Vol. VIII, No. 3, 1995

Just How "Old" is Ozarks English?

by Michael Ellis

Without a doubt, the most persistent myth about language in the Southern Highlands, including the Appalachian and Ozarks regions, is that the dialects spoken there are somehow "like" an earlier stage of the English language. For nearly a hundred years now, writers have been comparing the speech of the mountaineer to the language of Chaucer or Shakespeare or some other early English author (for a recent example, see "The Time Savers" in the May 1993 issue of the Missouri Conservationist). Despite the great increase in our knowledge of Ozarks English over the last fifty years, popular perceptions of language of the Southern highlands, including both positive and negative evaluations, continue to be controlled by the mistaken notion that the Ozarks region resembles something akin to a linguistic lost colony. The reasons why this myth developed are nearly as complex as the development of the dialect itself, and include factors which are only indirectly related to language. On the other hand, linguists themselves will confirm that Ozarks English does (or did) contain numerous archaic words or usages which may be traced back to earlier English, although without the kind of wholesale transfer across the centuries which the common characterizations suggest. Just how old, then, is Ozarks English?

In 1898, Joseph Wright published his massive, six-volume English Dialect Dictionary, and for the first time scholars became aware of the vast number of supposedly archaic words and usages that were still common in British regional dialects. After the appearance of Wright's work, few British dialectologists considered these survivals from earlier English to be anything other than normal regional or social diversity in the English language. A word, pronunciation, or grammatical construction which had disappeared from standard British language might normally be expected to persist in more rural or "relic" areas of England, Wales, Scotland, or Ireland.

The situation was somewhat different on this side of the Atlantic, where scholars had long argued that American English was fairly homogenous and lacked the extreme regional diversity that characterized British English. As early as 1789, Noah Webster was arguing for the cultural and political desirability of a uniform pronunciation for American English, since "provincial accents are disagreeable to strangers and some times have an unhappy effect upon the social affections.'' According to Webster, not only would regional dialects "excite ridicule" and "disrespect" among the general population, they represented a real threat to national unity. Well into the 20th century, the prevailing notion was that dialects in America, such as they were, could be found only in the more remote areas of New England, the South, and especially in the Southern Highlands.

Indeed, since the turn of the century, many Americans have perceived the language of the Appalachian and Ozarks regions to be a special exception to the general uniformity of American English, and as a result, the dialects of the Southern Highlands have been the focus of more than a little ridicule and disrespect. In the popular imagination, the Southern Highlands were not just remote, but far outside the mainstream of American culture, representing, as one turn-of-the-century anthropologist declared, "a retarded civilization'' which displayed "the degenerate symptoms of arrested development."

By the 1950s, material collected by linguistic geographers demonstrated that the notion of a homogenous American English was a myth, and that strong dialectal differences existed throughout the country, not just in the regions long considered islands of dialect. By then, however, assumptions about the backward and "substandard" language of the Southern Highlands were well established, having been perpetuated by decades of stereotypical representations in the popular media. For nearly a hundred years, the culturally backward hillbilly and his linguistically backward dialect have been inseparable in the popular imagination.

Early on, some writers with close personal ties to the Southern Highlands began searching for a more positive explanation and evaluation of the culture and language of the mountaineers. A typical response can be found in Professor Josiah Combs' 1913 Dialect Notes article, "Old, Early, and Elizabethan English in the Southern Mountains." Combs, a native of eastern Kentucky, admitted that the language of the mountaineer was often uncouth and ungrammatical, but that these defects were ameliorated by a purity of expression which he attributed to its special archaic quality and strong Anglo-Saxon heritage. According to Combs, the people of the Southern Highlands had "for more than two centuries preserved much of the language of Elizabethan England," and he provided examples of words, pronunciations, and grammatical forms found in the South-em Highlands which could also be found in earlier English literature.


Over the decades, numerous writers have followed Combs' example of comparing the language of the Appalachian and Ozarks regions to the language of Chaucer or Shakespeare. In Down the Holler, for example, Vance Randolph devotes an entire chapter to what he describes as "Survivals of Early English," in the Ozarks. Randolph is, however, more reticent than most writers and avoids making sweeping generalizations about Ozarks English by limiting his comparisons to individual words. He is also more inclusive in terms of his British literary sources and goes beyond Chaucer and Shakespeare to include Spenser, Milton, and even relatively late writers like Defoe, Sterne, and Scott.

