Appalachian Dialect & New Jersey Hillbillies
August 6, 2017 7:59 AM   Subscribe

Southern mountain language isn't frozen in time. The "hillbilly" dialect has changed over time, just as American language has elsewhere in the country, but the stigma remains. Here's what they're trying to do to help erase that attitude. And over in western New Jersey is a different kind of hillbilly and the stigma they labor under. The article was referenced in a reply to the first link, but I went and read all about the Strangers on the Mountain, of whom I'd never heard.
posted by MovableBookLady (23 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
 
Nice piece, thanks for posting it! (It's by Kirk Hazen, a professor of linguistics, so it's not some cliché-ridden thumbsucker.) The Appalachian dialect is quite similar to the Ozark dialect of my (father's) people, so I bristle in solidarity when people mock it and its speakers.
posted by languagehat at 8:50 AM on August 6 [6 favorites]


Nice piece indeed. I feel a sudden urge to go and (re-)read some Barbara Kingsolver.
posted by merlynkline at 9:16 AM on August 6


I do love me some Kingsolver, but I first read her books set in Tucson and environs. We lived there at the same time but I never got to meet her, a regret. (I really hate The Poisonwood Bible, however.)
posted by MovableBookLady at 9:22 AM on August 6


languagehat: when people mock it and its speakers.

A defeated enemy is often characterized by the winners as being both stupid and immoral, and the sound of their accents or languages are burdened with that meaning. That certainly happened to American Blacks and Native Americans. Were Appalachian Americans defeated in one way or another, too?
posted by clawsoon at 9:23 AM on August 6


The New Yorker article is fascinating. A study of their DNA would also be fascinating, but I'm not at all sure they would be up for it.
posted by Bee'sWing at 9:24 AM on August 6


Clawsoon: here's some info from Wikipedia that shows how recent the term is:

The term "hillbilly" spread in the years following the American Civil War. At this time, the country was developing both technologically and socially, but the Appalachian region was falling behind. Before the war, Appalachia was not distinctively different from other rural areas of the country. Post-war, although the frontier pushed farther west, the region maintained frontier characteristics. Appalachians themselves were perceived as backward, quick to violence and inbred in their isolation. Fueled by news stories of mountain feuds such as that in the 1880s between the Hatfields and McCoys, the hillbilly stereotype developed in the late 19th to early 20th century.[4]

"The "classic" hillbilly stereotype reached its current characterization during the years of the Great Depression when many mountaineers left their homes to find work in other areas of the country. The period of Appalachian out-migration, roughly from the 1930s through the 1950s, saw many mountain residents moving North to the Midwestern industrial cities of Chicago, Cleveland, Akron and Detroit. This movement North became known as the "Hillbilly Highway." The movement brought these previously isolated communities into mainstream United States culture. Poor white mountaineers became central characters in newspapers, pamphlets and eventually, motion pictures. Authors at this time were inspired by historical figures such as Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone. The mountaineer image transferred over to the 20th century where the "hillbilly" stereotype emerged.[4]"

The first printed reference to "hillbilly" was in 1898. It seems to me that the mountain folk were defeated by technology, having been left behind by geographic expansionism and the aftermath of the Late Great Unpleasantness [joke]. In the early 20th century, movies and then tv perpetuated the stereotype of mountaineers being uneducated and violent, and prone to family feuds (such as the Hatfield-McCoy enmity). The article also mentions such tv shows as The Andy Griffith Show, but this is not Hillbilly, really, it's Piedmont North Carolina, flatlanders we'd call 'em. Beverly Hillbillies, now, that's full of hillbilly tropes.
posted by MovableBookLady at 9:50 AM on August 6 [10 favorites]


A defeated enemy is often characterized by the winners as being both stupid and immoral

This is true, but the phenomenon is broader than that. A speaker's language signals complex social information about them: Region, gender, age, race, class, even sometimes religion...

It's a very rich signal, and so we end up assigning social meaning to what are essentially arbitrary linguistic differences. Stereotypes about a particular group get transferred onto their language. People think Appalachian English is stupid and backwards because the think people in those communities are stupid and backwards, not because they're a defeated enemy.

This happens on MeFi sometimes, when people put on a "rural" accent in order to mock a particular point of view. They use the accent to signal that the people they're mocking are stupid and backwards.

Sometimes stereotypes can be positive, e.g. the way many people view some British accents to be sophisticated.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 10:34 AM on August 6 [5 favorites]


Then there was Al Capp's "Lil' Abner" comic strip. all hillbilly stereotypes. Was the Beverly Hillbillies somehow based on this comic?

