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Beefsteak When I’m Hungry

ISSUE:  Spring 1930

Properly speaking, there is probably no such phenomenon as a mountain dialect. The language is one of interesting and significant survivals, and it is probably the most sparklingly fascinating segment of current American speech. For mountain speech has pristine word qualities and a natural aesthetic instinct for sound and oral value; it has flux, freeness to vary and invert, a feeling of freshness and of stylistic distinction. It is a forceful speech; it can clothe the most extraordinary incident with matter-of-fact colors of reality and it can give to casual bits of everyday the most delicate shadings of romance. Mountain speech is interesting from a standpoint of pure linguistics but it is more interesting for its magnificent vital testimony.

A mountain man’s life is one of vague wondering and leisurely understanding, and speech is but a turn in his path of living.

Corn likker when I’m dry,
Pretty little gal when I’m lonesome—
Sweet heaven when I die—
Sweet heaven when I die.

This high spot from a droning ditty called “Sourwood Mountain” seems to me a first rough outline of backwoods philosophy, a creed of storm and sunshine, growth and rest, the progress of the seasons, changing of the skies, the coming of nights and consequent dawns, the old established phenomena of sun, rain, and earth. His basic hypotheses are bounded by apples and butternuts and firewood, a barrel of kraut, a cellar of potatoes, a smoke-house filled with pork joints and bacon, a treasury of chewing tobacco and store-clothes for the winter.

Conventional ambition lies dormant in his nature and there is nothing in his immediate environment to arouse it. The world beyond his valley must remain an infinity of vague and uncertain rumor. He has religion to be sure, a primitive religion, intense of feeling, tenacious of dogma, but exerting little, if any, influence upon his course of behavior. He is a child of stars and open destinies and of mothering earth.

A hill man’s speech is surprisingly effective; his characterization is quick and vivid; his narrative is admirable for its homeliness and his sayings usually go to their mark with epigrammatic force. A patriarch of a sun-filtered hollow was accounting for his married life—and the lastingness of his home:

“Well, an infare wedding was the reel beginning. Sally’s folks gin us a big supper atter the weddin’. Ever’body on the creek was thar, that is, the young folks, you onderstand. They’d cooked up ‘most ever’thing—deer meat, fried ham, sausage, turkey and chickens and all sorts of gyarden stuff and pies and cakes.

“And when they’d et, they commenced to frolic. We set by the fire whilst they run a set or two, then Sally leaned over to me and says, ‘Abe, why can’t we run a set, too?’

“I says, ‘We can, by ginger!’ So we run a set. Then all the fellars wanted to swing Sally, so we dance a Virginny reel. Well, we slept thar that night and next day we went over to my folks and they gin us another supper and frolic. And next day atter that we come up here where I’d raised this house.”

His cabin is one of the old backwoods sort; two log-built rooms and a boarded-up lean-to. The roof-line is a trifle catawampus; the rough stone chimney tilts a bit onsteady-like and the walls are weather-warped and powdery gray.

Wild ferns grow at its shaded end, grass and buck bushes and tea roses vie for space in the rough-faced lawn. A pathway leads into an uncertain lane of snow-balls and flowering quince and coral berries. The ancient cedar behind tells of slow centuries of shade. Shattered sunlight falls upon the low porch front and enriches its garnishment of red burney pepper and drying ears of seed corn.

“It aint much to look at, but it’s been home fer a mighty, long time. They’s not much in it but I reckon they’s enough. Like I was sayin’ to her, ‘Yonder’s a right smart chance of corn and a heap of fruit stuff and the shoats will be big enough to kill fer meat after the mast is gone.’ “

His philosophy of immaculate assurance is readily comparable to the provincial confidence of Piers the Plowman:

I have no pennies pullets for to buy

Neither geese nor pigs; but two green cheeses,

A few curds and cream, and a haver cake

And two loaves of beans and bran for my infants

And yet to say, by my Soul, I have no salt bacon

Nor no cockney, by Christ, collops for to make

But I have parsley and leeks and many kole plants

And eke a cow and a calf and a cart mare

To draw afield my dung the while the drought lasteth

And by this livelihood we must live till Lammas time—

And by that I hope to have harvest in my croft

And then may I dight thy dinner as me well liketh.

Mountain speech, even from a casual and convenient estimate, can scarcely fail to demonstrate its wealth of lingual survivals. It carries quaint turns of Elizabethan grace: “How be you gettin’ on?” “Mainly pert and joyous, I thank you.” “Would you deem to sample my, leaf?” (try my tobacco).

