A push to restore pride in the way Appalachians speak

Jonathan Drew
Associated Press

Pineville, W.Va. — In a county beyond the reach of any four-lane highway, a young couple chuckles and swivels in their chairs as they start telling for posterity the story of how they met.

"You want me to tell the story, or you tell the story?" asks Pete Culicerto, 20, who's seated next to his girlfriend before a pair of black microphones.

"I'll tell it, because you'd make it all cheesy," says 17-year-old Ginger Smyth, each of her syllables snaking through a black cable into a high-end audio recorder ticking the time off on a green digital screen.

"Cheesy's good," says West Virginia University linguist Kirk Hazen, encouraging a relaxed conversation that allows the accents and speech patterns of their mountain community to flow unhindered by the self-consciousness that sometimes keeps them in check.

Hazen, who's spent two decades recording dozens of interviews around West Virginia, is among a new wave of scholars seeking to put to rest "Beverly Hillbillies"-style myths and stigmas about Appalachia.

Three books in the past year and a fourth to be published soon challenge these century-old stereotypes by noting, among other points, that Appalachian residents speak a variety of Englishes — and not a single monolithic dialect — and that scorn for the region's speech is often based on outdated notions of how they talk.

In southwest Virginia, English professor Amy D. Clark has held summer workshops for 15 years for rural teachers to help them teach students to write effectively without shaming them about their speech. The same message runs through teaching units on dialect for schoolchildren in North Carolina and West Virginia.

Proponents say reducing stigmas about speech has resulted in victories such as last year's decision by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in East Tennessee to cancel classes aimed at reducing workers' accents.

"You're trying to get across the idea that all language varieties are legitimate. There's not one that's somehow damaged and then others that are just fine," Hazen said. "They're all just fine."

Speech being documented

The first step in changing perceptions of mountain speech is documenting how contemporary Appalachian residents talk, which is why Hazen, who started the West Virginia Dialect Project in the late 1990s, has invited Smyth and Culicerto to a borrowed conference room at an ambulance company on Pineville's main street. The building shares the main drag with a dress store, two pharmacies and an accountant, all down the hill from the county courthouse.

Culicerto laughs as he recalls his first encounter with Smyth in the office of Wyoming East High School: "She smiled at me, then I got shy."

"He didn't smile back!" Smyth interjects.

"No, I didn't smile back. I turned away," he said. But they began chatting over social media and soon were eating breakfast and lunch together every day in the school cafeteria.

In a loosely organized conversation, Hazen and another researcher ask questions about Culicerto and Smyth's families and their community, such as whether parents are generally involved in teens' love lives.

The answers themselves are routine, but it's the underlying sounds the researchers are most interested in.

When Smyth says, "It depends," the latter half of the word sounds similar to "pin," an example of a merger of vowel sounds common in the southern part of the state.

Culicerto remarks that in their relationship, both sets of parents ask the couple out to meals, showing an example of a pleonastic — or redundant — pronoun: "Both sides, they always ask."

The two examples are among enduring dialect features in West Virginia, which Hazen's research shows have remained steady in the state.

Hazen has also used his research to illustrate that other stereotypical features of Appalachian speech have become rare — such as the demonstrative them ("them apples are the best") or a-prefixing ("I'm a-going to the store"). Neither of those fading features was heard during the recent interviews in Pineville.

The recording will later be fed into software that allows researchers to analyze one syllable at a time, then catalog each word for further study.

Negative impressions persist

Despite what Hazen's research shows, many outsiders still have negative impressions of people who speak with a mountain accent, sometimes based on outdated speech features. It can take decades for perceptions about language to change.

The tone in the conference room grows more serious when questions turn to whether outsiders comment on the way Smyth and Culicerto talk.

"I think they look at me and they're like: 'Oh my gosh, she lives way back in the holler … and is so redneck!'" she said. "They think lower of me."

The researcher working with Hazen on the interviews, Pineville native Jordan Lovejoy, said she was made to feel self-conscious about how she talked from a young age and worked until recently to change it.

She recalled going to New York as a teenager and feeling embarrassed when a hotel clerk couldn't understand her request for a pen. On a student government trip to the northern part of West Virginia, other students made fun of how she stretched out the vowel sound in "bill."

"It's upsetting," she said.