In the past, literary connections provided a convenient way of avoiding the negative connotations which had come to be associated with the term dialect. Writers began making a distinction between a"dialect," which was considered ungrammatical, backward, or substandard, and the pure "archaic" speech of the Highlands, which was considered colorful, exotic, and quaint. For many, the language of the mountaineer could only be elevated from the status of a "mere uncouth dialect" if it could prove a direct connection with some older and presumably more respectable form of English. Consequently, several generations of amateur philologists have combed the hills and hollers for relics of archaic speech, compiling lists of what they believed to be fossil language, and generally ignoring anything else in Highland speech which did not support a connection with some antique form of English.

Despite the existence of archaic forms in Ozarks English, there is a danger in attempting to establish a direct correspondence based on a relatively small number of examples. This method not only fails to consider the ways in which Ozarks English and earlier British English differ, it also obscures the complex origin and development of dialects in the Southern Highlands. In reality, Ozarks English does not closely resemble the Middle English of Chaucer or the early Modem English of Shakespeare, and the differences between Ozarks English and any earlier form of British English are considerably greater than the similarities.

For example, the English language has undergone extreme changes in pronunciation since the 14th-century English of Chaucer, changes which should be familiar to those who have attempted to read the Canterbury Tales in something approximating the original pronunciation. In the 15th century words with long vowels began shifting away from the older pronunciations in such a manner that the 14th-century pronunciation of words with long vowels usually have more in common with the pronunciation of present-day European languages and sound decidedly foreign to present-day speakers of English. In the 14th century, the pronoun he sounded like present-day hay, to sounded like toe, moon sounded like moan, house had the same vowel sound found in modem English words like moose, and wife had the same vowel sound as modem leaf There has also been change in some words with consonant sounds. The words father, mother, gather, and further, for example, were spelled and pronounced with d instead of th sounds.

Other sounds preserved in modem English spelling have disappeared entirely. English-speakers no longer pronounce the k at the beginning of knight or knee, or the b at the end of lamb. No longer is final -e pronounced in words like name and tale, which in the 14th century would have rhymed, respectively, with present-day comma and Paula. Since this vowel shift was not complete at the time Shakespeare was writing, his pronunciations would represent an intermediate stage between Middle English and present-day English.

The vocabulary and grammar of English have also undergone important changes over the last three hundred years; hundreds of words have disappeared entirely from English while many thousands of others have been added. Gone, for example, are the old second-person, singular pronouns thou, thee, and thy, and the second-person plural, pronoun ye. The use of innovative thee forms you all or youins in some present-day dialects represents an attempt to reestablish the old distinction between second-person singular and plural. Gone also are the old second and third-person endings on verbs, -st and -th ("thou knowest," "he knoweth"), which make the language of Shakespeare and the King James Bible sound so different from present-day English. Add to these examples such systematic differences as the patterns for making plurals of nouns and verbs or for making negative sentences, and one can soon see that despite similarities in individual words or expressions, Ozarks English is very different from the language of the earlier English authors. Moreover, it should also be remembered that the language of Chaucer represents only one of several regional dialects of Middle English, while the language of Shakespeare represents standard English of the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Many of the most distinctive features of Ozarks English can be traced back to regional dialects of Middle and early Modem English that have no direct connection to the dialect of Chaucer or the standard literary English of Shakespeare.


If it does not directly mirror some earlier stage of the language, then what relation does Ozarks English have with earlier British English? Any real understanding of the British ancestry of dialects in the Southern Highlands should not begin with Chaucer or Shakespeare, but with the regional dialects of 17th and 18th century England, Scotland, and Ireland, which were brought to America during the Colonial period. In their earliest stages, American dialects are primarily the product of dialect contact and the mixture of different British dialects during the colonial period, during which time new and uniquely American forms of regional English developed. In the 17th-century, contact was mainly between dialects which originated in various parts of England. In the 18th century, the mixture changed considerably as a large numbers of new immigrants arrived from the Irish province of Ulster. The majority of these newcomers (the so-called "Scotch-Irish") were descended from Lowland Scots transplanted to Ireland in the previous century, and the dialect they spoke was a variety of Scottish English.

