Sunday, February 06, 2005

Class seeks to rid kids of Appalachian accents

I grew up speaking Appalachian Mountain English (Northern Dialect), but as the Arkansas hillbilly singer Don Williams says,

"I was smart and I could choose,
Learned to talk like the man
On the 6 o'clock news."

My grammar, vocabulary, and usage, both spoken and written, are better than 90% of Americans thanks to wonderful elementary school teachers who
made English usage so natural that I don't have to think about it. Yet if I lapsed into my native born accent, even using proper grammar, folks'd think I was crazy, stupid or an easy mark.

We "smart" kids were told by our teachers that to get ahead in the 'outside' we had to talk, dress and move like everyone else. So we did that. But it was at a high cost. Many of us still feel that we will be "outed" as a hillbilly at any moment.

It's amazing to me in this day of pervasive PC that it's still ok in polite company to make fun of mountain folk. I've lost track of the number of times at university social functions where I've had to bite my tongue on hearing Ms. Important Feminist-Scholar or Dr. Allknowing Righteous-Cause or Dean Milk the Alumni complain about how dumb, ignorant, and stupid the people who staff this university are.

I'm sure you can imagine the look on the face of Herr Dr. Pompous Philosophy-Professor when I offered to tell a joke about his rural Eastern European ancestors similar in tone to the one he had just made about the residents of one of our local small towns. He was appalled at MY insensitivity.

We're nothing but damn ignorant hillbillies, you understand. And because I could pass as someone 'from New York', he hadn't known I was a dumb ignorant hillbilly as well. And that's sad. Sad that I felt the need to pass in the first place. Sad that I tried to pass. And truly sad that the ass still didn't get it.

But ultimately what is most sad is that Mountain English is beautiful. Its sounds define my home, my youth, and my family. Its usage and colloquiallisms are marvelous fun. And its formalities are elegant in a way that contemporary English seems afraid of being.

If you want to give your next fantasy novel some spark, study the LANGUAGE in mountain tales and songs, not just the stories themselves.

If you want to see/hear a good example of Mountain English rent the film Sergeant York with Gary Cooper. Cooper's accent itself is a bit off, but the supporting players like Walter Brennan and the script writer got it right. The scenes in Alvin's home valley are so true that they make me homesick for that vanished place where I grew up.

And if you're interested in seeing how a really talented writer uses this language, pick up one of Richard Russo's upstate New York novels. (Nobody's Fool, Empire Falls) He renders small town northern Mountain English better than anyone I've ever come across. Not just the vocabulary usage that most writers seem to focus on, but he gets the even more critical rhythm of the speech right as well.

Unsophisticated we hillbillies might be, but we hain't dumb, no matter what some fool teacher may think.