The Appalachian Accent

It’s Aloha Friday over at An Island Life. Time to post a fun question for you, and be sure to check out the other participants at the link above. My question for today:

What is one tidbit of your family history?

Here is my answer, and I’d love to hear from you…

My dad was proud to a “hillbilly” from West Virginia and quite enjoyed referring to himself as such. He loved his native state and often spoke (in his southern drawl) of Appalachia’s rugged mountains and rivers (and cricks and hollers). And can you believe he had my oldest sister baptized all swaddled up in the Confederate flag? Growing up (in Arizona and then Michigan), I never knew anyone else from West Virginia and hadn’t met my dad’s relatives. So I never made one particular connection – I had no idea he had an Appalachian accent.

I was about 22. My dad had already died (cancer), and I was on a college trip to rural Appalachia with Habitat for Humanity. We were deep in the hills of Tennessee, and an older local gentleman who was helping our crew stopped to ask me a question. That moment is still vivid in my memory, because out of his mouth seemed to come my dad’s voice. Only then did I have the revelation. My dad was not the only person to speak with his peculiar dialect – he was one of many and belonged to a people that I suddenly felt connected to.

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35 Responses to The Appalachian Accent

  1. kailani says:

    It’s kind of sad that I don’t know more about my family’s history. The only thing I can come up with is that my grandparents worked on the plantations when they first arrived in Hawaii.

  2. Megan says:

    This isn’t exactly family history, but here goes…
    I was raised in a very devout Catholic family. My father was a Deacon (preacher) and my cousins were alter boys. My aunt often did the readings and my uncle collected the money. Almost every Sunday my grandfather would preach and sometimes inside his words, the stories he told, I became closer to my family than I ever had been sitting around the dining room table, or opening Christmas presents around the tree.

  3. Jen says:

    Kailani, that’s a great tidbit! I’ll bet if you dig around, you’ll find some very interesting stories about your grandparents’ plantation days.

    Megan, I think your story definitely qualifies as family history. Very moving, and a tribute to the binding power of fellowship and story.

  4. Anne says:

    My great great great grandmother was cherokee indian

  5. SmallWorld says:

    I love that story. That reminds me of when I was about 12 (I grew up in NY) and my grandmother from Southern Illinois came to visit. After she left, my friend said, “Now I know where you get your accent from!” I didn’t even know I HAD an accent!
    Oh, and if you ever want to get in touch with your roots, come visit me here in the hills of TN! I can take you back in the mountains for a good dose of your ancestry!

  6. Funny–my mom’s family and my dad’s cousin’s wife’s family are from that area. The accent didn’t stick in my mom’s family but in my cousins, boy did it ever.

  7. Jen says:

    Anne, oh, I’m sure there are some stories in your family. I was just reading about the “Trail of Tears.”

    SmallWorld, that’s funny! We never recognize our own speech patterns! And I forgot you’re in Tennessee – do your kids have a southern accent?

    Heather, see, I told you we’re related!

  8. Jendi says:

    My dad’s mother was one of a kind. She snuck out of her parent’s house, married her soldier, and snuck back home. He left the next day and the family didn’t know until later. Then they had 3 boys together before he was crushed under a water tower that collapsed. She did remarry – had to in those days to raise 3 young boys. She talked of her first husband the rest of her life.

    There’s lots more, but you said “a tidbit.” LOL.

  9. e-Mom says:

    My husband’s family were from those parts too. Warm people. My MIL always seems to put an extra “r” in “Warshington.” :~D

    My family history? Well, we’re from British stock. Can you imagine the clash between the formality of the (Canadian) Brits and the informality of the (American) Appalacian hillbillies? Except for Christ, there’s a great divide!!! (I’m exaggerating the differences of course.)

    Have a wonderful weekend. :~D

  10. C Duran says:

    Most all of my ancestors are German (but here in the US for about 3-4 generations). My parents grew up on farms about 4 miles apart from each other in a very German community in central Minnesota. One thing I didn’t know is that my oldest aunt on my Mom’s side only spoke German until she went to kindergarten. After that my grandparents wouldn’t speak it to her any more because they were afraid she wouldn’t learn English well, and now she can’t speak it at all, which is kind of sad.

  11. Jen says:

    Jendi, wow, definitely one of a kind lady! What a bittersweet story. There must be much more…did she keep a diary?

    e-Mom, quite a divide. My own parents were a little bit like “North and South.” The extra “r” – I know it well. And the stress on the first syllable of every noun. DEtroit, POlice, CEment.

  12. mrs darling says:

    This story is beautiful!

    How amazing about the baptism. What story to pass through the geneeations!

  13. Jen says:

    C Duran, I’m sad for her, too! I think it’s important to retain cultural heritage and language is the anchor of that. I understand the whole “melting pot” and assimilation theories, but there’s got to be a nice balance. What happened throughout the early waves of immigration to the U.S. is very regretful.

