Ozark Speech


Ozark Speech


            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 “ain’t” 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 hillman’s 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, where’s the cheese?”  “John et if yesterday.”  One of the most well known of Ozarkian words is “ain’t,” 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, “I’d ruther go a fishin than a schoolin.”  The plural form of “you’ is “you-uns” or “ya’ll.”  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 husband’s 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, “ Ain’t it funny how them high-educated fellers cain’t 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’ ag’in 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 one’s 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 don’t itch.”  An Ozark threat might say that “the creek might git up ag’in.”  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 off’n 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 Love’s 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.


Work Cited

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