People of the southern United States have often been the subject of ridicule among other parts of the world. Comedians such as Jerry Clower, Andy Griffeth, Jeff Foxworthy, and Bill Engvall have made a good living in making fun of the Southern people and their ways of life. Though each branch of the southern tree is picked at, the Ozark branch is the one with the least amount of leaves. Bare feet, no teeth, ignorance, and incest are four of the many negative characteristics attributed to the Ozark people. Television shows, such as The Beverly Hillbillies (McNeil), and episodes of The Flintstones, exemplify the typical stereotype of the Ozark people. One of the main areas of ridicule is found in the highlanders use of the English language. Phonology, morphology, and lexical changes are three areas in which the speech of the Ozarks is different from general-English. Though the differences in language are quite noticeable, they are not adequate reasons to assign any specific stereotypes to the highlanders. In fact, Vance Randolph and George Wilson say that the Ozark dialect is one of the richest, most picturesque, most interesting that exists in the United States (5). In examining and understanding some of the aspects of Ozark speech, one can come to the realization that the Ozark people are not dumb hillbillies. Their speech is quite complex, and can be very understandable.
The precise history of the Ozark is unknown, but there are a few theories to explain the origin. In his book, American Dialects, Lewis Herman says that the highlanders came mainly from the British Isles during the latter part of the eighteenth century (148). However, most scholars agree that they are of Scots-Irish descent (The Story of English). The Scots-Irish migrated to America to seek a better way of life for themselves and their families. Disgusted with the overcrowding of Philadelphia, many of the new Americans headed south into the Cumberland Gap of the Appalachian Mountains. When more people began settling in these areas, the Scots-Irish packed up and moved west. This time, they settled in the Ozark Mountains of north Arkansas and south Missouri. The highlanders of today are the descendants of these early settlers. Time and progress are fairly new concepts to the people of the hills. Living in the mountains, the Ozarkers were secluded from what was happening in the rest of the country. For this reason, highlanders lived simple lives, without many of the technological advances that the rest of the country was accustomed to. Since there was little communication with the people of other dialects, the language of the Ozarks remained much the same as its original form. In hi book, Herman says, it is only in the last fifty years that civilization has swept them up in her smothering embrace (149). The media, teachers, and furiners (anyone not from the area) are contributors to the decline of the pure Ozark language. Each factor presents a more acceptable form of English that is used in the rest of the world. Mixing the two dialects together formed a sort of pidgin dialect that compromised much of the Ozark speech. However, through recordings, books, and natives of the mountains, we are still able to study the speech itself.
The phonology of Ozark English is very different from that of other English dialects. This means that usually, the manners of speech and sound are not the same as those of general-English speakers. In his book, Lewis Herman lists several speech mannerisms and sounds that are unique to mountain dwellers. He says that the speech is heavily and frequently stressed. Stressed words are usually sung on a comparatively higher note. The general melody is soft and plaintive with a noticeable nasal quality (150). A good example of this is the Ozark greeting, howdy. To say this word correctly, one must place a high-pitched stress on the last syllable of the word. That syllable, -dy, is pronounced with the long E sound, as in bees. In phonetic spelling, the word would appear [haw-di]. Someone imitating this speech must be careful not to place too much emphasis on the stressed syllables of words, no matter how tempting it may be to do so. Herman reminds us the typical highlander speaks in a quiet, almost confidential manner (151). In other words, the speech is relaxed and easygoing. Herman also says, the tempo is moderately fast, slowing down to a drawl before a pause; the stress is marked; the speech is toward the front of the mouth; nasalization is particularly noticeable before m or n; there is a tendency to speak in a minor key (151). Sometimes, highlanders emphasize so much stress on a syllable of a word, they often stress unstressed syllables. The word hotel may be pronounced hOH tehl. Report is said as rEE:pOH-Ert, and direct would be dAH:rEHkt (167). The letters in bold print represent the higher pitched stress on the word. When an r precedes a vowel and follows a consonant in an unstressed syllable, it is usually pronounced after the vowel. An example of this is when children becomes tchi;ldERn, and protect is transformed into pERtEHk (169). The ville sound at the end of certain cities, such as Knoxville, receives little or no stress, and is usually pronounced as vuhl. Knoxville becomes nAWksvuhl (168). The ing ending of words is reduced to in, thus producing and uhn sound at the end of the word. Doing transforms into diOO:uhn (168).
