I would hazard a guess that most natives of Appalachia who travel or relocate outside the region have been subject to, at best, curiosity, and at worst, derision, about the way they talk.
West Virginia native Denise Giardina is the award-winning author of Storming Heaven, The Unquiet Earth, and Saints and Villains. A professor told her that she should stick to writing about the West Virginia coalfields instead of writing about German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, because “You’ve got this accent. It clashes with what you’re reading. It doesn’t feel right.”
Lee Smith, author of fifteen books, including Oral History and Fair and Tender Ladies, and recipient of two O. Henry Awards and the Robert Penn Warren Prize for fiction, related an incident that happened to her in the 1970s. She had been asked to address a class of graduate students at Columbia University. When she began to speak, about one-third of the students got up and left. They made a snap judgment about her intelligence and credentials based on her accent.
Some people assume that the way we talk reflects a lack of education or simple ignorance. Apparently that was what Late Show host Stephen Colbert feared that people would think about him. He grew up in South Carolina but has no discernible Southern accent. He's been quoted as saying, "At a very young age, I decided I was not gonna have a Southern accent."
I've heard of organizations that offer classes to teach young Appalachians and Southerners how to change the way they talk. I'm not sure how I feel about that.
My own experience has been a strange one. When I was younger, natives from my own neck of the woods would say, “You’re not from around here, are you?” My response, that I was born in Eastern Kentucky and raised right here in Southwest Virginia, was met with surprise, suspicion, or downright disbelief. Yet, when I traveled outside the region, I was pegged as Mountain, Southern, or Texan. No matter where I was, when I opened my mouth, I was a misfit.
On one occasion, a telemarketer observed that I had a lovely Scottish accent. Alrighty, then. Perhaps her ears picked up the speech rhythms of my Scots-Irish ancestors. I like to think that the ghosts of our ancestors linger in our language.
My friend, poet Jane Hicks, has a fitting answer for questions about the way we talk.
Where You From, Honey?
(my answer upon explaining my accent)
for George Ella Lyon
I am from the quilts I sew.
Up from under grandmother’s frame
where I played as a toddler,
to the first crooked stitches
she let me sew near the corner.
I am from the counterpanes
spread by an Irish serving girl
over her lady’s soft bed.
I am from the scraps of immigrants
pieced into the pattern of me.
English, Irish, Scots, and Welsh
pulled my threads up from the South,
down the wide valley,
through the Gap, up the mountains,
a Celtic knot on a Log Cabin Quilt.
Jane Hicks, “Where You From, Honey?” In Blood & Bone Remember, Jesse Stuart Foundation, 2005. (Originally published in Iron Mountain Review.)
Based on an article I wrote for The Coalfield Progress in September 2006.