Friday, September 08, 2006

The Real Thing

I try, as hard as I possibly can, to respect accents and local languages. It is a very serious thing to me, a matter of respect. That's not to say that I don't make serious accent mistakes sometimes - I do, but I try to learn from my mistakes. That said, I am astounded at the number of people who actually seem to take some pleasure in mispronouncing proper names, and in particular, place names, as a sign of their (supposed) cosmopolitanism. For instance, I accept that many folks outside of Appalachia pronounce the names of the mountains differently than most folks from those mountains (Southern Appalachians, in particular, usually say "app-uh-LATCH-uhn" - if you wonder how we can pronounce the "-ia" at the end as "uh," remember that it is essentially the same sound as at the end of Virginian and Pennsylvanian, with the "y" run into the hard "ch") - such is life. And, indeed, I even accept that they will refer to Appalachia in numerous equally hair-raising ways. That said - when folks come to the mountains and, after repeated corrections, will pronounce their name wrong consciously, well, yeah. Ticks me off. Not as much as it does some of my friends, but you know.
That said, I was listening to XM radio yesterday and heard what is my absolute favorite radio show, This American Life, on XM Public Radio. The episode on was number 138, "The Real Thing." The general premise of the episode, as a whole, is described by XM as such:

Stories of people drawn to some idea, some picture, some "thing" that they just want to be. How some people imitate this "thing" innocently, some less innocently, and how easy it is to slip from one to the other.

Like most This American Life episodes, "The Real Thing" touches on a series of esoteric subjects - men who fake their war credentials, a reporter who starts taking on the traits of the gang she is studying, a professor who discusses what composes "blackness", the concept of true love, and, relevant here, the apparent utter inability of Hollywood and television to effectively portray genuine Southern accents or drawls. It is hilarious - nothing like hearing a New York accent coach's utterly unconvincing Georgia accent or, most hilariously, his "Appalachian" accent. Which is a Georgia lowland accent. With a New York accent overlain. The story is hilarious, all the way around, and though the narrator, Mark Schone, who hails from the Great Dismal of southeastern Virginia mispronounces Appalachia (to my ears, anyway) the entire time, well, I don't mind, because he publically notes the truth of Southern accents - every region of the South (and I would say virtually every hamlet, holler, and neighborhood of big cities) has a different accent.
One key point that is crazy - Schone points out the tendency of Virginians (me included, in college, I fear) to make fun of the way some other Southerners pronounce their "i"s - a soft "i" rather than an "eye" in words like right, light, sight, and fight - indeed, he asserts that accent is nearly gone. Perhaps he should visit East Tennessee - I've been here long enough that now I will frequently drop the soft "i". Damn me for making fun of Lee. For four years.
Regardless, check this out. Its worth a few minutes of your day.

Oh, and Wytheville? Its "With-Ville." And Staunton? Its "Stan-ton."

I am so excited about the comments coming on this one.


Eleutheros said...

And the town in Russell County Dante rhymes with ain't. And I love hearing outsiders try to figure hout how to pronounce Haysi and Chilhowie.

In the very, very early days these mountains were first "settled" by Gaelic speaking Scots (Ulster Scots incorrectly refered to as the Scots-Irish), French, Germans, and a lot of other people who didn't speak English as their native language. They pitched about to find the best example they could find of English speakers and that was the Cherokee who, naturally enough, spoke English with a strong Chreokee accent.

Cherokee has six vowel sounds, the five continental vowels plus a strong nasal vowel. Also all the vowels are very pure, so when they heard English speakers using the characteristic vowel glides of English, such as "ah-ee" for "I", they pronounced it as closely as would fit their phonology and used the same pure vowel for both components resulting in "ah-ah".

To the Tsalagi ear, 'r' was also a vowel and so the word "morrow" sounds like "m" followed by three vowels resulting in "mrrr". "Eric" = "urk" for the same reason.

This same phenomeon gives us bo:l for boil and why "whore" and "horror" sound exactly alike.

In Tsalagi the word for yes is the nasal vowel repeated twice, giving the affirmative as "huh-huh" and this Appalachianism has made its way to language in general.

the Contrary Goddess said...

I blogged this, but not long ago a miserable yankee, claiming to be "from Virginia" (but I have my serious doubts) said her bill was to be paid by AppalAYshen Sustanable Development (a damn grant supported yankee concern in Abingdon -- as if "sustainable" and "development" were not mutually exclusive but I digress). Miserable carpetbagging yankees. She stood there and argued with me.

Then there are the people who claim that I don't have an accent just because I do have a "Tom Brokaw" accent in order to deal with their miserable selves. I don't talk that way to other people who know how to talk.

Don't forget the Lebanon only has two syllables.

mtr said...

The intrusive “r” in wash = worsh used to drop my IQ in the eyes of the those around me at Ohio State by about 40 points. I will have to say the worst bigots were not native Ohioans but out-of-state students usually from the northeast. Most natives of Columbus are used to the Appalachian accent since as much as a quarter of the population is Appalachian like Dwight Yoakam.

I have also found that the pronunciation of a place name can change as one moves away from the area. Most natives of Scioto County (especially the rural folks) pronounce the county seat as “Porchmith”. Those of us who have lived too long in non Appalachian areas pronounce it “Port Smith.” I could be wrong but to my ear, the common pronunciation of is “Portsmath.”

And yes it was named after Portsmouth, VA by its founder Henry Massie a Virginian. Scioto was also once a part of Botetourt County, VA and part of the Virginia Military District.

joE said...


CSL said...

The soft i is necessary for one of my favorite expressions, "He ain't right." (or, even better, "Bless his heart, he ain't right.")

