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American Varieties

Smoky Mountain Speech

If These Hills Could Talk — Speech
in the Great Smoky Mountains 

The people of the Smoky Mountains speak a colorful, twangy mountain talk that reflects their history and geography. Christine Mallinson, Becky Childs, Bridget Anderson and Neal Hutcheson tour these linguistically rich hills. (The research cited in this essay was first published in 2003.)

Driving the steep and windy roads along the border of western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee, it is easy to see why the Cherokee Indians who first settled in this mountainous region named it the “place of blue smoke.” The trademark of these hills is the ever-present blue-gray mist that casts a hazy glow over the dense fir and spruce pine covered landscape. The Smoky Mountains, or the “Smokies” as they are known locally, are a well-known destination for tourists from across the United States. At the same time, the lush forest, underground caves, and natural water sources provide a veil of cover under which one could easily fade into the backdrop of the mountains — as notorious fugitive Eric Rudolph did for nearly five years. The terrain has played a major role in the development of mountain life and culture, and continues to be a source of past and present local tradition.

Stereotypes abound about the people who call Appalachia their home. The common assumption is that it is a region lacking in racial and ethnic diversity, populated mostly by whites of European ancestry. But the Smoky Mountains and Appalachia in general were actually settled by diverse groups of people. Coming to the area around 1000 A.D., the Cherokee Indians left a strong legacy; Oconoluftee, Nantahala, Hiwassee, Cheoah, Junaluska, Cataloochee, and Cullowhee are just a few of the places whose names pay homage to the Smoky Mountains’ Cherokee settlers. Today, many flourishing communities of Cherokee Indians and other Native Americans still reside in the Smokies. For example, the Snowbird Cherokee in Graham County, North Carolina, continue to preserve their distinct ethnic and cultural identities as Native Americans and actively maintain their ancestral language. The tiny community of Snowbird contains nearly one-third of the total Cherokee-speaking population in the eastern United States, making it a significant community in the preservation and transmission of the Cherokee language and culture.

In addition to Native American groups, European Americans of varying ancestry — Scotch-Irish, English, German, Polish, Swiss, Portuguese, Spanish, French and more — have populated the Smoky Mountain region since the late 1700s and early 1800s. Likewise, some African Americans were also brought to the area as slaves of these white settlers, but independent, non-slave African American settlements have also existed in Appalachia since these earlier times. One small community, called Texana, was established in the Smoky Mountains as early as 1850. Located high on a mountain about a mile from Murphy, North Carolina, Texana was named for an African American woman named Texana McClelland, who founded the first black settlement in the area. Today the community has about 150 residents who still live along the same mountain hillside where the original inhabitants first settled.

Diversity and geographic isolation allowed for “mountain talk” to develop

As these diverse groups of white, black, and Native American founders settled in the Smoky Mountain area, they all brought with them many different ways of speaking. Because of the extreme ruggedness of the high country’s terrain, the relative inaccessibility of the Smoky Mountains allowed these different dialects to blend together in isolation over the past several centuries and develop into a distinct regional variety of speech that is often called “mountain talk.” Typically, outsiders who visit the area comment on the “twang” that they hear in locals’ speech. Indeed, many Smoky Mountain English pronunciations are quite different from the speech that travelers might hear in the North, in the Midwest, as well as other regions of the American South.

Pronunciation

Many of the vowels of the Smoky Mountain dialect are quite distinct from other English varieties, even those in Southern English. While these differences may sound strange to some people, these qualities give mountain talk a distinct character or, as one early dialectologist put it “a certain pleasing, musical quality…the colorful, distinctive quality of Great Smokies speech.” One feature noticed by newcomers to the area is that Smoky Mountain speakers often lengthen certain vowels and break them into what sounds like two syllables. For example, the “eh” sound in the word bear  may sound more like bayer, and the short “i” sound in a world like hill  may come to sound more like heal. In another example, which tends to be found in the speech of older mountain folk, the short a vowel can split and turn into a diphthong, usually before f, s, sh, and th sounds, so that a word like pass would sound like pace and grass like grace.

Another vowel characteristic of Smoky Mountain English speakers is their pronunciation of long “i.” The typical Smoky Mountain “i” is a broad, unglided version of “i,” so that the word bright  would approximate the sound of the word brat  and right would almost sound like rat. When “i is followed by an r, for example, the “ire” sound may sound more like “ar,” so that fire or tire will be pronounced as far or tar  by Smoky Mountain speakers.

