What is "Appalachian Language" Anyway?
An essay on Multiculturalism and Tolerance
written in whole by author Sandra Mitchell-Quinn
Copyright 2001-2009 All Rights Reserved
When I first moved to Cleveland in 1980, from Athens County, Ohio, I was considered to have a speech impediment to everyone I met. The first thing people would say is "Where do you come from?" When I would tell them Ohio, they would look at me puzzled and then write me off as one of those southern hillbillies of Appalachia.
The first time I ever realized I had this so called "problem" was when I was selected at age 15 to be in the Miss Teen-Ager Ohio beauty pageant which was held at Capital University in Columbus. An important part of the program was each girl announcing their name and place of birth. The girl who went on to win the pageant, said to me frankly, I would never win the pageant since I could not even say Ohio correctly. She went on to say that any girl representing Ohio must be a perfect example of a polished Ohio-an. This devastated me and I couldn't understand what she was talking about.
Later, at the ripe old age of 16 while attending Ohio State University in the Pre- Med program, (I obviously was an intelligent person), my "so called" deficit in language completely overwhelmed me and I withdrew from school. I remember a fellow student asking me where I was from and I would tell him Ohio (Ahiya) and he would then look at me blankly and say, "Where is that?" "What are you saying?" I would try frustratingly to get my point across that I was from Ohio but without any understanding from him, I eventually gave up. Here he was from Ohio, and I was from Ohio, but he refused to believe I was from the same state. He kept repeating what I said and then adding "Oh you're from someplace in Hawaii?" I can still remember how upset and frustrated I was.
I returned back home and started college at Hocking Tech in Nelsonville. Surely things would be different in a college in my hometown. I remember walking into communications class and asking the elderly person sitting on the desk in the front of the class, "Are you the real teacher?", and he answered "Are you a real student?" The entire class cracked up at my miscommunication with my instructor who did not give me a break after that. Again it was a humiliating experience. What I meant by my question was if he was my instructor and he took it as if I had put him down for being the instructor.
Several months later I married my husband, a man with the same hometown roots as myself, at the age of 18, and gave birth to my first child at the age of 19. This is what everyone in my neck of the woods did, and this felt somewhat comfortable to me, and I quickly forgot about my speech impediment. That is until we moved to the Cleveland area for work. For the first time in his life, my husband experienced the same attitudes and misunderstandings of his speech as I had experienced previously in Columbus. Fellow workers were making fun of him on practically a daily basis. His bosses were also correcting his speech. This was my husband, honor society student like myself, and a good scholar.
At the same time this was happening to my husband, I was busily trying to find friends in my new neighborhood. I was also finding that people were quick to laugh at my language. I would feel so embarrassed when they laughed, but being "Appalachian" I would laugh along with them. This quickly bridged the language barrier. A wonderful new acquaintance, Mauna Doppas, who lived across the hall with her husband and infant son the same age as mine, took me under her wing and tried to help me figure out the new culture I was going to be living in.
One of her first lessons to me was that I was taking too long to say a sentence and she would have a hard time when speaking to me, not to finish my sentence for me. She actually did finish my sentences more often than not. She would say, "Why does it take you so long to say something you want to say?" We speak fast here. Again, I was very embarrassed about my language difference, and I tried to assimilate this fast new way of speaking into my language. (Something that has taken me at least 20 years to learn and I easily revert back to my prior way of speaking. LOL!) I was very happy to learn that my husband was facing the same instructions and frustrations at work.
Then there was the day that I got a phone call from my son's first grade teacher. She began by telling me how wonderful a student he was and how she enjoyed him in class. Then she went on to tell me that one of the little girls in class wanted to know what country we were from, the whole class had guessed "Mexico". I couldn't help but start laughing. The teacher was puzzled at my reaction, but I just went on to tell her that we were from Ohio. She was amazed herself at this revelation and I told her it must be because of our "slang" vocabulary that the class thought this. I knew then that I must become higher educated in English if I was ever to help my children become accepted in this area of Ohio.