A turning point for the recent West Virginia University graduate was taking a class taught by Hazen about the history of dialect in West Virginia. She learned that a Pineville accent "wasn't necessarily a bad thing … so I try to be a little more natural now," said Lovejoy.

A breakthrough

It's this kind of breakthrough that educators around the region are hoping for as they experiment with novel ways of teaching grammar.

Among them is contrastive analysis, an approach in which students diagram spoken sentences and compare them to formal written English. Contrastive analysis is among the methods discussed at the Appalachian Writing Project's summer institute for teachers, led by Clark, the English professor in Virginia. About 130 teachers have completed the training program since it started in 2001.

Traditional "right and wrong" approaches to grammar turn off many kids in the mountains, Clark said.

"Kids don't understand it. They just think they're speaking a broken English," said Clark, one of the editors of the book "Talking Appalachian."

Lizbeth Phillips, a middle-school teacher in southwest Virginia who's worked with Clark's project since 2004, assigns her students to keep journals of how adults in their community switch between formal and casual ways of speaking. Educators say the approach, known as code- or style-switching, allows students to preserve the way they speak at home and improve their writing without feeling ashamed.

Phillips said her approach has helped students' scores on standardized tests, and she was recently asked to work with another English teacher to expand her approach to all eighth-graders at her school.

"If you're marching out the red pen … you're really criticizing their culture and their family heritage and other things. It's not just about standardizing the language," she said.

"I tell these children all the time: Do not forsake your culture. Do not forsake your spoken language, your home language. Keep that. It's special," she added. "But understand: when you're sitting for an interview at U.Va. or sitting at a job interview, you might not want to say 'y'all,' 'you'ns' and 'a-going."

For middle school students in West Virginia and North Carolina, Hazen and Walt Wolfram of North Carolina State University have worked with colleagues to develop teaching units that emphasize the history of each state's dialects.

"It gives them a sense of pride," said Wolfram, who recently spent a week working with kids in a mountain school system. "They think it's cool. And it also makes them special. It contributes to the sort of cultural capital of kids who want to be from someplace, who want to have a strong heritage and want to be grounded."

A heritage renaissance

Wolfram believes that Appalachian culture is in the midst of a renaissance in which people are more aware — and more proud — of their heritage.

"There's a kind of re-appropriation of things 'hillbilly,' which were once considered to be a negative stigma, and embracing it and turning that around into something positive. So people will say, 'Yeah, I'm hillbilly, and proud of it!'" he said.

William Schumann, the director of the Center for Appalachian Studies at Appalachian State University, said the trend is demonstrated by larger number of young adults learning how to play traditional mountain instruments.

"What 20 or 30 years ago was uncool, is cool again. It's sort of hipster to be into the banjo," said Schumann, one of the editors of "Appalachia Revisited," due out next year.

Speakers in the region may purposely use vernacular expressions to show they belong to a group of family or friends. In his article about the word "ain't," Hazen notes that all West Virginians are conscious of how the word is perceived, and that for the past three decades, its use has been "a choice of social identity."

Last summer when the Oak Ridge National Laboratory canceled optional accent reduction classes after some employees complained, the headline in the Knoxville News-Sentinel read: "ORNL bows to Southern pride."

The speech coach slated to teach the class, Lisa Scott, said she's noticed a "strong divide" between people who are very proud of their accents and those who want to change them.

Scott said most of her accent reduction clients are foreigners who want to speak English with less of an accent, but that she also has many clients from the South, including a woman who recently called her in tears after being mocked at work.

To Smyth, such tensions are frustrating but very real: "I don't see anything wrong with me having an accent."

'We're all the same'

In the conference room, the late afternoon sun shines through the windows as the interview stretches to nearly two hours.

When the topic turns to the planned construction of a new highway, the couple differs on whether the growth would be a good thing for the county. But they agree they wouldn't want to grow up anywhere else.

"I like it being a small town. Everybody knows everybody," Smyth said.

"I couldn't ask for any other place," Culicerto adds. "I couldn't imagine growing up in New York City, Atlanta or Charlotte."

Culicerto said he finished high school with a perfect 4.0 grade point average. Now an accounting student at Marshall University, he has plans for a master's degree.

He knows that the stubborn stereotypes outsiders have of people like him can run both ways.

"The way they look at us, we might look at them the same way, like: 'Oh they have a city accent.' But really, we're all the same."