I once had a woman from Connecticut correct me when I said Vidalia onion. She said, "It's vi-dah-li-a" Starting with a short i, no less. I explained that they are grown in Vidalia (long i, long a, accent on the first syllable) Georgia, and she just looked at me with pity.

I don't know why a Southern accent can't be taught, but it does seem you have to at least partly grow up with it. And I should know, being only partly grown-up myself. I just cringe when I hear movie fake-southerners say "y'all" when they are addressing a single person.

the Contrary Goddess said...

ya'll CAN be addressed to a single person, if'n you are including his family in the invite.

Hold it, I had thought of some more place names . . . Powell Valley is heard by outsiders as "Pow Valley" but I swear I can hear the "L" in it. Pound Virginia is really properly refered to as "over on the Pound" but that's not a pronunciations issue. . .

Eleutheros said...

Csl's Vidalia story reminded me that I was teaching a class at the community college in Abingdon (which is A-bing-done) and when I was asking for for names on the first day, a personable and stylish (and good looking) woman gave her name as Honaker pronouncing it as "HAHN-uh-ker". I said, "Do you mean "HOE-NAY-ker?"

She cringed. She, not being from around here, had married a local boy whose last name was the same as the town where they lived. She couldn't bring herself to pronounce it correctly and thought she could polish it up a bit.

Didn't work.

And let's not forget that Buchannan Co is BUCK-CANnon not Beu-CANnon.

At another school where I committed crimes against humanity by being a teacher, the French teacher was a Greek lady and said she although her English was very good, she said she could not figure out why she still had such an accent. I told her she was used to accenting only one syllable in each word and sometimes in Appalachian speech we accented two or more syllables equally. Her husband sold coal mining equipment and she pronounced it "coal MINE". Here both words are accented equally giving "COAL MINE". Thus we have "PO-LICE" not "po-LICE". One of those accented syllables can contain a completely neutral vowel which is never accented in regular English such as the above example of Buchannon = BUCK-CAN-on with two of the three syllables accented.

Shall we throw in as well the characteristic of Appalachian speech of using a determiner to specifiy the type of thing we are talking about. It's not a roach but rather a roach bug. Likewise, church house, widow woman, toad frog, preacher man, Bible book. This is a feature borrowed directly from Cherokee.

Also (shouldn't have gotten me started) Scottish Gaelic contributed to Appalachian English. In Scottish Gaelic there is not present tense (although there is in Irish Gaelic). Instead the Scots used an idiomatic construction saying that in the present they are "at" doing someting. For example "I am at working" [Tha mi ag-obair pronounced hah mee ah-coper]. This was brought over into Appalchian English as the phrase "I am a-" as "I am a-going fishing."

CSL said...

Another determiner along the lines of roach bug - you grab somebody by "the hair of the head" (leading to an unnerving consideration of the alternatives).

Oh, and people here say they are "in" the floor rather than "on" the floor.

Trace said...

To the contrary goddess: I was born in Cleveland, Ohio, so technically I am a yankee; however, I was raised in southern WV. in Mcdowell County. I have had the best of both worlds and both people. I am a true mountain gal, but I also appreciate the northern folks. I refuse to live in the civil war; ever! I read this site because it is so very well written, demonstrating truths and strengths of the heart of appalachia. I feel comments such as "damnned yankee carpetbagger" or whatever it was you said, surely takes away from the whole message this site delivers as to what true appalachian folks are all about. It reminds me of something red-neck people say, but not strong, intelligent folks of appalachia who take pride in their culture enough to respect others who are different from them.

Nathan Fortner said...

Oddly enough, where I'm from in western Middle TN, most people pronounce Appalachian as "Appalayshan".

Eleutheros said...


You ARE living in the Civil War (or War for Southern Independence) whether you refuse to or not. The central reality of the war was to establish federalism. It is still with us to this day and accounts for Damned Yankee Carpet Baggers (DYCBs) both past and present.

It has nothing whatever to do with respecting someone else's culture. It has to do with DYCBs coming here and deciding that we backward mountain folk need mending and refining. Perhaps where you are you are not plagued with them, but here abouts they are an isidious infestation.

And then the kicker is berating CG about the term DYCB and slinging "red neck" at her as if that were an end all idictment.

Do you have any clue what the origin and history of the term 'red neck' is?

Yes ineed, whatch out for them 'red necks', they are libable to use some pejorative term like 'Yankee'!!

Karl said...

I was an army brat, so I grew up all over, didn't move anywhere in the South from the ages of 4 to 18, though, when I moved out to Bristol, Tennessee. Took about three months of culture shock, then I loved it.

Mind you, when my dad did leave the army and we settled, it was in Virginia. But I found out, in Bristol, that the suburbs of DC were definitely not Virginia.

But yeah. I got in a lot of trouble at first, mispronouncing hollow (HOLL-er) and Tennessee (gotta stress the first syllable). Hell, I could find Haysi on a map, but I kept thinking it and (the nonexistent, I found) Hayside were two separate places.

Anyway, I fought it at first, but then I figured these are the people that live here, I'm pretty sure if they agree, they're pronouncing all this right.

I'm kind of into amateur linguistics (huge nerd here), and from that standpoint, Bristol and more the outlying areas, Richlands and Grundy and Lebanon are all fascinating. The longer I lived there, the more I realized it was almost a whole different language. You've got different vocabulary (a bag is sometimes a poke, a wallet is always a billfold, and you don't have relatives, you have kinfolk), you've got altered grammar (the mentioned "in the floor" and what's called a double modal, as in "We might could do something later."). When I realized all this, I stopped fighting the language.

I never could pick up the accent, though. But I got a little bit of a drawl, some of the rhythm of speech there, and hell, I used to stutter, but not any more.

Moved to Alaska recently, but I'm sure I'll be back there some day. Plus, I still like saying things like, "My car runs like a scalded dog."

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