Growing up in Connecticut, I didn’t really know much about Appalachia beyond the same lazy stereotypes that everyone knows. I would later find this funny, during one of the trips where I first brought my wife to Connecticut, where she remarked at how similar my quiet corner of the state was to where she grew up. The cultural gaps Appalachia and northeastern Connecticut are not that great, but we have the benefit of proximity to erudite New England socialites, and Appalachia is a region beset by extractive capitalism. Connecticut’s accent is more or less neutral with regards to the broader American dialect, though born in northeastern Massachusetts I learned to speak with a thick North Shore accent that still finds ways to haunt my speech. I should have known better than to judge.
Kirk Hazen uses the plural form to describe Appalachian speech, demonstrating, through a collection of eleven essays by appalachian linguists, how the speech forms bonds of identity and culture among the its speakers. The book focuses, of course, on the way Appalachian speech tends to modify vowels, and how the choice of words and grammar identify people not only with the region, but also with class, age, and gender. With lament, the book unfortunately contains no contributions from black Appalachians, though it is self-aware of this omission. Of particular interest is how the book dives into the way speech used to identify with gender and sexuality, and I read it conscious of the ways in which queer discourse in America tends to be dominantly coastal, academic and highbrow. The book puts to words (no pun intended) the feelings I’ve had watching queer Appalachian comrades be the most powerful and dynamic force in my world during various points of my life.
A book on Appalachian speech would be incomplete without a contribution from Walt Wolfram, whose documentary, Mountain Talk dove into many aspects of the language(s), including the myth that Appalachian speak is a remnant of colonial English. The power of this myth is two-sided; locals claim it with a sense of pride and belonging, whereas outsiders wield it to further the false stereotype that Appalachian peoples are archaic, old-fashioned, ignorant, and backwards. Wolfram penned the afterword of the book and his presence is clearly felt in most if not all of the chapters, but it’s clear that a renewing energy is pouring into the space of Appalachian studies, the linguistic space being only one of them.
I’m not educated in linguistics and was happy that jargon was kept to a minimum. I don’t read IPA, so the authors' vivid and non-technical descriptions helped with my understanding. I suspect this would also make the book appeal to locals, not because they are uneducated, but because most people on this planet have better things to do than learn IPA. Appalachia is a place I fell in love with around the start of the second third of my life, and I’m grateful that through books like this, I can continue to discover the beauty and joy that the region and its culture provides.
Appalachian Englishes in the Twenty-First Century
edited by Kirk Hazen