The r  sound is an important feature of Smoky Mountain English

The r  sound is also an important feature of Smoky Mountain English. In contrast to some Southern English varieties that drop their r’s, as in deah for deer, Smoky Mountain English is primarily an r-pronouncing dialect. Moreover, in certain cases, mountain speakers may sound like they are even “adding” r’s to words where standard varieties do not use them. For example, visitors to the Smokies may hear winder  for window, feller  for fellow, and yeller  for yellow. Another pronunciation trait affects other vowels at the ends of words, so that extra and soda are pronounced as extry, and sody. In fact, it was not uncommon for us to hear older mountain speakers refer to a soft drink or soda pop as sody water.

Grammar

Differences in pronunciation are not the only distinguishing traits of Smoky Mountain English. Distinct grammatical features characterize it as well. Perhaps one of the most well-known features is the tendency for Smoky Mountain speakers to attach the a prefix (pronounced as uh) to verbs that end in -ing, particularly when they are telling stories or recounting events. For example, one might hear a Smoky Mountain English speaker say, “One night that dog was a-beggin’ and a-cryin’ to go out.” Although this sentence may occur in many varieties of American English, it is the most common in Appalachia and in Smoky Mountain English.

Another common feature of Smoky Mountain English is the tendency to regularize or use different verb forms in the past tense. This may take the form of using was  where standard English would prescribe were, as in the sentence “We saw a bear when we was a-huntin’ yesterday.” Or, speakers may use irregular past forms such as growed instead of grew or clumb instead of climbed. Although many of these sentence structures may be considered by some people to be “bad grammar” or “bad English,” these nonstandard dialect variations are no better or worse than any other language differences. Often, in fact, these features reflect older language patterns that were considered proper and standard at one time during the development of English.

Many of the differences in the Smoky Mountain dialect can be attributed to the linguistic legacy that was brought by the original founders to the area. Numerous early white settlers who came to the Smokies in the late 1700s were of Scotch-Irish descent. In the language these settlers carried over from Ireland and Scotland, adding an -s to third person plural verbs was an acceptable grammatical feature. As a result, we find many mountain speakers using constructions such as “The people that goes there” — not because they are speaking incorrect grammar, but because this form is similar to the way of marking agreement with certain types of verbs and plural nouns in Scotch-Irish English.

Double modals such as might could are features of Smoky Mountain English

Smoky Mountain English also uses special combinations of helping verbs — can, could, may, might, must, ought to, shall, should, will, and would. Speakers of many rural dialects may use more than one modal verb together with another, usually to mark a particular speaker frame of mind. The most frequent double modal combination is formed with might  and the verb could, as in “If it quits raining, you might could go.” In this sentence, the speaker is indicating that if conditions are right, then the action in the future may be able to take place. Although this use may create some confusion for those who are not native users of this construction and who are unfamiliar with it, these verb combinations express possibility or probability in English that is not otherwise available through a simple construction. Double modals such as might would, would might, may could, and even such interesting combinations as might should ought to are used to nuance meanings in subtle ways.

The verb particle done is also used in significant ways. In the sentence, “She done gone there already,” the verb form done is combined with a past verb form to emphasize the fact that an action has already been completed. Completive done is used quite frequently in Smoky Mountain English, but it is also found in other rural varieties of American English and in African American English as well. The form liketa also has a special meaning in Smoky Mountain English. In the sentence, “It was so cold on our camping trip last night, we liketa froze to death,” the speaker using this construction to indicate a narrowly averted action — real or imagined; the campers knew they weren’t literally going to freeze to death, but they were still worried that they would. Dialects may often use unique words and phrases to represent aspects of verb tense that standard English cannot express as succinctly.

Vocabulary

Many Smoky Mountain dialect words refer to unique places in the mountains

One of the most obvious ways in which the Smoky Mountain dialect distinguishes itself is in its vocabulary. Like any dialect, Smoky Mountain English has terms that refer to the mountain way of life and are woven into mountain culture. For example, many Smoky Mountain dialect words refer to unique places in the mountains. For example, bald means a mountaintop with no trees, branch is an area or settlement defined by a creek, bottom is a low-lying area or valley, and holler  is a valley surrounded by mountains. Other vocabulary items refer to inhabitants or features of the mountain landscape. Jasper refers to an outsider, someone who is not from the mountains. Boomer  is the name of the red squirrel that is indigenous to the Smokies. Poke salad is a salad made of wild greens that grow in the mountains — poisonous unless boiled properly before eaten. And a ramp is a small wild onion with a distinctive, long-lasting smell.

