Say What? – Appalachian Dialect of Our Ancestors

Y’all set down awhile
An’ larn your lessons
School’s startin’, so larn your lessons!

Do you know the origin of these unusual words? We do not hear them much in this generation. Oh, well, we will probably always hear “ain’t,” and I use it sometimes for emphasis! And then there is “y’all” which seems to include everybody. We don’t hear the word “you’nse” very much, though I have heard educated people come across this from time to time in a conversation. It is nothing but a habit carried through generations from their ancestors.
These words and sayings seem almost like another language to most of us, yet I am almost sure your ancestors used them, especially if you came from any of the Southern Appalachian states.
These folks ran two words together sometimes to make it shorter. Now, this is nothing new to this generation, because we live in a hurry up world.
I remember when I was learning shorthand, which was written with symbols and spelled exactly like the word sounded. Naturally, this messed up my real spelling until I learned better.
And then, more currently there is Facebook with abbreviated words and symbols. If you wrote a funny statement and did not know what “LOL” meant, you would never know when to laugh. So, we are still shortening our words and running some together, though it is nothing like the mountaineers.
The first thing I noticed about this language and the computer, is that it did not recognize a single word and said it was not spelled correctly. Well, I knew this, so I suppose Southern Appalachian language is not recognized, not spoken, but certainly remembered.
This “other language” is interesting even if your ancestors came from a different part of the country. What I am about to tell you is from the generation of my great-grandfather, Uriah Holden, and these were spoken as nearby as Gilmer and Fannin counties.
This history brings my ancestors, and maybe yours, too, when generations before in the 1700s were fleeing from the oppression of the English crown. These Scottish people settled in Western Pennsylvania in large numbers. How do I know? My father, M. Clifford Holden, wrote this history in an article which is now in the Georgia Archives for future generations.
These people were farmers and whiskey makers. My ancestors were not whiskey makers, but some generations down, one relative was making whiskey and his brother was a revenooer agent! Those that made illegal whiskey for a living were not too happy.
Under President George Washington, there were imposed taxes on whiskey and then came the “Whiskey Rebellion.”
Being unable to pay and displeased with this taxation, they were bitter and began to leave Pennsylvania and follow their relatives or neighbors south by way of the Appalachian Mountains, through North Carolina and Tennessee, and my relatives to the mountains of Gilmer County, which is now around Ellijay, Georgia.
These people were more like a clan and did not mix with any other section of Georgia. This is where they became known as mountaineers, rather than Scotch-English or Irish. This is where the mountaineer language began.
There is much more history with these people from when my great-grandfather, born in 1836, came and raised a large family in the mountains on land that his father had purchased at the time of the North Georgia Land Lottery. By the outbreak of the Civil War, my ancestors were numerous in the mountains of Gilmer County.
These people were very poor and if they did not raise their food, they did without. With large families there was the problem of working out the land or getting an education. Most, by necessity, had to work the land, though some did go to a mountain school.
There were few good schools in the mountains Most were the one-room and one-teacher kind, poorly constructed. Most were held in church houses as the county had very little money to build schools.
The students sat on benches made with sawmill lumber and had no backs to them. The subjects were confined mainly to the “three Rs” and Webster’s “blue-backed” speller. The children who attended the three-month sessions regularly were good in arithmetic and spelling.
Teacher training was at a minimum and many had no more than a two-week teacher training in order to license those eighth grade students as teachers.
It stands to reason that this unusual language was not taught in the mountain classrooms. It is my assumption that those that did not get an education used these unusual words and terms to communicate. This is only what one would assume.
There must have been some sort of mail delivery, even if only by horseback. I have a copy of a letter written by “Surry” (Sarah) to probably one of her relatives. You will have to assume that the receiver could understand this letter.
It stands to reason that the relatives that I knew would speak and write this sort of language. But they did not! My grandmother had to correct my father when he was a child. He had always heard from others “fence postess” and “hen’s nestess.” My grandmother was always promoting education for her children, especially after they moved away from the mountains. My father received a college education, along with some more of his siblings.
Now, this does not mean that generations down, that I do not come across with some of these sayings from time to time. My grandmother and father both were constantly using an “old saying.” I loved it and thought most were funny.
Have you ever heard “Booger Man”? This is the imp of the devil.
We all have probably said at one time, “brimming full”, or “chocked full”. Sometimes that “consarned” thing gets in the way. Of course, you might be “give out” if you have “high tailed” it across the road. Of course, you could have been “poking” along instead of “skee-daddlin’” so fast. Have you ever had a “whoopin’” “whuther” you needed it or not?
I use “tarnation” from time to time, not knowing the meaning. Sometimes folks pitch a “conipshun fit,” when maybe it was just a “dido.” If something is out of shape, it could be “catawompus.”
My grandfather only carried over a few words from his early years, and they were: “Yon way,” “Fust,” “Fetch,” “Hawg,” “Orter,” “Give Out,” “Perishing” or thirsting, to remember a few. My grandmother always used “Juberous,” and I’m still wondering about the meaning of that!
Along with the history of our ancestors, my father has written hundreds of these words and old sayings used in the mountains, though he was not born and raised there. These are written alphabetically like a dictionary including their meaning.
He never used many, but he had to get in a real high school to know that the word “Nabel” was “Navel.” Until then he thought he was a member of the “Babtist” Church.
These people never knew anything to support themselves except making whiskey and farming. It is interesting to see some of the dialect they used with these trades.

Toward the end of the century it became harder for these mountain farmers to support their large families on these small farms. The railroad had come to the county in the 1880s and provided some jobs.
By early in the 20th century, nearly all of the high mountain farmers had sold their lands and migrated to the textile mills and the cotton fields.
My great-grandfather left by about 1902, bringing with him the great heritage left to us by the foundations laid by my mountaineer ancestors.
“Ya’ll know,” fer this, I “orter” say “thank’ye!” But, even better.
I’ll say like my father always said, “Much obliged.”