Appalachian history professors applaud Tennessee bill recognizing dialect

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A bill moved a step forward in the Tennessee legislature that would recognize the history and culture of Appalachian people in the state.

Republican State Sen. Steve Southerland of Morristown sponsored Senate Bill 227, which states that the Secretary of State would include a discussion of the Appalachian dialect and history in the Tennessee Blue Book every year.

The bill states that people of the Appalachian Mountains are misunderstood and their dialect is often seen as uneducated. If the bill passed, it would legitimize the Appalachain dialect.

What’s the Appalachian dialect?

Amy Clark, co-founder of the Center for Appalachian Studies at the University of Virginia, is from Central Appalachia and said the dialect is a mixture of vocabulary, grammar and phonetics from the original settlers in the Appalachians.

Original settlers range from Native Americans to Scotch-Irish. The bill states the dialect was formed mostly because of the topography of the region.

“The steep, rugged terrain of the Appalachian Mountains was not hospitable to early settlers, and the tenacious individuals who made the mountains their home were then somewhat isolated from those outside the region,” the bill states.

Clark said the bill would be great for the culture. She said it would shed light on several misconceptions about the dialect and the people speaking it.

“Appalachia has suffered this stigma of being populated by hillbillies,” Clark said.

Clark said the bill could also create an opening for acceptance of the dialect in education.

She said she teaches an idea called ‘code-switching’ to other teachers in the Appalachian region.

Code-switching is when someone switches between different vernaculars.

Clark teaches it so teachers can accept their students’ ‘home dialect’ while also teaching standard English, and not make the students feel insecure.

“When you tell a student that their home dialect is wrong, you’re saying their mom and dad are wrong, their preacher’s wrong, everybody in their community is wrong, (and) everybody around them that they’ve grown up hearing speak the way they do is wrong,” Clark said.

Joshua Willey, a history professor at Brevard College, also said the bill is an important step to recognize a dialect that is often deemed “ignorant.”

Willey said he was labeled all his life as “less intelligent or otherwise deficient by virtue of my ‘hillbilly’ or ‘white trash’ accent.”

Willey often “code-switched,” afraid that his accent would diminish his credibilty.

He said when he became a college professor, he stopped.

“My intellect does not depend on my speech, and linguistically, the way I speak is not ‘wrong.’ Further, I want my Appalachian students to hear others in positions of responsibility and intellect who speak the same way as them,’ Willey said.

Willey also pointed out that the negative stereotypes of Appalachian and southern accents are often carried over to the television screen.

“The Swamp People and Snake Salvation stars get subtitles, but the fishermen on Wicked Tuna have thick, New Englander accents (that) I struggle to understand (and) sometimes get no subtitles because their accents are not viewed as deficient or intellectually lacking in the same way as Appalachian accents are,” Willey said.

Clark said she hopes other states will pass a similar bill.

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