As migration westward began in the 18th century, there was additional contact between newly-evolving American dialects, and continued change as settlers moved westward into the Ozarks during the early 19th century. Therefore, the way in which Ozarks English evolved is fairly complex, and the language of the region represents a combination of forms derived from various British regional dialects, as well as a large number of purely American innovations. The Ozarks region itself is part of a broad dialect area commonly referred to as the South Midland and which extends westward from Virginia and the Carolinas. Pronunciation within the South Midland area, like all varieties of American English, has its roots mainly in the dialects of the English Midlands and South. Indeed, one may find a few examples of British Midland and Southern pronunciations collected in the 1950s and 1960s by the Survey of English Dialects which bear a very close resemblance to forms which have been found in the Southern Highlands (e.g., yeller for yellow, a-goin for going, pizen for poison, and nekkid for naked).

However, although the pronunciation of American English may have its roots in a particular region of England and one may find individual examples of correspondence, overall speech patterns on both sides of the Atlantic have diverged so much since the 17th and 18th centuries that American dialects do not bear a close resemblance to any form of British English. For example, one of the most distinctive pronunciations in the American South and South Midland, the vowel sound in words like fire (which in the Ozarks often sounds more like far), has no clear British ancestry and is most likely an American innovation.

While pronunciation in Ozarks English may have originated in the South and Midlands of England, many regionally distinctive words in the Southern highlands appear to have originated in Northern British dialects, including those of Scotland and Northern Ireland. Examples of some of these terms derived from British regional dialects include to back (i.e, to address) an envelope, bottom land (low-lying land), fireboard (mantle),fornent (up against), galluses, gear (harness), hay mow (loft), hippin (diaper), kindling, pinch bar (crowbar), sook (cattle call), and swingletree (bar on a wagon or other implement to which harness is attached). Perhaps more importantly, the number of terms of British origin in Ozarks English is balanced by a large number of words which are distinctly American in origin.

New words, or new uses for existing words, were needed to signify features of the new environment, especially new plants and animals. Some examples of these Americanisms are chinkepin (a tree related to the chestnut), crawdad (crawfish), gooberpeas (peanuts), ground hog, lightning bug, mud dauber (a kind of wasp), roasting ear (sweet corn), sassafrack (sassafras), and snake feeder (dragon fly). Some terms which existed in British English developed specialized uses in the Southern Highlands. The word branch, for example, came to be used to denote a rivulet or small stream (i.e, spring branch). Even the common Southern and South Midland term pulley bone (wish bone), which apparently had some occurrence in British dialects, became much more common in this country than it ever was in Britain.

The majority of nonstandard grammatical features contained in Ozarks English are not unique to the region but are shared with one or more neighboring dialects. However, when one considers grammatical features which are especially distinctive of Appalachian and Ozarks English, the largest number appear to have come from Scottish English through the dialects of 18th century Scotch-Irish immigrants. For example, one distinctive grammatical feature found in the Southern Highlands is a special pattern of subject-verb agreement. In most varieties of English a verb carries an -s suffix only in the singular, third-person, present tense (e.g., "Jim likes to trade pocket knives"). In Appalachian and Ozarks English, the -s suffix is commonly used with third-person, plural subjects (e.g, "Them boys likes to trade pocket knives"). This particular construction also occurs with compound subjects ("Me and Albert likes to trade pocket knives") and collective subjects ("Some people likes to trade pocket knives"), but rarely if ever with plural pronoun subjects ("They likes to trade pocket knives"). This particular grammatical feature can be traced back through the speech of the early settlers of the Southern Highlands to Northern Ireland and ultimately to Scottish dialects.