In the Ozark dialect, vowels take on new sounds that are not familiar to general-English speakers. Vowels are held longer and diphthongized. For example, the AY sound, as in break and they has the same sound as it normally would, but it is held longer. The length and stress on the vowel of these words causes a diphthongization of the vowel. Break is pronounce bray:k and they becomes THAY (153). When the sound is followed by an l, the drawl is more pronounced. Nail would be pronounced nAYuhl, and tail becomes tAYuhl (153). AH is another common sound that is frequently used. AH is used in words like Florida and orange. In the Ozarks, Florida is pronounced as flAH ridi:, and orange is said as AH-ERnj. Tomorrow is a great example of a word that uses the AH sound. Every day, one is likely to hear an Ozarker say, tUHmAhrUH (158). The short e sound, or EH, is probably the sound with the most variations in the Ozarks. When the sound is followed by an m of an n, the short e changes to a short i. When it is stressed or drawled, it is spoken with an UH diphthong. In this case, pen becomes piUHn, and when becomes hwhiUHn (159). It is important to note that though it is not capitalized in the sound spelling, the i does contain the stress of the word. Another variation of the EH sound changes the short e sound to an AY sound, when the e is followed by a d, g, j, sh, or zh sound. This sound change turns head into hAYd, edge into Ayj, fresh into frAYsh, and measure into mAYzher (159). When an e is spelled with an r, then the vowel and consonant sounds combine to form an ER sound. The ER is the same sound as in her. This vowel shift produces vERi for very, tERuhbuhl for terrible, and jERikOH for Jericho (160). Probably the most famous vowel shift occurs with the OH sound. When OH is unstressed, and is proceeded by any consonant sound (except for r), then it is pronounced as ER. In this case, fellow becomes fEHuhler, tomato becomes mAY:dER, mosquito becomes skEEdER, and of course, yellow becomes yEHuhlER (163).
Vowels are not the only sounds that go through changes in the Ozarks. Consonants undergo their own transformations. When a d comes at the end of a word, and is proceeded by an l or n, then it is usually dropped. In this case, cold becomes kOH:l, and friend becomes friUHn (169). The d sound also has a tendency to change into t after words like spilled (spi:uhlt), and learned (lAArnt) (169). A prefix of h is usually added to it and aint to produce hi:t and hAYn:t (170). When a vowel plus n, follows a t, then a short glottal stop replaces the t. The word cotton would sound like kAW/n (172). When TH is unstressed, then it may be dropped in adverbs, nouns, and conjunctions. The phrase like this may sound like lAH:k is; bigger than him might be heard as bi:gERn hiUHm (173). A z sound is given to certain words. Examples of this trend are found in backwards (bAi:kERdz) and noway (nOH:wAy:z) (173).
The phonological differences between the Ozark dialect and the general-English dialect are too many to list in a short paper. The most common are listed in the preceding paragraphs. Though these sound differences are very important parts of the Ozark language, they are not the only characteristics that make the dialect so unique. The morphology of the words is also an interesting subject to examine. Randolph and Wilson say, one thing that impresses casual furiners is the hillmans confusion in the tense on verbs (37). Preterit tenses often create new words such as clumb for climbed, div for dive, drug for dragged, het for heated, snuck for sneaked, and skun for skinned (37). Often, the preterit for write is used for the past participle, as in the sentence, He has wrote a letter to his brother. Randolph and Wilson say, In general, the tendency is to break down all distinction between preterits and past participles in irregular verbs, and when the two forms differ they are often used interchangeably (40). With this statement, they provided a list of words, including broke and broke for break, heerd and heerd for hear, squoze and squoze for squeeze, and throwed and throwed for throw. One of the favorite Ozark preterit words of discussion is et for eat. Hey maw, wheres the cheese? John et if yesterday. One of the most well known of Ozarkian words is aint, the contraction for am not. I can remember times in which my grandparents, parents, and even I have used the word reckon to mean wonder. An example would be, Reckon that fella will make it over that fence? Reckon is also used as suppose. My grandfather would say, I reckon ole Tom needs a warshin. Instead of rather, someone from the Ozarks might say, Id ruther go a fishin than a schoolin. The plural form of you is you-uns or yall. Each of these words is a contraction for you all. The suffix est is often added to words to describe the extent to which a person does something. Fighten-est, askin-est, prayin-est, and yellin-est are a small number of examples of words that highlanders use to describe people.
Ozark vocabulary is famous for its lexical changes in word usage. This means that common general-English words are used in an unorthodox manner. For instance, the Hillman regularly speaks of a deserted house, where most Americans would say an empty house or a vacant house (152). Singing is a huge part of the Ozark culture. Therefore, it is only fitting that singers are referred to in an unusual way. A bass singer is said to have a coarse voice. A tenor has a fine voice. Shallow is used to describe a soprano. Complementing a lady in his sermon, a backwoods preacher from Missouri said, Pitch it shaller, Sister Henderson! The Lord loves shaller music! (155). Tree is often used as a verb. When Ozark hunters say that their dogs tree squirrels or rabbits, they mean that the dogs corner or trap the other animals. Strangely, grandmaw is used as a verb. In this sense, it means to steal timber (157). Tarry is often used to mean to remain for a period of time. Saying that a woman is neat, is to say that she is discreet, careful about the conventions: (155). Low is often used to refer to a short person. Wicked is used to describe profane or blasphemous speech. Several means not two or three or half-a-dozen, but a much larger number (158). Carried means to accompany. Foreign (furin) is applied to anything or anybody outside the Ozark region (158). A hickory is anything that a parent or grandparent can use to whip a child with. Neck is often used to mean throat (169).
