When was the last time you heard such expressions as “Oh, Law,” or “You-uns have a nice day”? And if you’re lucky enough to encounter one of these turns of phrase, once common here in the Western North Carolina mountains, then listen carefully: Their days may be numbered.
Linguists estimate that within less than 80 years, half the world’s 6,912 distinct languages will be extinct. As of 2005, some 548 of those had fewer than 100 speakers remaining, and their numbers are decreasing daily. As languages vanish and regional dialects retreat, much of our history and culture go with them.
Behind every mountain expression like “sanging”—hunting for ginseng—lies an entire way of life. Still, this is not meant to be yet another elegy to vanished folkways: Far more than nostalgia is involved. When dialects die, so, too, does the store of knowledge that sustained generations before us and that still has much to offer.
Perhaps 144,000 mountaineers spread across WNC, eastern Tennessee, northern Georgia and southwestern Virginia continue to exhibit significant dialectical differences from whatever is thought to be standard English, some linguists believe. The conformist pressures that tend to militate against dialectical particularities include not only the effects of globalization, urbanization and the Internet, but additionally the control exerted by majority speakers and teachers. When mountain dialects die, our cultural and ecological understanding of the world that’s been encoded within them—so vital to the long-term survival of entire communities—also ends. Their death signifies irreplaceable losses to the whole of us as well.
For example, mountain dialects contain ecological and botanical knowledge that, over the centuries, has been worth billions of dollars to the pharmaceutical community. Pinkroot, snakeroot, ginseng, hawthorn, mushrooms, sassafras, roots, herbs and a host of other botanicals and their resulting concoctions are encrypted in mountain words and idioms.
“Sarvis” plants are edible and not poisonous. (Some plants can be eaten on a short-term basis for survival but will kill you over time.) A “greasy poke” means a person has “victuals” stored for when he’s hungry, not for when he has a cold. Mountaineers also easily distinguish between dodgers, grits, hush puppies, scrapple and pone, but can you? Such distinctions proved crucial to many in the past.
Any study of mountain dialects also broadens our scientific understanding of how the human mind works. It gives us insight into “the great puzzle of human cognition,” of how we think. Odd and unusual language structures that, for example, use intensifying adverbs such as “plumb” and “right” to describe the weather and ailments not only challenge standard linguistic assumptions but also provide crucial information about how people related to their natural environment in the past. A “right cold” day means one more chilly than usual, while a “plumb pretty” day might signal the coming of spring. “Falling off” has less to do with church attendance and more with a person’s health. A “dotey” person is senile, not lazy.
The same holds true for numbers. Mountaineers practiced differing forms of mathematics and number awareness that hark back centuries. They calculated acreage precisely, as in, “My land goes from round the top of that hill and over the ridge a ways to the creek.” Everyone who heard this knew exactly where the Ledfords’ property ended and where you could hunt and fish without interference. In an equally archaic reference, early 19th-century mountaineers described numbers in terms of steps. Thus, 12 became “two steps toward 20” while “yonder ways” meant more than a mile distant.
Mountaineers also estimated measures of grain and its alcoholic distillation with great precision, and they had few problems with direction in an environment where “The only way to see out is up.” If your moonshine contained too little alcohol or too much “sour mash,” they knew almost instantly.
Yet the greatest loss when mountain dialects die may lie in a “catastrophe of cultural forgetting.” An entire view of the world and of society disappears along with the keystone words that described it. For example, the expression “woods colt”, an illegitimate child, likely tells us that children born out of wedlock suffered little social exclusion in the mountains. A man who had “granny trouble” looked forward to the birth of his child and immediately left for a month, while a “coarse singer” meant a bass and not someone off-key in church. If you “backed” an envelope, you didn’t seal the letter but rather inscribed a return address.
The mountains of WNC and eastern Tennessee are home to perhaps the finest storytellers and folk singers anywhere. The most dazzling fabulists in the medina in Marrakesh, Morocco, considered the world’s best, pale in relation to the talespinners here in Western North Carolina. Take away dialects and you do away with these everyday Homers of our civilization, whose stories have been refined by the memories of countless generations now gone. Once that link with the live performances of our past is broken, an oral tradition stretching back centuries also ends. We become less conversational and more otherwise engaged.
Lastly, dialects give us insights into a worldview and belief system that provide alternative models of thinking and relating to nature and to others. As revealed in dialects, nature, nurture, necessity and intergenerational time are greater laboratories than anything we can concoct or imagine.
[Milton Ready, a UNCA professor emeritus of history, lives in Mars Hill. He is the author of The Tar Heel State: A History of North Carolina.]