There have been articles about the "Jackson Whites" in Weird NJ magazine.
posted by mermayd at 10:37 AM on August 6 [2 favorites]


I think "we was" comes from the German, or Dutch. Wir war. War becomes was. The vote was taken as to what would be the official language of the new American nation, and German lost by one vote. There was a lot of German and certainly Dutch spoken in the upper end of Appalachia. I heard that "we was" in Utah a lot, and Utah had a lot of Scandinavian and German early converts to the church. I particularly hear that "we was" in my Dutch origin in laws, some of whom were DeVries, and DeGroots.
posted by Oyéah at 11:11 AM on August 6 [2 favorites]


I grew up in Bedminster, NJ. (I left before Donald T built his golf course there.) I didn't know there was such a place as "west New Jersey".
posted by SemiSalt at 11:48 AM on August 6 [2 favorites]


My experience in Appalachia is limited, and I mostly know the accent he is talking about from movies (which I suspect vary considerably in their accuracy). But it's a really interesting article about changes in speech over time.
posted by Dip Flash at 11:55 AM on August 6


I really want to go eat at Hillbilly Hotdogs.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 1:00 PM on August 6 [1 favorite]


I think "we was" comes from the German, or Dutch

Nah, just good old fashioned leveling, aka all forms of the verbs becoming the same, as the article mentions; the plural forms in German are waren/wart/waren, in any case.

This happened to a ton of English dialects in the US and UK, including lots without contact with German (like, say, African American English). Sometimes, you get a fun pattern where all the positive forms are "was", and all the negative forms are "weren't" (I was/I weren't; You was/You weren't, etc.)

Historically, though, "war" as in Ich war and "was" as in I was do come from the same Proto-Germanic source, which was originally more like was. A sound change made it so there were both forms with r and s in the verbal paradigm for the verb. German leveled things to the r forms, and in these dialects of English, to the s forms. So Ich war is, in a round about way, analogous to We was: both are "fixing" a problem created by Verner's law.

The vote was taken as to what would be the official language of the new American nation, and German lost by one vote.

Not true; although there was discussion of printing laws in both languages.
posted by damayanti at 2:21 PM on August 6 [3 favorites]


and German lost by one vote Early example of propaganda in the 1930's, not necessarily the first fake news.

I apologize for my error. I wast wrong.
posted by Oyéah at 9:31 PM on August 6


Disappointed that this wasn't about Cape May County and its seabillies.
posted by runcibleshaw at 10:26 PM on August 6


"I grew up in Bedminster, NJ. (I left before Donald T built his golf course there.) I didn't know there was such a place as "west New Jersey"."

Appears to be a mistake by the poster, in NJ we would say Mahwah is North Jersey. The unofficial rule of New Jerseyans is to reference the state in the three parts north, central and south. North is pretty much everything north of Rt. 78 to the Garden State Parkway where the line dips south to the Raritan River. Central is South of 78 and north of Trenton and 195 to the coast. Everything south of 195 is South Jersey.
posted by remo at 6:21 AM on August 7 [1 favorite]


"I really want to go eat at Hillbilly Hotdogs."

I went to college right down the road from Hillbilly Hotdogs and can confirm it's just as great as you might imagine!
posted by remo at 6:23 AM on August 7 [1 favorite]


The unofficial rule of New Jerseyans is to reference the state in the three parts north, central and south.

There are people in New Jersey who don't acknowledge the existence of Central Jersey, bless their hearts. It's good that you've stated the rule correctly, though the boundaries can get blurry.
posted by asperity at 10:26 AM on August 7 [1 favorite]


North Jersey is the part of the state in which local TV coverage comes from NYC.
South Jersey is the part of the state in which local TV coverage comes from Philly.
Central is where you get traffic info from the weird right wing/soft rock 101.5FM.
posted by apparently at 4:25 PM on August 7 [4 favorites]


I think I was misled by this quote "northwest corner of Bergen County, where the Ramapo Mountains, stony foothills of the Appalachian range," which I mistook to be a western part of the state, knowing nothing about New Jersey. Sorry.
posted by MovableBookLady at 7:42 PM on August 7 [3 favorites]


Central Jerseyians with Optimum get their news and traffic from New 12 NJ.
posted by 80 Cats in a Dog Suit at 3:55 AM on August 8 [1 favorite]


"Central is where you get traffic info from the weird right wing/soft rock 101.5FM."

Thank goodness I was drinking seltzer when I read this, limited the damage to my keyboard when I spit it out in laughter. Now I will be hearing "Chime Time" in Dennis Malloy's voice the rest of the day.
posted by remo at 6:46 AM on August 8 [1 favorite]


"I think I was misled by this quote "northwest corner of Bergen County, where the Ramapo Mountains, stony foothills of the Appalachian range," which I mistook to be a western part of the state, knowing nothing about New Jersey. Sorry."

No worries, figured it was something like that. To be fair most people outside NJ are not familiar with the odd little geographic rules of NJ, so figured I would give a basic explanation.
posted by remo at 7:39 AM on August 8 [1 favorite]


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