GUEST COLUMN: <span>Ringing the Freedom Bell</span>  


I have lived in London for almost 50 years now. The community has changed vastly in that time, and so, perhaps, have I. But one thing hasn't changed: I still don't talk right.

Of course, I didn't think that at first. Originally, I thought most other people didn't talk right. That was before the scholar Cratis Williams got hold of me. Affectionately referred to as “Mister Appalachia,” he came into my sphere through programs at Sue Bennett College.

When he informed his audience that approximately 3.2 million people spoke the Appalachian dialect, I suddenly realized that I was the one not speaking right . . .

Perhaps unfortunately, that didn't change my speech, but it sure changed my perceptions. It also piqued my interest in how speech reflects who we are, as well as where we're from.

On a positive note, I occasionally met a person who liked the way I talked because it sounded different from what they regularly heard. And Nigerian students at SBC said they liked my classes because I talked English the way they had learned it, and they could understand me.

Aside from that, though, my speech labeled me as an outsider; a “furriner.”

Anyway, accents among people vary broadly. Even here, you don't have to travel far to hear differences. Kind of like Professor Higgins, who could quickly tell where in London Eliza Doolittle was from.

Dialect requires three features: pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar. These become ingrained at an early age, and even if we move, they will likely stay with us.

So while I will always differentiate between “sale” and “sell,” or “pin” and “pen,” someone from here sounds like they're saying “I will sale my books at the library book sale next fall” or “I need a pin so I can sign this check.”

In a dialect, those pronunciations will be consistent: sale/sell, bale/bell; pin/pen, din/den, etc.

Vocabulary, of course, also varies. I had to learn that “I don't care to” means “I'm willing to” instead of “I don't want to.” And “of an evenin” means “late afternoon.” That, too, is dialect.

One of my favorite discoveries was the grammatical use of ”a” attached to a progressive verb, like “a-goin” or “a-tellin.” In addition to that added “a,” the “g” is dropped. Cratis Williams said that it was never added, and that adding it impedes a lyrical quality in the dialect.

If you're interested, you can find the history of this online. It seems a little complicated to me, but I do find it interesting to note that somewhere along the way, that absent “g” went from something that was once standard, even upper class, to a lower class stigma.

Many aspects of our regional dialect carry respectable historical origins. The common “hit” for “it” is found in Shakespeare and the correspondence of Queen Elizabeth I.

Double or multiple negatives, such as “I ain't goin no where, no way, no how” conveyed a pretty definite message. And you can find them in Chaucer's “Canterbury Tales.”

What changed? In 1762, Robert Lowth published a book on English grammar based on his study of Latin. He decided that double and multiple negatives canceled each other. Several other rules also come from his arbitrary corrections (like the one about ending a sentence with a preposition).

Of course, at about this time settlers were moving into the Appalachian region, bringing their language with them. I doubt they were even aware of his book or interested in someone arbitrarily deciding that they talked wrong.

And today, we don't cotton to that much, either. We learn language from those around us. It identifies us as part of the group. Teachers can instruct children on the “proper” use of grammar, but ultimately they may not change us.

A child who goes home talking the “schoolroom English” may be ridiculed as “talkin proud,” and in defense, may learn to speak the two forms, one for school and one for home. I knew a student at Union College who had had exactly this experience.

I came to this area as an English major. I thought I was pretty smart. But through Cratis Williams and then others, I learned that I had a long way to go in developing an understanding of how people shape their language.

I have just “scratched the surface” here, but maybe I have sparked an interest in the richness of this region's linguistic heritage. Historically, through years of exploitation, Appalachian people were belittled for the way they talked and made to feel ignorant.

But in all fairness, if coastal North Carolinians or Bostonians can be proud of their language usage, why can't we?

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