The unique language of Southern Appalachia

Flipping through the pages of the new Dictionary of Southern Appalachian English, released this week by the University of North Carolina Press, you’ll find the stories of tens of thousands of words and phrases unique to the American South.

There are words like “ring tailed tooter” and “wooly booger” that I was sure must’ve only ever been said by my grandfather. And in the history of Appalachian language, you’ll find the history of Appalachia. The confluence of Scotch-Irish, Native and African dialects blending to create a new sound.

This week on the Reckon Interview, we speak with Jennifer Heinmiller, co-author of the Dictionary of Southern Appalachian English.

We discuss the early 20th century origin of this project, the process of gathering and investigating words to include in a collection such as this, the way Southern Appalachian English has changed with new technologies, and some of her favorite terms and phrases that are included in this edition.

I promise this will be the most fun you’ve ever had with a dictionary.

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Below is a transcript of the episode.

John Hammontree: You are the co-author of the dictionary of Southern Appalachian English. It covers, I believe, eight states that make up the Appalachian south and something like 10,000 entries. Exactly how many words could we expect to find in this dictionary? And you know, it’s structured in kind of an interesting way. So how is it set up?

Jennifer Heinmiller: Yeah, it’s that ballpark. Around 10,000. The text itself is more than 1.3 million words in length. So it’s a pretty hefty volume. And it is kind of different from your typical dictionary in that it’s a historical dictionary, which means that each entry consists of the head word, and then usually a pretty short definition, and then a paragraph of historical citations. And by citations, I mean, examples taken from historical documents or recorded interviews or newspaper clippings that really show the word in context. And it provides a really great illustration of how that word was or is used.

Hammontree: And this is actually an update of an older project that was originally the Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English. And that was published, I guess, about 15-16 years ago. Why was this originally undertaken to try to document this region of the country’s English? How does it differ from the rest of American English? And how did you determine what regions to cover in your updated version?

Heinmiller: So the impetus of this project was originally a research project undertaken by Joseph Hall, who was originally hired by the US National Park Service to document the speech and culture of the people in the Great Smoky Mountains. And that was back in 1937, that was just after the park service had established Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1934. And they decided they wanted to create a record of the people who had lived in the area prior to the park being founded, at the time the park service was actually in the process of removing all of these residents from their homes, and finalizing land purchases in the area and determining the boundaries of the park.

As you can imagine, there was a lot of conflict regarding what the park would look like both in the boundaries and just you know what form it would take. And you had some people asserting that it should be a completely natural area free of human inhabitants, like the other national parks, especially those out west. But other people wanted a more like resort style experience with highways and hotels and all sorts of amenities sprinkled throughout the park.

But at any rate, the Park Service decided it was important to at least document the speech and culture of these people who lived there before their ways of life were destroyed by the Park Service itself, I might say. You know, I love the park, nothing against that. But at any rate, even without the establishment of the park, it was already on the radar of anthropologists and linguists that certain varieties of English and certain cultures were diminishing or, you know, changing with the arrival of modern culture, even back then.

So at that time, a guy named Roy Appleman, excuse me, who was a historian with the Park Service was put in charge of the project. And he was already friends with Joseph Hall, so Hall was this guy who was originally from Montana, spent a lot of his life in California, and he had actually just spent a year studying at the Sorbonne in Paris, like no connection to Appalachia at all. And he had just started graduate school at Columbia University in New York. And he was like, “yeah, sure, I’ll do it. I want to make some money for grad school.”

So yeah, he took the job and he was, I will say, he was kind of an outdoorsman. He was an early member of the Sierra Club and really liked hiking, and outdoor activities. He came early in the summer of 1937. And like so many of us, he just immediately fell in love with the area, the beauty of the area, the people here. And throughout the course of that summer, he ended up completely filling four notebooks, you know, all handwritten notes, of course, at that time, and realized there was so much more work to be done. And decided, you know, almost immediately to start planning subsequent trips. He did that very soon afterwards. I think his second trip was just a couple years later in 1939.