And what about the difference between the words dinner and supper. Growing up in Murray City supper was the evening meal and dinner was served at noon, boy, did that ever get me in trouble. I was invited to dinner at my new girlfriends in Brunswick, Charlene Davis's , in 1985. I showed up at noon, she couldn't figure out what I was doing there so early and I couldn't figure out why she hadn't cooked after inviting me over. I soon learned that the evening meal in Cleveland was called dinner and the noon meal was called lunch, and a new term came in to play which was brunch, a ten o'clock meal for those who would rise late, and no one used the term supper at all. We still laugh about that one!
After many years living away from my hometown of Murray City, I have became aware of my language difference and how it has effected my life. But I still had no understanding of the root of my language difference and why my language was so apparently different to the majority of other Ohio residents north of Appalachian Ohio.
That was before I went back to college and began taking college courses at the age of 30. One thing you are taught about in high school in Appalachia is a broad overview of Ohio history and World history, but unfortunately you are not taught about Appalachian history. In college I took many history courses and learned about wars and migrations of people, but I still did not understand how history had personally effected my life experiences.
Then one semester in 1994, I took a class taught by a lovely African-American woman by the name of Dr. Sheila Berry. The class was called Multiculture in Education . I was studying to become a teacher and this class was one of the requirements of the program. I will always remember this course as a highlight of my college experience, and this professor because for the first time in my life I was told by an authority figure that it was okay to be different, to speak differently, and to have different dialects within communities. Dr. Sheila Berry, a person who had suffered many of the prejudices of society, was the first person to tell me that my dialect was something that I owned, it was my history and that I did not have to feel inadequate because of it, it was my experience in life and I should rejoice in it. To this day I feel great respect and honor for this woman for letting me be "Me", an "Appalachian-American".
The one thing that struck me odd when I graduated with my BS in education from the University of Akron, was graduating from the Buchtel (pronounced Bucktle as in belt buckle) College of Arts and Sciences. I had also graduated from Nelsonville-York high school in Buchtel (pronounced Booktool), Ohio. A popular drive through carry-out in Buchtel, Ohio was located on Akron Avenue as in Akron, Ohio. I also remembered that my dad played basketball as a young man in junior high for Buchtel -York in Buchtel, Ohio. It fleetingly crossed my mind about whether a connection existed between all the above. Buchtel, Ohio was in the southeast part of Ohio and Buchtel College was in the northeast part of Ohio, Akron to be precise. I remember walking by the statue of John R. Buchtel in the central Buchtel Commons of the University of Akron and wondering who this man was and why he had such a statue. I was told he was the founder of the college and that satisfied me at the time. I remember commenting on this to my parents, wondering about the strange coincidence in names.
Then my son who had begun college at the age of 15 at the University of Akron before graduating from high school , transferred to the Ohio University in Athens county to finish up his degree in Psychology. While he was a student in southeast Ohio, we spoke a great deal about the differences in the cultures, as now he had a first hand look at his ancestors Appalachian culture for himself. He had been born in the Appalachian area, but raised in the Cleveland area. In long discussions we analyzed the differences in speech between the two areas, and the prejudices perceived because of the speech differences. If you listen to someone speaking in Appalachia that was born and raised there today, the difference is still an obvious one. Stereotypes still exist of associating the dialect of the Appalachians with the poverty and disadvantaged educational opportunities resulting from the poverty which is a wide spread problem in the area. The question becomes, which came first, the educational disadvantage as a result of poverty or the dialect.
My son also thought it was interesting how easy it was for him to fluently speak the Cleveland dialect and also transfer just as easily to the Appalachian dialect. We spent many hours analyzing how this could be. I knew there must be a reason for these speech differences that was not the recognized stereotypical answer.
In the year 2000 I was asked to become the coordinator for the Athens county, Ohio genealogy website after having volunteered as a genealogy researcher for the website on the internet for three years prior. I took the challenge and in 2001 I was asked if I wanted to be the coordinator for Athens county for the American Local History Network and Ohio History Network. That is when I first began researching my Appalachian history.
