Local park entrance
When I was fifteen, my parents moved to Appalachia and I entered the worst period of my whole life so far–three years of high school where I was miserably unhappy, as well as poor and left out. I was terribly sorry for myself and didn’t look around much except to snub everything around me. What a bunch of yokels! The boys my sisters had crushes on had twangy, hick accents I could not take seriously, and the snobbism of the local high society toward my family didn’t bother me at all–the idea that anyone from this God-forsaken place thought they should be snooty was hilarious.
I have to admit I have never totally gotten over the prejudice of those impressionable years. Whenever I return (my mother never left), it still comes flooding back–how it felt to be fifteen and trapped in a place I hated. Let’s face it, fifteen-year-olds are not known for their judgment and tolerance.
By many measures, the town has become worse since then. First, it is one of the poorest cities in the United States, surrounded by even poorer counties that look up to it as the metropolis. It is possibly the most obese city in the world. Everyone seems to be divorced.
It’s been losing population steadily for the last fifty years as the coal industry atrophies without being replaced. And now, to top off the other bleaknesses, there is a drug epidemic and it has the highest rate of overdoses in the entire United States–900 last year in a town of less than 50,000 people. I see it more sympathetically now.
It is a town that receives little immigration from elsewhere, where thousands and thousands of rundown houses stand vacant, covered with boards and peeling tarp. It is also a region of searing white poverty. Most of the population is descended from people whose north-British ancestors came to America in the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries, migrated west, then stayed in their hills, generation after generation, passing up better lives elsewhere, to be with their families.
When we first moved, my father, a professor of English at the university, liked to recount an anecdote of one of his colleagues there, who was teaching Shakespeare in a freshman English class. Few indeed of those students had parents who had gone to college.
The professor was explaining an obscure phrase. “And this word is obsolete.”
One of the students said, “Not in my holler!”
After that I began to notice the eloquence of Appalachians in English. Their speech is lively, inventive, and full of old expressions, proverbs, and strong verbs that have disappeared in other places. There are few places in the United States where people are still speaking the language of their forebears with so little outside influence for two hundred years. The local city hall is full of Anglo-Saxon and Scottish names–even Irish, Swiss, and German family names don’t appear much in this town, much less later ethnic groups. The population of the state is about 96% white, even counting the students of two large universities. Basically, everyone here is descended from an unbroken line of nothing but English-speakers–this has become rare elsewhere in the U.S.
West Virginia University fans sing Country Roads after every victory. The players are from many backgrounds, but the students are still mostly Appalachian.
Early in the summer of 1717, the Quaker merchants of Philadelphia observed that immigrant ships were arriving in more than their usual numbers….They came not only from London and Bristol, but from Liverpool and Belfast, and small northern outports with strange-sounding names–Londonderry and Carrickfergus in northern Ireland, Kirkcudbright and Wigtown in Scotland, Whitehaven and Morecambe on the northern border of England….The speech of these people was English, but they spoke with a lilting cadence that rang strangely in the ear. Many were desperately poor. But… they carried themselves with a fierce and stubborn pride that warned others to treat them with respect…This combination of poverty and pride set the North Britons squarely apart from other English-speaking people in the American colonies….They were all a border people. –Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America, by David Hackett Fischer
This winter I went back for a visit to my mother. She’s very fond of theater, and as it happens, theater thrives in the town, maybe because there is only one movie theater, or maybe because, in spite of its small size, the town is the metropolis for four hours around it. So one evening we drove to the college to see “As You Like It” performed by an Appalachian cast. At the second sentence, I was already starting to snicker inwardly. The immortal words of the bard in that unmistakable mountain twang?
My brother Jaques he keeps at school,
and report speaks goldenly of his profit:
for my part, he keeps me rustically at home…
It didn’t help that the actor was pronouncing “Jaques” as “Ja-kyuze.”
But the acting was excellent. As the play went on, and the actors entered and left the stage, the strangest feeling came over me. The people in this production seemed to be speaking their native language, not an obsolete version–they were more at home with Shakespeare’s words and cadences than any actors I had ever seen, including on posh London stages.
Nay, then, God be wi’ you, an you talk in blank verse!
Somehow in these isolated mountains, where little new speech infiltrated for two or three hundred years until television, some of Shakespeare’s rhythms and words seemed to have survived.
What Shakespeare sounded like originally: a lot more like Appalachians and Scots than the Queen. For one thing, he pronounced his r’s…. (start at 2:35)