And, you know, going into it, he was already a trained linguist and researcher, and he was able to put those skills to very good use, and he amassed one of the largest collections of Appalachian culture in existence. Even today. With dozens of interviews on the, you know, this huge old recording equipment, he was dragging those around the mountains, in the back country. And he published three books on the subject, including a really great work on the phonetics of Smoky Mountain speech, as he called it, and a large glossary. He started doing this like over the course of decades.

Then, Michael Montgomery, my co-author, who unfortunately passed away a couple of years back, he started corresponding with Hall, I believe, in the early 1980s. So Michael was just finishing up his Ph. D work, I believe. And Hall had just retired from teaching in California, like even though he fell in love with this area, he ended up, you know, going back to California. So the two of them became friends and Hall passed in 1992. And at that point, Michael inherited his entire collection of Appalachian Smoky Mountain English materials.

And I guess, as Michael told me, he had been looking for a project to really sink his teeth into and he just wanted to do something huge so he decided to take the glossary that Hall created, as well as the interviews, and just use that material and create a dictionary. From the very beginning, he wanted to base it on the principles of the Oxford English Dictionary, which became this kind of, you know, historical reference work rather than just glossary style with word definitions. So he worked on that and it published, as you said, in 2004, by University of Tennessee Press. It is a great text. A lot of people have a copy of it.

But almost as soon as it hit the printers, Michael was ready to do an expanded version. He saw the limitations of it, he wanted to broaden the scope. And so he was already collecting materials for that from a more diverse range of sources in the mid 2000s. So just prior to when I met him. And he brought me on originally as a graduate assistant at the University of South Carolina. So that was in 2008. He was already retired from teaching, but he was still working like more than full time on all these research projects.

And he brought me on for another project. But we got to talking and I don’t know, I guess he saw a lexicographer in me and asked if I would be interested in learning about lexicography, and joining the dictionary project. And, of course, I said, “Yeah, let’s let’s do it.”

Hammontree: For our audience who doesn’t know, can you just give us a working definition of lexicography and what that is?

Heinmiller: Sure. Lexicography is basically just the art and crafting of dictionaries.

Yeah, I learned what lexicography was at that point. And yeah, he started training me. And then a few years later, we started going to conferences together and going around, you know, North Carolina, Tennessee, South Carolina, doing research together. And he named me co-author of the project.

It was interesting because at the time, I was more focused on an endangered language indigenous to one of the outlying islands of the Okinawan archipelago in Japan, like, you know, about as far from Appalachia as you can get. But I I’m interested in minority languages and varieties of all types, and I have some history family roots in East Tennessee. And yeah, so of course, I was very interested.

And I just dove right in and I’ve been on the project now. It’s been almost 13 years at this point.

Hammontree: Wow. And as you mentioned, he unfortunately passed away a few years ago. So all that stuff that he inherited, you know, is that now in your possession? Does that belong to the university or museum? How does that work?

Heinmiller: A little bit of both. I mean, I do have like, a bunch of his materials sitting here in my office right now. Some of the rarer books that he had acquired, we donated to some rare book collections. I think the university library system at University of South Carolina and some other institutions around the country that expressed interest, as well as some of his friends and acquaintances who, you know, maybe they had their eye on certain things, or he knew that, you know, they would be interested in these different particular works. So, yeah, it’s not one single collection at this point anymore.

Hammontree: Well tell us a little bit about what distinguishes the type of Appalachian English, Southern Appalachian English that y’all have collected in this dictionary versus–not that there’s any sort of standard American English–but compared to other parts of the country, what are some of the hallmarks of Appalachian speaking and writing?

Heinmiller: Sure. I mean, on the surface, you know, Appalachian English, as you said, it’s immediately recognizable as being different from more mainstream or standardized or you know, any of these problematic words we want to use. So those varieties of American English and listeners pick up on that immediately. And there are a lot of differences in the vowels and even in the cadence of phrases and sentences. And sometimes the syllables and words will have different emphasis from the more mainstream varieties.

One example that I can think of is the word Tennessee, you know, in mainstream English is Tennessee. But in southern Appalachian varieties, you have a couple of shifts there, the vowels are slightly different. And then you have the emphasis shifted a bit, so you get something more like Tennessee. And this can vary from place to place, and even person to person. But we do see some general patterns.

