Everyone who speaks at all speaks a dialect, and the major languages occur in countless variations around the world. West Virginians participate in many dialects, with some variant of what is often called Appalachian English being heard in much of the state. While it is not spoken in all places nor by all West Virginians, this is what people think of when they think of a West Virginia dialect.
Dialect refers to the spoken language, and involves matters of pronunciation, accent, vocabulary, and grammar. Dialect may color one’s writing, as regards the choice of words and form of expression, but often individuals exhibiting a rich spoken dialect express themselves in writing in the form known as Standard English. This has to do with the already substantial differences in written and spoken language, and the fact that written language is learned within the formal environment of schools while speech is absorbed within the intimacy of family and community.
As with other matters of culture, dialect differs in different parts of West Virginia. As a general rule, our language changes from south to north, in a fan-shaped progression from the southern coalfields to the two panhandles. Appalachian English is strongest in the southern part of the state and the rural interior counties, while many northern West Virginians exhibit speech patterns common in the Northern states.
Thus, parts of West Virginia share the language of surrounding areas outside the state’s boundaries. The dialect of the southernmost counties of McDowell and Mingo, for example, is essentially the same as that spoken in the neighboring Central Appalachian counties of southwest Virginia and eastern Kentucky. Many West Virginians of the Potomac Highlands and Eastern Panhandle speak a dialect influenced by the nearby Shenandoah Valley and, increasingly, the Washington metropolitan area. The Northern Panhandle and north-central counties share speech characteristics of the neighboring Pittsburgh area.
While Appalachian English is heard in much of West Virginia, it is not universal. Many West Virginians were born outside the state and others outside the country. These citizens may speak other dialects of English, or indeed other languages. Some West Virginians have lost their native dialect intentionally or through acculturation. Those living in the state’s cities and suburbs may exhibit no regional dialect at all. Speech varies with educational levels, and some individuals slip in and out of dialect at will. Scholars note, however, that educated speakers tend to observe standard grammar even while drawing vocabulary from the dialect. Accent may change with educational attainment but is unlikely to change completely.
Language differences persist over long periods, and West Virginia’s spoken language continues to be influenced by early settlement patterns. Research suggests that the grammar of Appalachian English derives most directly from Scotland and Northern Ireland, while its pronunciation relates to that of southern England. The Scotch-Irish predominated in the settlement of much of Western Virginia, and certain elements characteristic of Scotch-Irish speech persist to the present: A-prefixing is common among the Scotch-Irish, for example, as in ‘‘a-hunting’’ or ‘‘a-going,’’ and also common among speakers of Appalachian English. The speech of other areas of the state was influenced by other ethnic groups, including Germans in the Eastern Panhandle and Potomac Highlands.
African-Americans were also among Western Virginia’s early settlers, and their numbers increased with later industrialization. They contributed to the language by their direct vocal presence and through their indirect influence in the Southern dialect which in turn influences the language of much of West Virginia. Both black and white speakers of Appalachian and Southern English give a single-vowel sound to such words as mine, mile, and hide, for example, while Northern pronunciation of such words tends to have a two-vowel sound: mine (my-een), mile (my-el), and hide (hy-eed).
Also contributing were the immigrants who came to West Virginia’s mines and factories in the 19th and early 20th centuries. These included large numbers of Italians and other newcomers from southern and eastern Europe. The process continues today as foreigners emigrate to West Virginia and other migrants arrive from other places in America. It is likely that this process happens less rapidly here than in some parts of the country, however, given the slow rate of growth and the relative homogeneity of the state population. Generally speaking, research suggests relatively few contributions to the traditional speech of the mountain South from languages other than English.
Although dialects persist, one must not think of language as static. For example, the once-common notion that Elizabethan English or other archaic versions of the language survived in Appalachia is incorrect. Even had the region been settled in the Elizabethan era, which it was not, and had it remained perfectly isolated, the language would have evolved over the centuries even within the insular region. In fact, language changes both within groups and as outside influences come into play.
Speech is an intimately identifying characteristic, deeply personal and at the same time necessarily public. It is a marker that sets one apart, and like such markers as skin color or religious practice it may be subject to hurtful attention. Mountain people are sometimes negatively stereotyped as regards their dialect and other real or ascribed cultural characteristics. Other regions suffer similar aspersions, including the Deep South, the ‘‘Down East’’ section of Maine, and certain boroughs of New York City. Individuals respond differently, some reacting defensively with others finding a source of pride in the comforting language of home.
Last Revised on July 16, 2012
Montgomery, Michael B. & Joseph S. Hall. Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2004.
Williams, Cratis D. Southern Mountain Speech. Berea, KY: Berea College Press, 1992.
Wolfram, Walt & Donn Christian. Appalachian Speech. Arlington, VA: Center for Applied Linguistics, 1976.