Did early Appalachian settlers talk like I do?

I’ve lived in East Tennessee (yes, we capitalize “East”) for more or less my entire life, and I’ve got the accent to prove it.  I tend to be most conscious of it when pronouncing the words “iron,” “get,” and “our.”

Fellow grad students tell me it’s quite noticeable, although I’ve had many people tell me otherwise.  One of the things I enjoyed most about working in a museum was getting to meet people from all over the country.  Some visitors noticed my accent right away and seemed to get a bigger kick out of hearing me ask them not to take flash photos of the artifacts than they did out of seeing the artifacts themselves.  Others would ask me where I was from and were shocked to find out that I was a native of the region: “But you don’t have an accent!”

I don’t get many comments on my accent when I travel, except in Montana, of all places.  In fact, I’ve probably had more people remark on my speech on trips to Montana than in all the other places I’ve visited combined.  But I don’t hold it against them; no one was ever rude about it, and even if they were, the state that gave the world the first T. rex specimen gets a free pass from me for just about everything.  A couple of my relatives, on the other hand, have encountered offensive reactions to their speech while traveling; my aunt had a particularly unpleasant experience with a food server in eastern Virginia.  (Personally, most of the crap I’ve had to deal with in terms of negative attitudes toward Appalachians has come from people who have moved to the region from elsewhere, not people I’ve met while traveling.)

Anyway, since we’ve been on the subject of early American dialects, I thought I might discuss a question I’ve often pondered while studying frontier involvement in the American Revolution.  What did the settlers who lived in Appalachia in the late eighteenth century sound like?  If I could hop in a time machine and visit East Tennessee or southwestern Virginia in 1780 to record a little oral history for my dissertation, would my subjects’ speech sound anything like my own?  Or would it be another case of the past as a foreign country?

Many scholars trace the roots of Appalachian dialect—and southern highland culture in general—to migrants from northern Britain, and especially to the Scotch-Irish who came to the American backcountry from Ulster in the years preceding the American Revolution.  In Albion’s Seed, David Hackett Fischer claims that there’s quite a bit of continuity between the speech patterns of early Scotch-Irish migrants and the English that their descendants still speak today (p. 652):

This American speech way is at least two centuries old.  It was recognized in the colonies even before the War of Independence, and identified at first in ethnic rather than regional terms, as “Scotch-Irish speech.”  In the backcountry, it rapidly became so dominant that other ethnic stocks in this region adopted it as their own.  As early as 1772, a newspaper advertisement reported a runaway African slave named Jack who was said to “speak the Scotch-Irish dialect.”

The earliest recorded examples of this “Scotch-Irish” speech were strikingly similar to the language that is spoken today in the southern highlands, and has become familiar throughout the western world as the English of country western singers, trans-continental truck drivers, cinematic cowboys, and backcountry politicians.

Despite Fischer’s argument for continuity, some of the examples of regional dialect he provides sound as alien to me as I presume they would to someone from any other place.  In fact, I’d only heard a couple of the terms from his list of Appalachian “Scotch-Irishisms,” and even those few aren’t terms I’ve heard often (and seldom from younger Appalachians).  I’d imagine that the purely “Scotch-Irish” aspects of the region’s dialect were much more pronounced in the early years of settlement than they are now.

One other thing to keep in mind is that many of these eighteenth-century backcountry settlers were first-generation immigrants.  Thus the dialects I might hear on my hypothetical trip back in time would include the very same accents a visitor to eighteenth-century Ireland or Scotland would hear.  In fact, visitors to the eighteenth-century frontier sometimes noted the distinct speech patterns of the Irish and Scottish immigrants they met.

Furthermore, while the Scotch-Irish contribution to the backcountry population was significant, it didn’t account for everybody.  To take an example from the King’s Mountain expedition, Lt. Col. Frederick Hambright, who settled in the Carolina upcountry, was born in Bavaria.  If later accounts are any indication, he retained a pronounced German accent well into his later years.  And Isaac Shelby, a King’s Mountain commander who lived in present-day East Tennessee before settling in Kentucky, was the son of Welsh immigrants.  Perhaps growing up in a household with Welsh parents left an impression on his own speech.

John Sevier’s linguistic heritage was especially complicated.  He was born in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley to a father who’d migrated from England just a few years earlier, and the father’s father was French.  Growing up in a home where the father was an Englishman raised by a Frenchman, and coming of age among Scotch-Irish and German neighbors…what in the world would Sevier’s speech have sounded like?

Perhaps it would’ve been rather Scotch-Irish in spite of his family’s history.  Fischer argues that Scotch-Irish speech patterns became prevalent in the backcountry pretty early, diluting some of the other dialects that early migrants brought from elsewhere.  Maybe someday a historian and a linguist can get together and reconstruct the speech of these settlers of the eighteenth-century southern frontier, similar to what David Crystal has done for Shakespearean English.  Until then, I suppose I’ll have to wonder how much of a linguistic foreign country the early Appalachian frontier really was.

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2 Comments

Filed under Appalachian History, Tennessee History

2 responses to “Did early Appalachian settlers talk like I do?

  1. Ramona

    When I first moved to TN 43 years ago, the speech, especially colloquialisms was much more pronounced than it is today and I too have often wondered what language sounded like centuries ago. I taught in a very backwater school in Hawkins Co. and each valley had its own variation of accent and expressions. I think as people have moved to the mountains from outside, the young have been more exposed to media and they are traveling farther, language has become more standardized. It would be interesting to try to figure out what mountain people sounded like but I think you hit the key in that these folks came from so many places that it would be nearly impossible to come up with a general accent unless it was by region or even by valley in some cases.

  2. April Payne

    Being a descendant of John Sevier, the only thing I can tell you about his manner of speech came from the account of someone who knew him, via a book about him. It was either by Francis Marion Turner, or Gilmore. I’ve read so many books, I can’t quite recall. Apparently, my ancestor spoke rapidly. He also walked rapidly. I get a vague picture of an early “Energizer Bunny”, as he was also always on the ‘go’. :O

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