And we put together a pretty comprehensive overview of some of these features in the introductory frontmatter section of the dictionary. And I would definitely encourage people to check that out. Yeah, reading through it, you can really see how these things are not just random. They’re very rule governed, and very systematic, just like any language. It’s really pretty cool.

Hammontree: I’m curious about how you decide what merits inclusion in a dictionary like this. You know, how are you tracking down old words and their origins? You know, in some ways, it feels like an investigation but also a lot of transcription, and even a little bit of a treasure hunt. You know, were there moments of discovery that were exciting for you looking through some of these old documents or recording some of these oral histories and things like that?

Heinmiller: Yeah, the question brings so many memories of this treasure hunting, just as you said. And I think this is such an appropriate description of the process we undertook to compile this dictionary; we really took no shortcuts in our search for terms and sifting through what to keep and what to discard was really an ongoing process and sometimes resulted in battles between Michael and myself.

We were able to use some really great resources. Some of the memorable ones were the Appalachian Oral History Project, which was undertaken in 1970, as kind of this joint project between some junior colleges in Tennessee. And then a lot of obscure books and documents going back to the 1700s. We visited some historical societies like the East Tennessee Historical Society, to consult with librarians and other experts and frequently spoke with locals who very kindly shared their world with us. And so Michael had limited mobility, I was very much the “boots on the ground” half of the outfit. And I spent what must have been hundreds of hours in archives going through microfiche and microfilm.

And I think my favorite part was probably reading letters written by privates in the Civil War, at the University of South Carolina South Caroliniana Library. So yeah, I spent a couple of hours there for a few weeks, like every day going in. And the librarian would bring out the actual physical letters that these soldiers had written. And these weren’t just soldiers from South Carolina, just in the region. And I actually got to feel these letters and read the words and see the indentations of the letters on the paper. And it was just an incredible experience to truly touch a piece of history like that. And it was honestly a bit emotional to read the fear and the uncertainty in these men’s words. You know, so many of them were just children really, and they were doing something they believed in.

And I found myself wanting to capture as much of their world as I could and preserve it for future generations. And through that part of our research, I’d like to think that I brought a very human element to what might otherwise be viewed as, you know, perhaps like a dry academic work. And it’s really my hope that we were able to achieve that. So many of the men wrote in those letters about their fears of being killed without seeing their families again or being forgotten or just being incredibly lonely and isolated.

And I realized that I wanted to make the book, not just about the language from an academic perspective, but about that human experience and how we’re all connected. They weren’t just faceless soldiers; they were human beings just like us. And I wanted to make it so that people generations from now could still make those connections.

Hammontree: A few weeks ago on the show, we spoke with a woman named Ash-Lee Woodard, Henderson, who is the co-director of the Highlander Folk Center there in the Appalachian region. And we got to talking kind of about, you know, a lot of the assumptions that people have of Appalachia, as you know, formed by books like Hillbilly Elegy, and things like that, being almost exclusively Scotch-Irish. And I’m curious, you know, what the roots and influences of Scottish and Irish language are in Appalachian English? But also, you know, I know, for example, in in the dictionary, you include the term Affrilachian, which which we talked about with Ash-lee. What are some of the influences from people of the African diaspora or Native-descent that also shaped and affected the language and culture of Appalachia? Or other groups of people that maybe we don’t typically think about?

Heinmiller: Yeah, you’re correct. A lot of people in Appalachia are indeed of Scotch-Irish heritage. Historically, the majority of the communities in the region have been made up of white people of European descent. But yeah, it is very diverse these days, you know, especially as time has gone by. And I guess, just to provide a definition for people who aren’t familiar, Scotch-Irish refers to the people in the Ulster area of Northern Ireland.

And so the people in Appalachia who trace their roots there typically have ancestors who arrived from there in the 18th and 19th centuries. We can see a lot of effects from that particular culture. And one thing that springs to mind immediately is bluegrass music. So you know, yeah, not just in the terminology, but it really is pervasive in so many aspects of the culture.