In one Ozark community, there was a highly educated superintendent of schools whose wife was acting very foolishly without her husbands knowledge. In trying to tell the superintendent that his wife was pulling the wool over his eyes, the town Marshall told him that he was about ready for shearin (170). The superintendent did not understand what the Marshall was trying to tell him. The Marshall said, Aint it funny how them high-educated fellers caint understand plain English? (170-171). Ready for shearin is known as an idiom. Idioms are phrases in which the meaning may be unrelated to its parts (Fromkin and Rodman 528). Ozarkers frequently use idioms to express their feelings. The idioms are synonymous with events or commonalities that are familiar to highlanders. For instance, the phrase more than Carter had oats, or more than Carter had liver pills refers to a very large number or quantity of something. Clean as a whistle can either mean physically clean, or describe totality. An example of the latter case is, he broke his toy plane, clean as a whistle. Dirty people may be describes as spitin agin the wind. This saying stems from people who spit tobacco into the wind. The wind blows the brown saliva back onto their bodies. When something is fact, it is often referred to as coming like a bat out of hell. When a person is in poor spirits, or down on his luck, he may be said to look like a sick dog with a thorn in his foot. When something is very still and quiet, it may be called a bump on a log. When people do things that are unaccustomed to the way in which they were brought up, highlanders may say that those people have, gone back on their raisin. This is almost as bad as denying ones kinfolks (Randolph and Wilson 187). Some wise words from the Ozarks, a dead skunk still stinks. This saying was used to refer to a disgraceful politician (193). Old sins throw long shadows does not require any explanation (193). To say that someone may be under the influence of alcohol, is to say that the person is a-scratchin where he dont itch. An Ozark threat might say that the creek might git up agin. To refer to a native of the Ozarks, one might say that the person was born with a tick in his navel. Words that may be gross or taboo to the general population are often common words in the Ozarks. For instance, to say that someone is slow as the smoke offn a manure pile is to say that the person is very slow. Useless as tits on a boar hog is used to describe a person or thing that is not good for anything. Though manure and tits are words that most people would not like for their children to use in public, the highlanders think nothing of them. However, they do not say everything that comes to their minds.
The Ozark dialect is very peculiar to general-English speaking people. The sounds are awkward, the grammar is poor, and the vocabulary is used unconventionally. However, some people think that Ozark speech has the same characteristics that Elizabethan, and even Chaucerian language had. W.O. Cralle of Springfield, Missouri, says that the Ozark dialect would be more easily understandable to Shakespeare than to the English professor of today (71). In the video, The Story of English, Robert MacNeil said that many people are mistaken to think that there are any Elizabethan tendencies in the Ozarks. However, Randolph and Wilson disagree with his judgment. They say that since the Ozark people were cut off from civilization for so long, their English did not change that much (71-73). There are some very convincing arguments for this case. The word shoot is often used as the noun shot in the Ozarks. Shakespeare used shoot to mean shot, exactly as the Ozark people do in both Loves Labour Lost (Act IV, scene I, line 10), and in Lucreece (line 579). Dropping the g off of ing words was a common practice in the Renaissance. In a letter to James VI of Scotland, Queen Elizabeth herself spelled beseeching as beeseechin. In The Tempest (Act II, scene I, line 319), Cymbeline (Act V, scene 5, line 406), and Henry V (Act III, scene 2, line 98), Shakespeare wrote shooked, becomed, and blowed, instead of shook, became, and blew. The former three words are all common in the Ozarks. In The Canterbury Tales (15, 151), Chaucer speaks of wrastleing, and uses the word wrastleth. The Ozark word wrastle is the root of both of the Chaucerian words. Catch is almost invariably pronounced ketch (in the Ozarks), and is spelled ketche by Chaucer (Troilus and Crisyde, III, 75) (73). The word shut is most often pronounced shet by the older residents of the Ozarks. In The Canterbury Tales, (14, 496), Chaucer spells the same word as schette. Though it denied the Elizabethan idea, the video gave credit to the Ozark dialect for its Middle English usage of an a prefix in front of verbs. A-huntin and a-fishin are words found in Middle English texts that can still be heard in the Ozarks.
The Ozark dialect has many differences from general-English. The phonology, morphology, lexical changes, and idioms are very unique, and even sometimes fun to hear and imitate. There is nothing wrong with the language itself. Its only possible problem is that it has not progressed as much as general-English has. It is not the sign of a dumb person or an ignorant group of people. It is a cultural language that is suspended in time and tradition, and should be forever admired.
Fromkin. Vctoria, and Robert Rodman. An Introduction to Language.
United States of America: Harcourt Brace College Publishers,
Herman, Lewis and Marguerite Shalet Herman. American Dialects.
New York: Theater Arts Books, 1947.
McNeil, W.K. Confronting Appalacian Stereotypes:
Back Talk from an American Region, Arkansas Historical Quarterly.
59.1 (2000): 96-98
Randolph, Vance and George P. Wilson. Down in the Holler:
A Gallery of Ozark Folk Speech. Norman:
University of Oklahoma Press, 1953
The Story of English. Narr. Robert MacNeil. MacNEil-Leher Productions,
in association with WNET. 1986