Other examples of Southern Highland grammatical forms which have their origin in Scotch-Irish or Scottish English include the so-called "positive" anymore ("He works at the Tyson plant anymore"), "existential'' they for there ("They was [i.e., there were] three boys hurt in the wreck"), double modal auxiliaries (e.g., might could), and a special use of the preposition till which indicates manner rather than time ("He puts it in the index till [i.e., so that] you can find it"). The existence of these forms in Ozarks English does not mean, of course, that dialects in the American Southern Highlands are like some earlier form of Scottish English, since the many other features in Ozarks English are American innovations or can be traced back to other British regional dialects. It does, however, suggest that the dialects of Scotch-Irish immigrants had a particularly strong influence on those grammatical features which are more or less unique to dialects in the Southern Highlands.

If Ozarks English is a distinctly American rather than British form of English, might it represent an earlier form of American English? In other words, to what extent are the inhabitants of the region preserving the speech of their pioneer ancestors? While the Southern Mountains were never as geographically or culturally isolated as turn-of-the-century writers imagined, like other primarily rural areas, the Appalachian and Ozarks regions underwent an extended period with relatively little contact with other dialects or other languages. As a consequence, the number of archaic features preserved in Ozarks English suggests that it may, in a sense at least, be somewhat closer to earlier American dialects than some other varieties of present-day American English. But it would, however, be a mistake to claim that Ozarks English is like the language of the early settlers into the region. The evidence collected over the last hundred and fifty years, including evidence from early written sources, points to significant change in the dialects of the Southern Highlands, particularly since the turn of the century. The inevitability of language change has led to a long tradition in mourning the passing of older speechways, and the notion of "disappearing dialect" was just as strong seventy-five years ago as it is today. In a 1929 Century Magazine article, for example, one writer warned that:

It behooves the philologist to make haste if he would find the remnants of archaic English as spoken in the highlands... Earnest mission workers in mistaken attempts at uplift are removing traces of native speech as fast as possible, or reducing it to dialect form.

Schoolteachers eventually replaced mission workers as the group writers most often identified as responsible for disappearing dialect. More recently, mass media, and particularly television, have been blamed for the destruction of traditional speechways. In reality, much broader social and economic changes during the 20th century have contributed to significant change in Ozarks English. First, there has been an increase in movement into, out of, and through the region and consequently an increase in contact with other dialects. Significant changes in ways of living (e.g., rural electrification, mechanization of agriculture) obviously will contribute to changes in dialects, particularly in loss of traditional folk vocabulary. Young people growing up today are not likely to know, for example, terms once used to describe parts of a mowing scythe or of a horse-drawn wagon. A population which obtains its food from a supermarket and its clothing from a shopping mall is increasingly less likely to have an immediate familiarity with words associated with older ways of feeding and clothing a family.

Urbanization and an increasing distinction between rural and urban will also have an effect on the folk vocabulary of the Ozarks. Data collected for the Linguistic Atlas of the Gulf States (which includes Arkansas) suggest that pulley-bone is still a common term in rural areas of the Ozarks, but that city-dwellers are much less likely to know or use this regional term for wishbone. Changes in the material folk culture of a region seem to be accompanied by changes in traditional speechways which are more difficult to describe than changes in pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar. Often, when local writers describe the decline of regional speech, they are particularly affected by a decline in the art of story telling, in the use of figurative language, or in forms of word-play, all of which have been strongly associated with the Ozarks. In a region so rich in imaginative place-names, even the existence of a community named "Branson West" must appear to many residents as a decline in the quality of regional speech, and it will probably be little comfort that these trends are not limited to the Ozarks.

On the other hand, although Ozarks English may be changing in some ways, it is not in any danger of disappearing. Despite predictions of dialect death at the hands of over-zealous schoolteachers or to the insidious influence of television, all indications are that varieties of American English are becoming more rather than less diverse. Just how old is Ozarks English? As a living dialect, it is not any older than any other dialect of present-day English; the number of archaic features in Ozarks English certainly make it different from other dialects, but not older. The need to look outside the region and outside the present, to England and the 14th or 16th century, has nothing to do with the actual quality of Ozarks English, but rather has its origin in subjective (often negative) social judgements. While Ozarks English should not need an artificial connection with the language of Chaucer or Shakespeare to make its speakers feel better about their own language, like some other regional or social varieties in America today, it does require a greater degree of understanding and appreciation than it has received in the past, both from inside as well as outside the region.


Copyright -- OzarksWatch

Next Article | Table of Contents | Other Issues | Keyword Search

Local History Home