If backwoods language is basically a speech of illiteracy, it is not necessarily one of simplicity or of prevailing monosyllables. Indeed mountain speech carries a surprising portioning of unexpectedly big words—round, mouth filling, cavalier words such as grabble, denote, dilatory, cavil, caterwaul, discern, cuckold, mooncalf and marvel; all are common of their sort, and some of them pre-date the battle of Hastings and touch back into the Mercian and Roman days of England.

Hit, the Anglo-Saxon of he, is used with the strangest inconsistency. In fact, hit and it may follow one another in the same sentence or even in an identical clause, as the delicacies of a primitive euphony may require.

Such forms as afore, ax for ask, and kag for keg, go back to the times of Layamon; dauncy, unsteady about one’s victuals, dates back four hundred years to the days of Townley; such usages as usen for used, peart up, done it, aver, afore, atwixt, I dare ye, and afeard appear to pre-date “The Canterbury Tales.” Fray still carries its original meaning of a deadly combat; fracture means rupture as it does in “Troilus and Cressida,” and there are even more picturesque survivals, such as “feathered into ‘em,” a phrase which touches back into the romantic days of long bows and feathered arrows.

Missus, a married woman, survives the yeoman’s mistress; a sorry fellow continues in common usage for “good-for-nothing” but the term has no etymological connection with sorrow—it is a survival of sorcy, meaning scurvy. A hand mill is still a quern in some parts of the Southern highlands, as it was even in Mercian days. Bread made from milky grain continues to be called gritted bread. A turn of meal is what one gets after a considerable spell of waiting his turn about a country, mill, and the toddick, a grinding toll, survives the toll dish of feudal days. Although backwoods speech is intrinsically and stubbornly English, it sometime carries a quaint smattering of romance terms. In the Great Smokies of North Carolina, for example, one may hear doney or doney girl, a current colloquialism for sweetheart. The origin appears to have been a maritime passover. English sailors may have learned about doiias in Spanish ports. At any rate the term, reduced to doney, had become common nomenclature in His Majesty’s Navy during the days of George III and in the retentive hills of Carolina the usage has lived on.

So common a backwoodsism as “tetchous” directs one back to Richard the Third and his mother’s testimony, that “tetcheous and wayward was thy infancy.” Gower tells of “a sighte of flowers,” a “hankercher,” and a “soon start.” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” abounds with the pert and nimble spirits of youth. Like Piers, an up-country Arkansawyer carries a budget on his back and tarries now and then to spend an opinion, as Othello did. He may own a scope of land and prank with the young’uns while the crops go to naught.

The Southern backwoodsman employs the Old English prefix stark: stark wild, stark worthless, stark foolery; and the Middle English suffix like: such like, family like, pert like. He uses the Shakespearean near’t, afeard, and writ. He would likely straddle or back a horse rather than mount a horse.

Usages of our contemporary ancestors of the Southern mountains have illustrious precedents. Milton told of meadows trimmed with daisies pied. Hamlet owned an antic disposition, as does the Low Gap village cut-up. Chaucer and Spenser used sleight meaning skill. Piers talks of a heap of people; Hakluyt uses allow for assume; Spenser used mought for might, swinge for singe, and he rhymes ‘yet’ with wit. The Elizabethans called a salad a sallet and a bag a poke as do many of the Southern high-landers. Sech, sence, again, Scriptur, ventur, nater, yit and yander all held the vantage of good usage in Spenser’s day. Lovelace, the immaculatfi/one, used holp for helped, drug for dragged, fotch for fetch and wropt for wrapped. Sydney said fur and furder.

There is a sad story about a Kentucky mountaineer who blundered upon one of John Fox’s stories about Kentucky mountaineers and was duly perplexed at the dialect. And finally he gave the ultimatum: “Why, that feller don’t know how to spell.” Personally I believe that Fox’s reproduction of the Southern mountaineer’s language is far more accurate than that of a majority of the writers who have striven with the so-called dialect. But there can be no denying that many word-builders have employed mere misspelled jargon as a perverted substitute for an acquaintance with the people about whom they would write.

But any representation of backwoods language must necessarily be difficult and it can scarcely be uniformly accurate. In the first place there are the variations and contrasts in citizenry and locale. The Southern highlands are a land area considerably greater than New York and New England combined and support a population of more than seven million, and language is a plastic stuff which must shape itself to the requirements and whims of changing ages and sundry places.

