Appalachian trails
The Colorful Language of the Mountain People 

By Nancy Clark Brown

This article appeared the in the Coalfield Progress, 1977

Many people who show a great interest in the detailed and sometimes difficult art of genealogical research often have a tendency to overlook one of the most fascinating facts of ancestral antiquity, the colorful language of mountain people. When I was much younger I was teased a great deal by my northern city relatives about my manner of speech. Being “Mountain-born” and “mountain-reared”, I indulged my relatives in that good natured jesting, being taught at an early age that courtesy and politeness far supercede rudeness in any situation, but one thing is for certain, I was never ashamed of my country brogue, and I have always considered my mountain “drawl”  as much a part of my heritage as any character trait that I have.

It seems impossible to me that anyone could truly learn anything about the pioneer days of our ancestors without first being acquainted with their personal manner and way of speech. The diction and pronunciation of the “forgotten” language of the mountain people was, of course, very different that our present speech, but aside from the pronounced variance in the manner of their talk, there was also a more intense sound and feeling in the way they expressed themselves.

Most of our forefathers seemed to have little fear and uncertainty as far as their speech was concerned, and as a result, their talk tended to be forthright and plain. A was said to be only as good as “His Word”!

It is hard to imagine today, when silence between neighbors, and often between families is the accepted as norm, just how rich and varied were the opportunities for the art of conversation in those early pioneer times. In all pioneer homes, life revolved about the family, and the activities of all family members was the primary topic of all conversation. Nobody went anywhere without “filling-in” the rest of the clan, nobody did anything outside of the home without reporting promptly to the family, and nobody returned from a new experience without relating the entire endeavor over “supper-time” at home. 

In those early days, nothing was standardized, nothing could be taken for granted, and everything was in the process of rapid change. The work was done by people and their animals, not by machines and computers, and the accomplishments of those courageous and dedicated people who carved a society out of these mountains, were shared continuously with each other by the art of conversation. There existed a constant need for conversation among the peoples of the mountains, and nothing was hid behind institutional walls, neither death nor birth, neither the glorious achievements of one of the local residents, not the scandalous activities of “ner-do-well” and all this news traveled by word of mouth. Due to the scarcity of printed material, hymns were “lined-out” in church, schooling consisted mainly of memory work and recitation. My Grandmother, by the way, can still recite every lesson she learned in school some fifty-five years ago.

Our grandparents and great-grandparents lived in a world where their culture had been contained in the minds and memories of their kin. There was generally at least one member of each family that was endowed with a wealth of rhyme, tales, ballads, crafts and songs, a store-house of knowledge that, during pioneer years, was constantly being enriched. Some of the fondest memories of my youth are the endless hours that I spent listening to Uncle Frank Powers recounting tales of intrigue and adventure. He seems to feel that it was his sacred duty to reiterate the saga of the past generations to all his younger clan, and his story-telling was always flavored with phrases from the “old-days”. After a few “bear tales” and few “haint-tales” he would invariably drift into the subject of how “old-timers” used to talk, and even though most of those old sayings are obsolete in our area today, they were as much a part of our ancestors way of life as were the spinning wheel and the bull-tounged plow.

I am sure a lot of our readers will recall with fondness many of the old phrases, even though they may seem like a foreign language to some; neighbors would send a “mess” of fresh meat, meaning enough for a meal; a man could “nuss” a baby, or rather hold a child on his lap; today we talk, and talk, and talk, old timers “harped away”; a person who took a lengthy visit was “gone a whet”; “young-uns” could “piddle” away more time than a “dead-clock”; all visitors were invited to “light and stay a spell”; we all have been as “mad as a hornet”; and have on occasion said “in that fancy dress, she looks like the The Queen of Sheba”; one was warned to never put all your eggs in one basket, and if he did, he was said to have driven his ducks to a bad pond; everyone looked forward to going to a “play-party”; Grandpa never worked a day a “public-works” in his life; even the smallest child knew that a “crick” was bigger than a branch and smaller than a river; people that would not practice personal discipline would “go-to-pot” and families would “run-to-seed”. Mrs. So and So sure was “breaking fast”; and almost everyone had “bottoms” or “bellies”.

This “forgotten language” of our ancestors is not something that we should make fun of, but rather relish as part of our true heritage as mountain people. We must remember that not all pioneers at any time spoke exactly alike, and in those early years those differences were more pronounced. Even today, differences in speech patterns of people residing in the same region are accepted as parts of life, but the big difference in those times and now is that “what” pioneer men said was important that the sounds he made saying it!

submitted by Nancy Clark Brown ©2001

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