Language is the means that we use to communicate with each other, and it helps to define who we are as a people, as well as how we think. A language can contain a word or phrase that is as unique to its birthplace as a thumbprint is to a person. With that said, let’s look at the unique phrases found in the Appalachian language.
The History of the Appalachian Language Time Capsule
Before we start looking at some of the more colorful aspects of the Appalachian language in this series, we should briefly examine its history first. Now, we should note that some of this is theoretical, and you will find people on either side of the thought aisle. We’ll present the evidence and let the reader decide.
The popular theory among many people is that the Appalachian language is like a time capsule. The roots of the dialect came along with settlers to the new world. These hardy people went into the Appalachians and settled among the abundant resources available there. But in doing so, they ended up cutting themselves off from the rest of the country, and most definitely from their roots in Europe and other places.
The natural isolation of the Appalachians and the Blue Ridge Mountains served to keep the Appalachian language alive without outside influences. In the mountains, the common vernacular continued, and it evolved little beyond its roots.
The Elizabethan Thread
There is some evidence that the language of the mountains has a direct tie to Elizabethan English. For example, the word “afeard” (and its alternative spelling “afeared”) was heard in the local communities. But you will also find it in over 31 Shakespearean works.
A story from William and Mary College perpetuates this theory. When a young man from Appalachia attended the school in 1928, one of his literary professors took an interest with the man’s father, who was there to pick him up. The professor convinced the man, born in 1865 in the mountains, to make a recording, and from that point on referred to it as an example of the true Elizabethan accent.
The Great Vocal Shift
Old English used the word “afeared” as well, and you could find it in widespread use before the 1700s. However, after that time the word was replaced in English by the modern “afraid.”
The reason for the change in language came about because of the Great Vowel Shift. Before this point, vowels tended to be pronounced at the back of the throat. This pronunciation lends itself directly to hard consonant endings. But with the shift, pronunciation became distinct, and language constructs changed accordingly.
This timeline gives us an almost direct path to trace the Appalachian language. That is, it came to America before 1700, and stayed in seclusion. The speakers did not take part in the Great Vowel Shift, so the mountain language stayed pure to its pre-1700 roots while the rest of the world moved on.
The Native American Influence
At the time people settled the mountains, Native Americans were very much present. However, it seems that very little of the Native American languages integrated into the Appalachian one. The speakers stayed true to their roots, just as stubborn with it as they were on thriving in the mountains. In contrast, groups in other parts of the Americas did absorb a lot of the Native American language.
But there are exceptions; one is location names. In the Appalachians, you will find many distinct Native American named places, such as “Kanawha,” “Tennessee,” and even the word “Appalachia” itself. perhaps keeping the names the same was the compromise worked out by the settlers, or perhaps it was merely done out of convenience. Either way, it’s part of the history now.
The Technology Influence
Unfortunately, technology has left its footprint in the mountains when it comes to language. In surprising places, you will discover big satellite dishes from the 80s. That dish opened the world to many locals and introduced them to a new way of using language.
It didn’t take long for new words to start being used, and today you will find many of these influences as technology brings its “window on the world” to more parts of Appalachia. The time capsule is broken, but there are still pockets where the original language thrives.
A Look at Some Choice Phrases
With such an intriguing history, it is easy to imagine that there are many unique phrases to be found in the Appalachian language. While it didn’t evolve as quickly as many others, there were still some bright folks that made it work for them. Let’s look at a few now.
Directly is a word that I’ve heard used many times in the mountains. While it is a common word for English, its usage is unique. That is, people of Appalachia will use the word as a unit of time.
For example, I would be staying with my grandfather, and I would ask him when my parents would be back to get me (looking back, I must have been an irritating child). His response was almost always, “they’ll be here directly.” Now, he pronounced it with only two syllables, so the word sounded more like “drectly,” but I got his meaning.
What he meant was that my parents would be back as soon as possible. There were going to take the most direct path available. I can’t imagine any faster way to get there, so I was happy with his response. Of course, that didn’t stop me from asking again in a few minutes.
In today’s world, you can hear the word “drug” virtually every day, and in both the positive and negative way. In most cases being a drug user is a bad thing, but a life-sustaining drug is a miracle to be heralded by all. You can be a drug lord or drug company, and both involve substantial sums of money. It can get confusing.
In the mountains of the past, things were much simpler. The only time someone did a drug was when they had finished dragging something out of the barn. There, “drug” is the past tense of “drag,” and I think I welcome this definition over the other.
Now, don’t get me wrong – there were drugs in the mountains then, which could be another discussion. They just used a different nomenclature.
Kyarn (or Cyarn)
This word is one that you did not want to experience for yourself. When something smelled atrocious, you would hear this phrase thrown around. Many times, you could catch the phrase, “That smells like kyarn,” and when you did, you did not want to go investigate the source.
The origin of the word came from the English “carrion,” which refers to dead or rotting flesh. If you have ever experienced it yourself, you know that the stench of rotting flesh is not an easy one to forget. It’s easy to see how the label would make an impression and stick around the next time you needed a fitting description.
The word was simplified using the back of the throat pronunciation. It rolled off the tongue of the speaker as a single syllable, and soon kyarn was born.
In time, kyarn was used to refer to all manners of unpleasant smell sources. Many of the speakers forgot its origins and assumed that it referred to human excrement. This reassignment is why you will find the phrase “a piece of kyarn” when referring to something, or someone, that they did not particularly like. No, it wasn’t a compliment.
In this first part of our series on the Appalachian language we have looked at its rich history, and how it could be a living time capsule from many centuries ago. We have also looked at a few examples of the language and saw how they were commonly used. In part 2 we’ll pick up from there and discuss some more colorful phrases that still don’t have a direct equal in our modern language. But don’t worry, we’ll be back directly.