Some of the terms that stuck around really, we don’t find in other parts of the country. One example of that would be cohee or coohee, which refers to a person of or from just west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, in Virginia, mostly. And this term comes from the phrase quothe he, or quothe she, which, you know, was used to report speech. Yeah, so it just, you know, kind of ran together and became cohee, I thought it was really cool. And that one’s not used anymore today, at least to my knowledge, but we have records of it dating back to the late 1700s. It’s just fascinating.

But looking at other cultures, one of the coolest things I thought was how we can see a lot of plant names and medicinal uses that come from Cherokee lore, and a lot of food items as well. So things like bean bread, which was a bread made from crushed dried beans, usually like pinto beans, and cornmeal mixed together. And that came directly from the Cherokee, who shared the recipe and the cooking method with the white settlers. And then we have alternate terms for certain things. Like, for example, there’s this wooden toy that was known mostly as a whimmydiddle or a geehaw whimmydiddle by the white settlers, and the Cherokee would refer to this as a hoodoo stick.

And some of the people of African descent would refer to it as a voodoo stick or other things. And then another one that comes to mind that I think people might still know, you’ll have to give me your thoughts on this. But we have the term goober pea, which comes directly from African origins. It means a peanut. Yeah, the word goober, it actually comes from a word that appears in both the Kikongo and Kimbundu languages of Africa, which means the same thing and it’s a great example of both a piece of culture in the form of food and a term that was brought to the region.

Hammontree: Coming up after the break more from Jennifer Heinmiller, about Appalachian English.

At the beginning of the dictionary, you include an author’s note about the decision to remove some language that you say may perpetuate racist ideology. Can you talk about what drove that decision, and then also how you balance you know, keeping that historical record without sanitizing it, but also not advancing outdated norms and ideas?

Heinmiller: Sure. Yes, that’s true. I did remove some material that was, dare I say, blatantly offensive. And I do explain that in the author’s note, as you mentioned. Of course, this is a region that has struggled with a lot of racial issues as has the rest of the country. But in writing this dictionary, I realized it would have been very difficult to provide an appropriate historical context for racist language.

You know, we hope that people will thumb through it and they’ll want to browse it. So it’s not necessarily something you read from start to finish the way you would an article or an academic paper. So there isn’t really that latitude to give a whole background and show the development of that language and the context and how these things arose or, you know, were used and why it’s no longer appropriate. It just would have been very difficult.

So in the end, my editorial team and I felt that such language, which truly was an extremely small percentage of the material anyway, would have detracted from the work as a whole. And that was the last thing we wanted to do. We felt it would be more of a distraction than something that would have added merit to the text. So yeah, that’s why that decision was made.

And it is certainly a historical record. But it’s not a complete record of every word ever used in the region. I want to specify that because such a thing would be an impossible undertaking. You know, we did formulate the entries and conduct our research based on the principles of the Oxford English Dictionary which does strive to be a complete historical record of the English language. And we aimed for something close to that.

But there will inevitably be some questions that came up when readers search for a term that, you know, maybe their grandparents used, and it’s not in the text. And on that note, there is talk of creating a web-based version in the future. And if readers have suggestions for filling in some of those gaps, I’m certainly open to adding more terms. And I invite people to reach out to me.

Hammontree: You were talking about how the language has changed over time. And that decision to remove some of that. Are you able to see how power dynamics and cultural norms change in the evolution of Southern language? Is that something that showed up kind of in the documents and texts that y’all were sorting through?

Heinmiller: I think, no matter which source we were looking at, or what term you’re looking at in the dictionary, it’s really necessary to view the region within a wider geopolitical context. Like we have this perception that there were these small, isolated mountain communities with little contact with the outside world. But that simply wasn’t true. Or if it was true, it didn’t last for very long. It was only a very brief flash of time before the outside forces came and shaped these communities with such a heavy hand.

So you know, like in the northern part of Appalachia, there’s been an immense influence from the coal industry. And then the Smoky Mountains region, it’s more so logging. And so you see these, these varieties changing due to these industries, like as a direct result of these external forces and these power balances that would come in and change everything. Literally changing the landscape. And it really added a lot to the different regional and sub regional lexicons, but it is a reflection of those power dynamics that you mentioned.

