Dialect of the southern highlandsWritten by George Ellison
I’m no expert on regional linguistics, but through the years I have 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.
On the other hand, retired 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 in great detail, told me he thinks 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 mournful or humorous. To a great extent, the dialect language spoken here is fading due to outside influences, but it still survives in various coves and hollers, coffee and barber shops, or wherever you might, by chance, overhear someone local speaking naturally.
Three mountain historians — John Preston Arthur, Horace Kephart and Paul Fink — have taken a particular interest in dialect expressions. Here are some of their observations, as well as words or expressions they recorded.
Under the heading “Elizabethan English” in Western North Carolina: A History, 1730-1913 (1914), 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 than ‘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.”
Swain County resident Horace Kephart, author of Our Southern Highlanders (1913), recorded dialect expressions he heard from 1904 until his death in 1931 in extensive journals now housed at WCU. Here are some uses of the word “law” for “lord” that he overheard:
“A - law!”
(P) When disappointed folks would say:
“Dod burn hit!”
East Tennessee historian 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 (n): edge … ‘He lived on the aidge of the cliff.’”
“Argufy (v): to argue … ‘They’d argufy all night.’”
“Beal (v): to fester, as an abscess … ‘I had a bealed ear.’”
“Coon (v): climb or crawl … ‘I cooned up a tree.’”
“Cuss-fight (n): interchange of profanity.”
“Purt’ nigh (adv): almost, very close … ‘I purt’ nigh fell in.’”