Speech does not vary according to state lines or specific boundaries, but, for the purpose of identifying ages and stages of speech development, the Southern highlands might be divided into the Ozarks of Arkansas, southern Missouri, and southeastern Oklahoma, a range of low inland hills, separate from the great body of the Alleghanies, and abounding in pioneer ways and isolated graces; the Cumberlands of Tennessee and Kentucky; the Great Smokies of the Carolinas; and the Blue Ridge ranges of Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. In addition to these there are outlying and lesser ranges in a majority of the Southern states wherein lingual stages are determined essentially by their degrees of isolation, which in turn are apparently established by the scantiness of natural resources, the presence of rough terrain, thin soil, and poor roads.

The average backwoodsman is governed in word choice by a keen estimate of place and company and propriety, to an extent that makes accurate recording and reproduction very difficult. The same speaker, on different occasions, may say hit and it; saw, seen, or seed; fotch or bring; aint, haint, or isn’t; such or sich; set or sot. He may lug, tote, shoulder, heft, or cany a parcel; he may fling a rock or throw a stone.

A hill man is seldom at loss for a word. When he comes to a verbal tight place there will come spang out for the emergency a coinage of his own; a new word from combination, a noun changed to a verb or a verb made out of an adjective or an adverb. Adjectives arise from verbs, a set-along child; the workin’est, travellin’est, or preachin’est man. Or verbs may serve as adjectives or adverbs—Tf I’d a been thoughted enough I’d a brung along them onion sets’; or an adverb as an adjective—T hope the folks over your way is all gayly.’ There are verbs improvised from nouns and nouns built from verbs; ‘he is shorely muchin’ it’ (making much of it); ‘he fell down and nastied hisself’; ‘don’t contrary her’; ‘it don’t make no differ’; ‘one more gettin’ of fodder.’ There are frequent substantives such as old braggy and little hatefuls. Many of the verbs are but nouns of action—’Henry can’t faculty the workin’ of them town telephones’; ‘Washington Dodd can muscle his little brother’; Colonel Bullteeters couldn’t confidence no Republican’; ‘Dickie Dye can’t sweetheart nobody who aint a proper Primitive Baptist.’

Strong preterites survive in Parnassian vigor: drunk, begun, rung, shrunk, stunk, stung or stang, and fotch. There are sundry preterites with dialect changes: drapped, war for was or were, bruk for broke, saunt for sent, rok or ruck for raked, het for heated, ort for ought, shuck for shook, and whupped. And there are old forms like holped, mought, and cotched.

There are idioms, too, quaint and variable: for why, aint much come, think me of it, lay off, have in your head, light a rag, went pattin’ off, come in and set, spraddle out, and the like; words to fit a diction quick and vivid. There are all the folkish devices for intensity, don’t never, shan t ever, negatives doubled and tripled:—’Ben Hembree never done nothin’ nohow.’ And there are conversation incidentals, such as; I tell you, I’m put here to tell you, thinks I, I says to him and he says to me.

Backwoods speech abounds in pleonasms; I done done it; surely and undoubtedly; in this age and time; a big large fleshy lady; little bitty, often usually, and the like. And there are the double-barreled pronouns, common but not invariable, picturesque but vastly overplayed by a majority of the reproducers of the mountain language; we-all, you-all, and they-all, and the Tennesseean usage, we’uns and you’uns. An habitual user of these superfluities myself, I am convinced that primarily at least the purpose of the usage is to bestow an emphatically inclusive plural. This rule applies to ‘you-all’ as well. Writers of hill speech who persistently place ‘you-all’ with a singular reference must either be ignorant of backwoods connotations or else be too much determined by merely casual and illiterate blunders. ‘You’uns’ is especially interesting linguistically because of its correlatives in the romance languages; French, nous autres; Italian, not altri, and Spanish, nosotros.

This speech of the mountains is sometimes surprisingly accurate from the standpoint of pronunciation. The Southern mountaineer is probably the only member of the American race who can consistently be depended upon to say ‘dew’ and not ‘doo,’ ‘new’ instead of ‘noo,’ ‘creek’ with its correct vowel quality. A glimpse into the Oxford Dictionary will show, too, that ‘et’ is an accepted pronunciation for ‘ate.’ The backwoodsman’s ‘afeard’ is fully as good English as afraid is—etymologically speaking. ‘Afeard’ is a regularly formed participle of the intransitive verb ‘affear.’ ‘Narry’ is ‘ne’er a’ correctly spoken. The omission of the r as a lingual trait seems to be more lowland than highland. Yet the hill man may say co’te for court, hoss for horse, nuss for nurse, fust for first, dast for dare, and pusson for person. On the other hand, new insertions may spring unexpectedly upon him, and all the breath saved by omitted r’s will be squandered on a surprising sprinkling of grace syllables and letters such as gyarden, warsh, and musicianer. Or he may make unlooked for internal vowel alterations like hed for had, raffle for rifle, chist, sarve, upsot, and tur-rible; or consonant changes like seben for seven, nabel for navel, ballet for ballad, brickie for brittle, atter for after, and tejus for tedious. Sometimes, as with ‘ballet,’ the form may be a very old one.