And historically, you know, we also think about, there’s also the perception that this variety of English, as well as other varieties of Southern English, are somehow inferior to other varieties and mark the speakers as lesser educated or backwards or rustic. And this is incredibly unfortunate. And it’s a perception that has perpetuated some of these very imbalances in power on a broader scale at a more national level, I would say. It’s not unique to Appalachia or the South. I mean, we can see this in other varieties of English and even other languages, with varieties being perceived in various ways. Some being held in higher esteem than others.

And then, you know, on smaller scales, you can see, like, you know, kids who move to other regions getting bullied for the way they speak. And that’s something I can personally attest to. And it can really create feelings of shame, and change those dynamics, you know, right from the get go. So you will see cases where people consciously change the way they speak.

And then you have the opposite reaction if they return home, you might have some opposition from the family and community where they might feel alienated by this person who chooses to speak in a more standardized way. And we have phrases like uppity or being like, quote, unquote, “above one’s raising,” which is actually a phrase in this dictionary, referring to try to elevate oneself, you know, above one’s place of origin or culture. So, yeah, it is interesting to look at that. And quite honestly, this is it’s such a broad topic, we could do a whole mini series on this topic alone. And I’d love to dive deeper into it at some point.

Hammontree: You know, kind of continuing down this vein of thought about how the rise of radio, I mean, you talked about bluegrass and certainly, you know, the Carter family and then later Dolly Parton came to symbolize the region for a lot of people through music. Television, Beverly Hillbillies, for instance. And now the internet. You know, how have media changed Southern Appalachian language and how people are using these new tools as a form of storytelling?

Heinmiller: I think that’s a great point. And I think it has kind of come in waves and shifted over the past few decades. You mentioned Dolly Parton and the Carter family and The Waltons, which I think, you know, we’re great to bring exposure. And you know, Dolly Parton. I mean, who doesn’t love her? She’s really done a lot for the region. But some of the other pop culture references, you know, they’ve kind of verged on creating stereotypes or reinforcing some stereotypes.

And I think with the advent of the Internet and social media networks, and podcasts, radio, some of these other venues, we have other opportunities. And, you know, looking at the way that language has changed, I guess, it reminds me of one of the first principles that I learned as a graduate student is that language change happens. And it’s a normal course of events. And some cases, this happens due to huge shifts in the political or cultural landscape. And I think that, you know, the many, many technological developments of the last century really attest to that in this case.

Prior to that, prior to broadcast television, there’s evidence that there were many more regional varieties and, you know, sub regional varieties, almost micro varieties, if you will, which have already assimilated into more mainstream ways of speaking. And this, of course, it’s something that happens in every language, and we’re seeing it just on a faster and broader scale. And so like I was talking about before, with some of these negative perceptions of both from inside and outside the communities, I think, in recent decades, people have found their speech put on a national or international stage, whether it’s through, you know, fiction, or politics, or whichever. This can really affect the ways that people choose to speak. And we can see some differences in the ways that various genders and socio-economic classes choose to speak or not speak. And that’s a whole other podcast, with a lot of research to be done there.

But you know, I’m always looking at these things through a historical lens. And I think this kind of follows the pattern set by spelling standardization, which it didn’t happen until quite recently in the broad scope of human history. You know, you have the establishment of spelling and grammatical rules. And a lot of those grammatical rules are arbitrary. And people might pick and choose which to follow and which to reject. As a linguist, I think it’s interesting to look at those examples, you know, such as how people largely avoid double negatives and sentence construction these days, even though this was perfectly acceptable as recently as a couple hundred years ago in English.

But then on the flip side, you have people reclaiming certain terms and structures. And I think we can really see this in the media, like the reclamation of the term “y’all,” and people embracing, you know, the Appalachian accent and pronunciation. Again, I really see it as such a great opportunity for people to get out there, tell their stories, embrace their variety of the language to whatever extent they would like to, and there are so many platforms out there. And I just I think that if you have a story to tell, you should tell it, people want to hear it.

I know even with my little one-woman podcast, you know, I reach more than 20 countries. And it’s incredible. People around the world who are interested in Southern English, there’s definitely an audience for it. So it’s a prime opportunity. Whether you want to do a podcast or blog or anything, I encourage people to put their material out there.