  14. Jen says:

    Mrs. Darling, thank you. I started out writing a little piece about my dad’s insistence on being “Scots-Irish” – not Scottish, not Irish. But then remembered that moment in Tennessee and had to tell that story instead.

    As for my oldest sister, she thankfully isn’t horrified about being baptized in the Confederate flag; had it been one of my other sisters, well, she would have cursed the moment! What the neighbors must have thought. “White-trash hillbillies.” That flag hung in a window in our run-down house for many years.

  15. Natasha says:

    I myself am from Wva and am told even down here in NC that I have a thick accent. I LOVED growing up in Wva even though we were dirt poor I never noticed. I miss hearing the whipperwills, spring peepers catching lightening bugs. Being able to be out most of the night in the summer time playing hide and go seek streching down through 6 yards. Walking the pipeline and playing in the woods for hours and of course swimming in the river and our rope swing tide to a big tree overhanging the swimming hole. Standing on a swinging bridge and throwing rocks into the creek below. It was the childhood I wish my children could have.

    Both sides of my family have strong native american roots although to look at me you’d never know, I have fairish skin and freckles but dark hair. Wva gets alot of bad terms but I am proud to be a mountaineer, hillbilly, hilljack :)
    Thank You for stopping by my website.

  16. Deborah says:

    My father’s side of the family comes from the hills of Tennessee, too! My mother’s side of the family can be traced back to the Duke of Lancaster in England!

  17. Jen says:

    Natasha, awesome, the first West Virginian to check in on this post! I love your memories and I’m glad you’re proud of your heritage. I was somewhere in Kentucky the first time I ever saw a lightning bug. West Virginia has more than her fair share of fun poked at her. But what is “walking the pipeline?” And I didn’t know about the term “hilljack.” :-)

    Deborah, hey, sounds like my family! My mother’s side has been traced way, way back in England, and probably a bit of royalty throw in somewhere. I have an amazing cousin who traveled to England and tracked down family gravestones dating back to the 1600s.

  18. Sher :) says:

    Hummm…I don’t know much about my family history, but I do know my mom’s side of the family lived in LB, California, which is where I was born. I’m not sure how far back it was that they moved to California.
    My dad’s side of the family come from Kansas and I’ve never even been there. Not too exciting. *lol*
    Thanks for stopping by.

  19. Great stories & histories here. Here’s one from my family:

    My grandpa (Dad’s side) was tending his father’s general store in the 1920s when a man attempted to rob the place. Not following the golden rule of “just let him take the money,” my future grandpa pulled a gun out from under the till. Not the best move. The thief shot him first, and my grandpa was shot in the head.

    The amazing thing is that he survived & thrived. Legend has it that the same thief later sat next to my grandpa in a bar. My grandpa recognized him and confronted him. The thief replied, “I paid my debt.” He, of course, was later caught again after additional crimes.

  20. Dave Tabler says:

    e-Mom: My Dad’s from West Virginia and my Mother’s from Chicago, so I’m guessing that makes me a Hillbilly City Slicker?

    When I was a little boy I spent a ton of time sitting around my [paternal] grandparents’ kitchen table. Their best friend Miss Hattie was always telling tall tales from the hills, though I didn’t identify them as such till years later. I’ve tried to capture a bit of that flavor in my Appalachian History blog. Y’all come by!

  21. Thank you for sharing about your Dad. I’m sorry to know that you lost your Dad because of cancer.

    My mother has a large family. In fact, she has 10 siblings. I have 28 first cousins on my mother’s side.

  22. e-Mom says:

    This was a fun read. Loved all the comments. Thanks, Dave for your remark! Yes, Jen the emphasis on the first syllable… ICE cream.

    One more thing that comes to mind. We just discovered French roots on my FIL’s side of the family. (Oui, oui.) Evidently there’s a ruined family chateau somewhere in Northern France that’s in dire need of repair.

    Our business is “flipping” houses. We joke about contacting HG-TV to shoot one of those segments where the couple stand in front of their dilapitated building and say, “We’re Mr. and Mrs. so and so… and this is our flip!”

  23. Jen says:

    Sher, I’m sorry you don’t have more info. on your family history. But, I know a lot of people who simply aren’t very interested in the subject, and that’s okay, too. California and Kansas both have great dirt farmers. :-)

    Rob, what a story. Your grandfather was one lucky guy. He’s got guts, too – I can’t believe he confronted the guy years later, knowing the thief’s history of stealing and shooting people!

    Dave, I love it – Hillbilly City Slicker! I have an Aunt Hattie from West Virginia, my dad’s sister. She lives in Florida now and is a very old lady. Those tall tales from the hills – I think I’ve heard a few from my dad. I checked out your site and it looks wonderful, I’ll be back.

