Those Medieval Appalachians

Following an In the Middle Link, I came across this small aside in a post from Quod She:*

And last night one of my students e-mailed me just to say — I kid you not — that he realized that the American rural regionalism “of a night,” as in “when I lie awake of a night,” is a hold-over of the genitive of time from Old English and early Middle English.

This is why the world needs linguists: they remind us of where we come from.

My mother’s family is from Appalachia, and I’ve spent my life in varying degrees of opposition to the linguistic inheritance that I got from her. As a child, I couldn’t stand it when I heard her or my great aunts say “I seen them that did it when they done it” or “Livin’ at the old house, I wartched clothes down at the crick [creek]” and like Egghead, Jr. from the old Foghorn Leghorn cartoons, I would either bury my head in a book to avoid them, or worse, correct them and then bury my head in a book.

It took me a long time to drop my youthful prejudice against the Southern accent. Going to college helped a lot. In high school the only people I knew with heavy accents were in general ed classes, since the A.P. and college prep track was populated by transplants from better school systems in California, Iowa, and Florida (and with mimic men like myself). Time in the North for grad school helped, too, making me nostalgic for the voices of the people back home. Today, I only flinch a little bit when my mother tells me what she “seen tother day,” and I don’t beat myself up too much when the occasional deep-Southern remnant falls out of my own mouth.

These days, I even like to brag that my Southern roots help me as a medievalist. I’ve never struggled with Beowulf’s Hwaet, I tell people; I just always assume it’s the same as my sister’s starting every story with an emphatic Y’all.** I am perhaps too proud of the day I surprised my professor as an undergraduate by rattling off the details of the Harrowing of Hell in a seminar on Langland. I wasn’t being precocious. I had heard the story while sitting in a pew at one of the First Baptist Churches of Somewhereorother my mother took me to, in a sermon where the event was presented as literal fact.

Most of my Appalachian relatives are dead now. Their children and grandchildren still live in the same places as their parents, but they talk like people who work in Southern cities. They drawl, but they know they’re being funny when they call a creek a crick. The only one left is my great aunt Selma, and at eighty-eight, she’s not going to be around much longer. The last time I saw her, she asked me, half-conversational, half-concerned, “Do you sleep of a night?” It took me a lot longer than it should have to figure out what she was asking.

*Possibly, that’s the most medievalist blogs I’ve ever referenced in a single sentence.
**As in, “Y’all! I was at the store yesterday, and you will not believe what happened.” This is not the y’all of direct address. The whole sentence starts again after the y’all, which serves to declare, “Hey, listen to this.”

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  • Mimi

    I remember in my Irish Gaelic class realizing that a lot of the sentance structure I judgementally considred Southern is a relic of Irish grammar.

  • Jenne

    Once upon a time, an English graduate student in my SCA group got aholt of a Netherlandish play from before 1601, had her roomate translate it, and got friends to perform it. The main theme is that the husband of an abusive wife is advised to deal with her by responding with the all-purpose Dutch word (which I can’t now remember) to everything she says. We struggled to find an equivalent, and finally settled for the Pennsylvania Deutschie “Say now.” 🙂

  • Dr. Virago

    Hey Carl (or should I say Hwaet Carl), thanks for the link! But I thought I should point out that you linked the “Remembraunce” post about NIU instead of the post that had that remark. The post you want is this one.

  • LLCoolCarlIII

    Y’all. Link fixed.

  • Justin

    Cool post. Its sad that we are losing our regional peculiarities, especially in speech. Where I grew up in SE Virginia there were probably four distinctive accents you came across. My grandparents were from the “urban” areas of the Appalachians (Bedford, Bristol) and spoke with good english but with an accent like the narrator on the “Waltons”.

    In Gloucester County VA, there is a peculiar way if speech we called ‘Guinea’, with its own accent and idioms. Many believe this pattern of speech originated with the British and Hessian soldiers that settled in the area after their defeat at Yorktown.

    You may be familiar with Smith Island, MD, which was settled in the 1600s and isolated to such an extent that the local dialect is still very near Elizabethan English.

  • Melissa D

    Y’ALL. I could NOT put down this great book I read last month called “Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America.” Most of the history dates from Puritan times forward, with a little reach-back to the Elizabethans and their forebears, but it was great fun to see the origins of my grandparents’ regionalisms — not just dialect and vocabulary but even cooking styles and framing stories of their families.

    Have you ever heard Martha Stewart try to say “Y’all”? It comes out as this stiff, “yoll” sound. Awful!

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