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Why do West Virginians talk the way they do?

Why do West Virginians talk the way they do?
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Lost River State Park. Credit: West Virginia Department of Tourism

CLARKSBURG, W.Va. (WBOY) — Have you ever wondered why people in Appalachia don’t seem to sound like people from anywhere else? Do words like “holler” and “buggy” get you weird looks in other parts of the country? Let’s do a deep dive into the origins of what is known as “Appalachian English.”

According to jstor.org, Appalachian English originates primarily from the Scots-Irish immigrants that came to Appalachia in the early years of the United States, though they are not the only influence. These immigrants brought a more recent British English vocabulary with them compared to the already established colonial population that had developed its own dialect. This is why you hear words like “reckon” used in Appalachian English as well as British English, yet very few other places in the U.S.


For several years, Appalachia was seen as a sort of time capsule for the old “Shakespearean” style of English. JSTOR says that Josiah Combs (1888-1960), an English professor well versed in Appalachian folklore, said that “the Southern mountaineers are the conservators of Old, Early, and Elizabethan English in the New World. These four million mountaineers of the South from West Virginia to northern Alabama form the body of what is perhaps the purest Old English blood to be found among English-speaking peoples. Isolated from the outside world, and shut in by natural barriers, they have for more than two centuries preserved much of the language of Elizabethan England.”

However, as time progressed and more studies were conducted, this idea of a pure version of Elizabethan English frozen in time, turned out to be a myth. Despite this, Appalachians and Southerners have stuck closer to this “pure” version of English more than any other large population group in the U.S.

Several other cultures also had an influence on Appalachian English, including the African-American population. During slavery, a unique style of speech known as African American Vernacular English (AAVE) developed among the black population in the U.S. One of the primary characteristics of AAVE is that speech often has a missing copula. For example, AAVE users say “you ugly” rather than “you are ugly,” a feature that has become a trait in Appalachian English as well.

The term “hillbillies” also has a Scots-Irish origin dating back to even before these immigrants came to America. According to blueridgemountainstravelguide.com, 90% of settlers in Appalachia in the 18th and 19th centuries were Scots-Irish protestants, many of which supported the protestant King of Scotland, William of Orange, known otherwise as “King Billy.”

In 1689, former King James II invaded Ireland which forced William’s followers, known as “Billyboys,” to develop a guerilla style of warfare by hiding in the trees and hills to stage sneak attacks on James’ Catholic army.

When these “Billyboys” immigrated to America, New England was already full of prior British settlers. This caused the Scots-Irish to settle southwest into the mountains instead, earning the slang term “hillbillies” from the British colonials who still had a prejudice against them.





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