Hammontree: And that podcast is called Appalachian Words. And if y’all want to hear Jennifer, walk us through some of the terms that she has included in the dictionary, that’s a great one to go subscribe to. What are some of those terms that you were able to add to this edition of the dictionary that either surprised you or may surprise our listeners?

Heinmiller: Well, I guess to preface that one of the aspects that I loved most about this project was learning about the creativity and the ingenuity of the people of this region and how they connected with the indigenous communities early on, not to make a profit, but to live peacefully and to make a life and community.

Yeah, you see these influences, but then you see so much humor, as hard as life was, there was so much humor, and one of my favorite terms in the dictionary was circumvengemous, which means “in a roundabout way,” and it’s meant to be humorous. So you know, they obviously elongated this word, and they made it sound silly in this very fake academic way. And they did it completely on purpose, very tongue in cheek, which I appreciate so much.

And some of the surprising things to me, were the very intricate terms used for processes such as the production of maple syrup and maple sugar, which we don’t automatically associate with the South. Or at least I didn’t. But it was certainly something that was, and still is in some areas, practiced.

And along those lines, you have the terms that are very specific to the geography and topography of various areas, such as the different types of balds. And balds, for those who aren’t familiar, are areas on top of mountains that are open, and they have very few or no trees on top there. They’re pretty unique. And so we have different types of balds, there’s wooly balds and shrub balds and other types of balds. You can go through and find these throughout the dictionary. But it just completely depends on the flora that you find on top of these. And, personally, I’m a trail runner, and I’m a hiker. And so learning about these terms, and gaining the language lens to view these landscapes through, it really added this whole new dimension to my own personal exploration of this region.

Hammontree: How else did working on this project affect your understanding of the South as a whole?

Heinmiller: I think I was really able to learn just how multifaceted it is. Even with my own personal background, we all come in with, you know, preconceived notions and the connections that I made with people, beyond just doing the kind of library research, it really allowed me to make connections with people who I might not otherwise have spoken with. And just seeing the diversity among them, you know, even the ones who have lived in small communities of Appalachia all their life, it was really wonderful. And it surprised and delighted me to find so many different perspectives, and to see just how willing people were to share their stories. And yeah, I really think that the diversity in the region is increasing.

And, you know, even in my own case, I do the podcast, and I’ve been working on the dictionary for well over a decade at this point. But that being said, it’s not my full-time gig, I actually work in tech. And I’m bilingual in Japanese. And I say that just you know, as evidence of how diverse we are. And I love it. And I encourage people to get out there and explore Appalachia and the South as a whole. Because there’s so much to discover here and so many great, fascinating people.

Hammontree: And maybe I should have asked you this at the beginning. Just to clear things up. You know, there are people who say Appalachia, and then there are people who say Appalachia, and I believe that most of the people at least in the Southern Appalachians, say Appalachia. Do we know where that divide is? And what caused that divide?

Heinmiller: You know, I don’t know about a divide. But I do know that when I first met Michael, I think I said Appalachian once. He broke me of that very quickly.

Hammontree: While after the last edition was published, you said that Michael immediately started working on the next edition, can we expect that there will be yet another edition of this dictionary somewhere down the line?

Heinmiller: Oh, goodness, what a question. Well, as I kind of touched on before, an electronic version is in the works. An interactive web-based version. And I have a lot of ideas for that. And I would love to include clips from some of these oral interviews, you know, that Joseph Hall did back in the day, because we do have a lot of those tapes, still. So I would love to make a kind of multimedia experience, very interactive, and you know, very accessible to everybody because this, this is a gorgeous book, but it’s unfortunately not going to be at every bookstore, every library and I think bringing it to the internet would really make it more accessible.

So as far as a third edition, like hardcopy book, I’m not so sure about that. Although you know, there’s plenty of time to explore that option. But prior to that, I would really like to do a digital version.

Purchase the Dictionary of Southern Appalachian English through the University of North Carolina Press.

Subscribe to Jennifer Heinmiller’s podcast Appalachian Words here.

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