Instead of just researching for a genealogical surname, I began to research the communities where I grew up. I was born in Nelsonville-Ohio, was raised in Orbiston, Barberton, Glouster, and Murray City. My mother was born in the now defunct town of Orbiston; my father was born in Murray City but was raised in Buchtel. I decided to create webpages of historical interest surrounding these towns and others in Athens and Hocking County, Ohio.
What I found in the research truly amazed me! I had previously based the length of America's history on the thickness of my history books. But now, nearly at the mid-span of my life, I can appreciate how short America's history truly is, and the towns I grew up in are very young in comparison to the history of the country. All the towns I grew up in were founded in the 1870's to 1880's. They have only been in existence for the last one hundred plus years.
What existed on the land before these towns? Nothing but forest wilderness and hunting grounds to the Native American peoples. Of course that was before the government decided to pay its soldiers for service in the great wars by giving them land previously owned by the Native Americans. These soldiers came and began farming the land, and other of my northeastern American ancestors were given land by the government if they would help start clearing the land and removing the natives from it. (This explained to me another memory from my childhood. A memory of excursions in the family car to see the totem poles that dotted the landscape around Shawnee and New Straitsville. I remember a feeling of awe for the people who had created these relics of the past.)
While researching, one of the first documents I found was a report on John R. Buchtel, founder of Buchtel, Ohio, which was written by Dr. Ivan Tribe, a professor at Rio Grande College and an expert in Appalachian history. This report was about the same John R. Buchtel, the man carved in stone for all to see at the University of Akron. This led me to other papers by Dr. Tribe, such as "The Coal Baron's of the Hocking Valley".
You might ask what was the significance between these papers and my dialect? Well, imagine the local history reported by Dr. Tribe: "Persons of great wealth took speculation on land which was pointed out by geologists as containing great mineral wealth, namely iron and coal. These wealthy men would build individual towns and industrial complexes with the most tantalizing offerings available of the time in order to attract laborers to these town which were basically located in the midst of the wilderness. Roads were rough-hewn trails, there were horse and buggy paths, there were no trains, basically travel in and out of these towns were limited. Little means of travel meant a town that was isolated and one that needed to be able to sustain itself. "
These men of wealth would provide everything to sustain the workers in these towns including churches, places of entertainment, grocery and company stores. The men would advertise the new town in foreign countries with a promise of a better life if the people would immigrate to America and to these towns. And so the migrations to these towns began for the thousands of people hoping for a better life in America.
John R. Buchtel was one of these wealthy men. He designed and established the town of Buchtel, Ohio, (around the location of his industrial Akron Iron Furnace,) the same area where I graduated from high school, the place where my ancestors resided since its beginning, and with his profits he was the founder of The University of Akron where I graduated from college. Thence, the coincidence of these names in both areas in Northeast and Southeast Ohio was explained.
According to the census records of 1900 for Murray City, Jobs, Buchtel, and Orbiston; the people living in these new towns immigrated directly from the countries of Russia, Prussia, Syria, Syria Turkey, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Canada, Lithuania, Nova Scotia, Rumania, Latavia, Germany, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, England, Italy, Greece, Peru, Mexico and Switzerland. ( the countries listed were reported as the homelands of the immigrants applying for Naturalization as citizens from 1907-1943 in Hocking County ) These people came directly from their foreign country to work in the small towns and mines of Hocking, Athens and Perry counties between the years 1890-1950.
People of the foreign nations came to Murray City to work in the coal mines when it was discovered that coal was a better way to fuel Iron Furnaces than charcoal created from lumber. There was a great demand for workers and they were promised a better life if they would immigrate to Southeast Ohio. They came to Orbiston to work at the Hellen Iron Furnace, and to Buchtel to work at the Akron Iron Furnace, and Straitsville to work at the Bessie Iron Furnace. All these towns were within seven miles of each other. The great iron furnaces were melting iron ore into pieces that could be shipped by train to the steel making companies. J. R. Buchtel even created a foundry in Nelsonville to make the items he needed for shipping the iron and coal. All outlying areas around the iron furnaces were populated by these foreigners as the need for coal and coal miners and iron workers escalated.