    Rach, well, my dad smoked heavily his entire life, so dying of lung cancer is what can happen. Sad. I can’t imagine what your family reunions must look like! 28 first cousins! And that’s just on your mother’s side. Do you have a large family yourself?

    e-Mom, no joke, go renovate it!! That ruined chateau is just waiting for you. :-)

  24. my grandfather was once taken in by a native-american family after he wondered away from his own family at a fair type event when he was a toddler. they changed his clothes and dressed him in traditional indian attire. when he was found, he was given the mocassins to keep. my mother has them. someday, when i can get a picture of them, i’ll write a post about it.

  25. JHS says:

    Thanks for contributing this post to this week’s Carnival of Family Life, hosted at Intensive Care for the Nurturer’s Soul! The Carnival will be live on March 31, 2008, so make sure you stop by and check out all of the other wonderful posts included in this week’s edition!

  26. Tipper says:

    Just stumbled onto your blog and loved the post. I am one of those Appalachians with a strong accent and think it is precious how you worded the part about the mans voice reminding you of your Dad.

  27. Christine says:

    When I was about 12, my family found out my grandfater was adopted when he was only 1. His older sister through searching out her geneology found him, and we all found out we are related to John Alden from the Mayflower.

    Love your blog BTW! Looking forward to reading your upcoming article for the Strawberry filled party!

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  29. Jimmy says:

    To the person who’s father insisted he was “scots irish”…You may already know but just in case u don’t…he’s refering to the “Ulster Scots” of Northern Ireland. Ulster protestants. The came en masse to the colonies in the mid 1700s before the Revolution. They settled in the hills of Appalachia mainly to be away from the English who settled along the coastal areas. They were in fact the backbone of the Revolution. The word “Hillbilly” itself appears to stem from “King Billy” (William of Orange)who is an icon of the Ulster Protestants. (He defeated the Catholic King James at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690).
    The Scots Irish used to refer to themselves simply as “Irish” until the ethnic Irish started to arrive in large numbers to the U.S. during the potato famine of the 1840s. (settling of course mainly in the large eastern cities like NY, Boston etc.)It was only then the term “Scots Irish or Scotch Irish came into useage in order to distinguish the two groups from each other. In fact alot of Appalachian folk to this day, when asked of their origin, will simply state “Irish”. But if they are protestant and have been for as long as they can remember then they are probably Scots Irish ;-) You’ll probably notice that Appalachia is packed full of common Ulster Scottish surnames like McNeely, Bailey, Wright, Burns, McNabb McKaye etc.
    There were indeed others such as Welsh, English, Germans, French and highland Scots who settled in Appalachia but the Scots Irish were the largest and most dominant group. Being in relative isolation from the rest of the country is why Appalachian folk have retained much of the old language over the years. Hillbilly’s aren’t speaking “bad English” as some uneducated people seem to think. They are simply speaking the way their forefathers spoke upon arrival to Appalachia. Ulster Scots (Ullans as some call it) and Elizabethan style English.
    Just thought ya might be interested in knowing if you didn’t already.
    Take care.

  30. Jen says:

    Jimmy, wow, thanks for that great historical background! My dad’s folks were Kincaids, and I need to look up the origins of the name. Fascinating stuff.

  31. Jim Webb says:

    Couldn’t agree more with Jimmy (above, May 29, 2008). As an Ulster-Scot myself born and bred (but now living in Canada) I can assure you that he is correct in every detail, right down to the derivation of the term ‘hillbilly’ (the old-timer who Burt Reynolds asks if he can borrow his car in the movie ‘Deliverance’ is totally typical of many old men I recall as a boy in Northern Ireland, it’s quite uncanny). I have a namesake (James Webb), a Democratic senator from … (can’t remember which state!!) who is of Ulster-Scots stock himself and has done much to promote an awareness of these people (he has written at least one book on the topic).

    While most Ulster-Scots did indeed emigrate to (and remain in) Appalachia, there is no doubt that some of them headed as far west as Texas; it is almost certain that Sam Houston and Davy Crockett were of Ulster-Scots heritage.

    Regards, Jim

  32. Jen says:

    Jim, well, this settles in my mind that I’m an Ulster-Scot. And looking back at Jimmy’s comment right before yours, it explains my dad’s anti-Catholicism. I hope some day to make it to Ireland. One of my sisters spent about a month there last year and enjoyed it immensely. Thank you so much for the comment!

  33. Jim Webb says:

    Jen, here’s a link to an official Ulster-Scots website:-

    It features an excerpt from a book written by the guy I mentioned in my earlier post (my namesake, James Webb, the Democratic senator).

    I can think of many country singers (especially blugrass) who sing the kind of music I recall from Presbyterian churches in Northern Ireland. One that comes readily to mind is Glen Campbell (still performing at 72 – and he used to play a mean bagpipe!!).


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  35. Austin says:

    i am a proud of my Scottish heritage. grew up in the U.S. but me heart is in green Alba.

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