Still other words are variants that may or may not have counterparts in standard English; for example, cut a shine for dance, tote for carry, fetch for go get, sigogglin for crooked or leaning, tee-totally for completely, and yander or yonder to mean over there. Other old-fashioned words, such as dope for soft drink or soda pop, are still used in the mountains, although elsewhere these terms have fallen out of use. Even though some of the unique words are carryovers from earlier history, especially Scotch-Irish English, we also see new words being invented and the meanings of old words being changed and adapted to fit current communicative needs.

One of the most characteristic items of the Smokies is the use of you’ns where other Southerners might use the more familiar variant, y’all, pronounced more like yuns or yunz than a simple combination of you-ones. You’ns is most typically used for plural but may be used when speaking either to one person in special circumstances. In fact, next time you visit the Smokies, ask for directions and you’re likely to hear, “Where you’ns from Although outsiders may think that “mountain talk” is unsophisticated or uneducated, the complex features briefly surveyed here indicate that this dialect is anything but simple. The people of the Smoky Mountains have created and maintained a dialect that reflects both their history and their identity. This dialect is quite distinct both linguistically and socially. As you will hear when you visit the area, mountain talk displays and preserves local tradition, culture, and experience. To hear the language of the Smoky Mountains is to hear the mountains talk.

A Short Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English

afeared

afraid

airish

breezy, chilly

bald

treeless mountaintop

bluff

cliff, usually facing a river

boomer

red squirrel indigenous to the Smokies

bottom

flat land along a stream or riverbed

branch

area or settlement defined by a creek

britches

pants

cut a shine

to dance

dope

soft drink, soda pop

eh law!

Oh well!

fair up

when rainy weather clears up

fetch

to get

fritter

fried patty made out of cornmeal

haint

ghost

holler

valley surrounded by mountains

jasper

outsider, stranger

liketa

almost, nearly

mountain laurel

rhododendron

painter

local pronunciation of “panther”

pick

to play a stringed bluegrass instrument, like a banjo or a guitar

plait

to braid

poke

bag or sack

poke salad

wild greens boiled to leach out poisons; often mixed with egg

razor back

wild hog

ramp

small wild onion

right smart

great in quality, quantity, or number

sigogglin

tilted or leaning at an angle, crooked

tee-totally

completely

tote

to carry

(over) yander/yonder

over there (in the distance)

young’un

child

you’ns

you (plural); pronounced “yunz”

Christine Mallinson, a Ph.D. student in sociology and anthropology at North Carolina State University, and Becky Childs, a Ph.D. student in linguistics at the University of Georgia, are currently conducting sociolinguistic research in Texana and Murphy, N.C. Bridget Anderson is as an assistant professor of English and Linguistics at the University of Georgia who is from this area, and Neal Hutcheson is a videographer with the North Carolina Language and Life Project at North Carolina State University who recently produced the documentary Mountain Talk.

Reprinted courtesy: Language Magazine

Suggested Reading/Additional Resources

  • Mountain Talk. A video documentary directed by Neal Hutcheson. North Carolina Language and Life Project. North Carolina State University. 2003.
  • Smoky Mountain Voices: A Lexicon of Southern Appalachian Speech Based on the Research of Horace Kephart. Edited by Horace Kephart, J. Karl Nicholas, and Harold F. Farwell.  University Press of Kentucky, 1993.
  • Montgomery, Michael B. and Joseph S. Hall. Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English.  University of Tennessee Press, 2003.

Christine Mallinson is a Ph.D. student in the department of Sociology and Anthropology at North Carolina State University. She previously received her MA in English/Linguistics from North Carolina State University after completing her bachelor's degree in Sociology and German from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her primary research interests are in the field of sociolinguistics, and her current research investigates the intersection of language with regional and ethnic identity in a community of African Americans in Western North Carolina.

Becky Childs received her M.A. in English with a concentration in linguistics from North Carolina State University and is now pursuing a PhD in Linguistics at the University of Georgia. Her research interests include language variation, specifically phonetic variation in English dialects.

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