What a mixture of foreign languages and dialects existed in these small isolated towns of between 1000-2000 persons. At least half of these persons according to census records were children. These children were required to attend school to learn English and to read and write! What a chore this must have been to the teachers of the time period. How do you teach a group of children with such varied languages and cultures to read and write and even speak American English? These children included my great grandparents, and this new language got passed down to their descendants, including me! And every generation has added its own slant to this language.
I can hardly imagine how hard it was to teach these children from all these different countries. During my student teaching experience in 1995 I spent three months working with a 9 year old boy whose parents had just immigrated from Russia. I hardly knew where to begin, and decided to work on photos and matching word cards of common nouns such as car, truck, ambulance, etc. It was a painstaking work. Now multiply that work by seven or eight nationalities or more? Wow!
With this knowledge, I now feel that I have the answer to my mysterious speech. I can understand now why my grammar is different, why my speaking is slower and purposeful, why my dialect is singsong sounding. I also now understand why I say Ohio as "Uh-hi-ya" (short u sound substituted for the long O vowel sound, "hi" is an accentuated syllable, and "ya" substituted for the last long o vowel sound)!
The reason is that I speak an amalgamated language, a language that joined many nationalities into one group, a language that became easily understood to those who lived in these towns. Words had to be spoken slowly for understanding of the listener, which also explains why the speech of that area is slower. This language is not southern drawl; it is not a speech impediment! It is a distinct and understandable language to those raised in it. It has its own dialect and rules of grammar. It was a language of great importance to the peoples trying to work and live together in a new country.
I now feel very proud of this invented language. Can you imagine the effort it took on the part of the people who were living in these towns to communicate with each other? Can you even imagine being in a classroom with children of eight or nine different nationalities, who could not speak your language? Residents of these impoverished towns today do not speak slowly out of lack of intelligence, they shouldn't be written off as ignorant hillbilly's because they utilize educational tools, which were used to help the listener with communication. These language tools were passed down for generations and is just a part of the person's history.
My grandfather was born in 1920 in the isolated coal mine camp town of Coalgate, Ohio. These languages are listed in the census that year as being the natural speaking languages of the people living there: Slovak, Hungarian, Magyar, Irish, Scotch, English, German, Welch, Arabian and Polish. That is a listing of ten different languages in one very, very small community of about 200 people and half being children.
So please, don't write me off because my grammar may be different from your own. I may pronounce my e's as short i, my o's as ya's or short u's. The verb context of my sentences may be out of order, and I may have silent h' s at the beginning of the words I speak such as him or here. I may say "Cumear" for come here. I may say "all" for oil or "tar" for tire, or "woish" for wash, and "er" for o such as in "mater" (tomato) and "tater" (potato). I may ask you for a mango meaning a green bell pepper instead of meaning a tropical Mango south of the equator fruit.
You may misinterpret my meanings of my sentences because of the way I word them. For a very simple example, the phrase "Please wash the tar off." Tar could mean three different things, tar as in blacktop, tar as in tire, or tar as in tower. This is not a lack of intelligence, and it is not a speech impediment! It is just a language, a language all its own. Does it cause some misinterpretations? It can. This is a language that is continuing to evolve for the generations still living in these areas. Education is helping, but instead of being demeaned students should be made aware of this language, the history of this language, and made to feel proud of it.
This language is what I proudly take from my history and I take it with me everywhere,
it is called Appalachian (pronounced by locals as Ap-as in tap/ pul-as in pull / la-as in lay/ shun- as in ton).
If you had trouble understanding some of this essay, maybe its 'cause we don't speak the same language and that's okay!...
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