And there are the analogous compounds (existent to be sure, but usually, overplayed by fiction writers): biscuit bread, ham meat, rock clift, cow-brute, man-person, womenfolks, preacher-man, neighbor people, and rifle-gun. These may be employed primarily to clinch a particular reference which might otherwise be ambiguous. ‘Rifle-gun,’ for example, isolates the rifle from shot guns, muskets, and other prevalent firearms. Certainly the use of analogous compounds is not invariable and it is more old-folk talk than it is the diction of youth.

Maristan Chapman, author of “The Happy Mountain,” makes this very interesting comment:

“A sense of onomatopoeia gives the mountain speech such words as whiffle for a slight breeze; trinkling for the sound of water running over pebbles; also such turns as ‘Yon’s a bird flicketing in the laurel scrub’; ‘I stepped on a beetle to hear him squot,’ and ‘He fair glirred down the slope’; glirred meaning ‘slipped and slid and glided’ all at once.”

As a general rule, mountain people speak with a most delightful flavor of speculative accuracy. Questioned whether he grew the corn that went into the making of his bread, a sequestered old-timer replied:

“Q no, the cawn growed itself. I planted it.”

“But you plowed the field, I suppose?”

“Wal no, my mule Tim plowed the field. I plowed Tim. But I’m tellin’ you, mister, that was ex-ceptional cawn.

Why down in goose bill holler that cawn gets so onhandy big and shady that you can see the lightnin’ bugs in amongst it in the daytime.”

A patriarch was asked if that were a gallon jug.

“No, I doubt considerable if that jug would take a plumb full gallon, but hit holds quite a content.”

Horace Kephart tells of a little girl who on being asked if the new baby, at her house was a boy, answered:

“Yes sir, it was a boy, and I reckon it is yit,”

Mountain speech is not congealed into the forms of grammar and text books; it is yet fluent and spontaneous. It is an old speech applied with the picknicking spirit of youth; it is a tool of the mood and the moment. The gentleman of the backwoods may substitute damified for damaged or unthoughtedly for unthinkingly. He may testify that bar is destructions; that the roads are considerable damified by the floods; he may say memorize for remember, disfur-nish for inconvenience, and capacitated for capable. It is likely too, that he will say rambunctious for rambustious, slaunchwise for slanting; and that he will term nervousness as the all-over-fidges. He may say luggage for baggage, hampered for hindered, and peckerwood for woodpecker. A cow is likely, to be, but not invariably, a cow-brute; while a mule or a horse is a beast of a crittur. He can testify perhaps that he is a plumb fool about turnip greens—that he has had a bait, a snack, or a mere smidgen of them. He may affirm candidly and black-actually that Tola Summer-lin’s was the best hawg meat he ever et; that the line of his barn roof is hip-skeltered, antegogglin’, catawampus or waupajawed; that an outlander must get naturalized to the climate and that young boys will band up for devilment.

In paradoxical contrasts to its strong preterites, backwoods speech shows an urge for establishing regular past tenses for a number of irregular verbs, such as throwed, growed, and knowed; or an irregular form like horned; also for the formation of regular plurals in ‘es,’ particularly for monosyllables ending in ‘st,’ as postes, nestes, beastes, waistes. Occasionally one runs upon distinct Scotticisms, such as gin, ferent, and coggle, and such waning linguistic forms as durgen, a clumsy person; susy, a bachelor who reckons that all the girls must inevitably be in love with him; and jokey, a harmless imbecile.

Backwoods place names are one of the most fascinating resources of the language. They are especially full of color and they are original—not mere imitations or reproductions of old-country town names. I recall a score of them at a casual sitting: Loafer’s Glory, Stand Around, None Such, Whuppin’ Marthy, Far Ply, Alabam, Monkey Run, Red Star, Aunty’s Apron, Ginger Blue, Hell fer Sartain, Bald Knob, War Eagle, Stink Creek, Dove Nest, Shiloah, Fightin’ River, Big Sandy, Gizzard District School House, Nubbins, and Hard Times. All of these are actual, and contemporary.


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