cooned up a tree.’”

“Cuss-fight = interchange of profanity.” “Dotey = aged or senile ... ‘He’s got plumb dotey.’” “Galack = to gather galax ... ‘They are going galacking.’”

“Jedgematically = in my judgment ... ‘Jedgematically, he’ll come tomorrow.’

“Purt’ nigh = almost, very close ... ‘I purt’ nigh fell in.’”

“Sing coarse = sing bass ... ‘He sings coarse at meeting.’

“Slauchwise = diagonally ... ‘The fence come up the hill slaunchwise.’”

“Yan or overyan = yonder ... ‘They live overyan in Tennessee.’”

Prior to his death in 1985, Cratis Williams was a pioneer of the Appalachian studies movement. Born in 1911 in a log cabin on Caines Creek in Lawrence County, Ken., Williams was schooled at home in the traditional stories and ballads. After becoming the first person from Caines Creek to attend and graduate from the county high school, he taught in one-room schools while pursuing his own education. He earned both a bachelor’s and master’s degree from the University of Kentucky before moving to Appalachian State Teacher’s College in 1942. Later he earned a Ph.D. from New York University and then returned to Appalachian State. To use his own terms, he was “a complete mountaineer.” Here are a few of the dialect words that appeared in his Southern Mountain Speech, which was published posthumously in 1992:

“agg up = egg on (encourage a fight)”

“airish = breezy”

“anti-godlin = lop-sided or crooked”

“aye-gonies = mild expletive based on ‘I’ll bet guineas’ (money)”

“begommed = made a mess of”

“benasty = to soil one’s self”

“biffed = hit”

“big-eye = insomnia”

“biggety = conceited”

“blinky = sour milk”

“blowth = mass of blossoms in the wind”

Most of the dialect words and expressions collected by Arthur and Fink, who lived here in the Smokies region, are ones that I have heard. Many of those collected by Williams in eastern Kentucky are ones that I’ve not heard. It seems obvious, then, that within the broad linguistic category known as Southern Mountain Speech there are various regional subsets. I would even bet that words and expressions used in, say, Graham County over in far southwestern North Carolina, were not used in, say, Avery County up in far northwestern North Carolina.

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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