Mountain Speak

Yesterday, I came across an article in The Greenville Journal called “Mountain Speak: The Way We Used to Talk”.  It was a great article, but there was something special about this particular story and I copied directly from their website to include in this post.  Read it, look at the picture that was included with the story, and at the end I will tell you why this was so special.  Enjoy…

Mountain Speak: The Way We Used to Talk 

Technically, it’s called the Appalachian dialect, very much like the Gullah dialect down along the coast. I call it Mountain Speak. At one time, it was prevalent throughout the Appalachian region. 

In Mountain Speak, the sentence, “Well, I reckon if it’s not his, and it’s not hers, it must surely be yours,” came across as, “Waaal, I recken if-en hit ain’t hisen, an hit ain’t hern, hit muss shorely be yourn.” 

I grew up in a time of transition, when the number of people who spoke the Appalachian dialect was dwindling, and now it is rarely heard. 

A lot of people looked down on those who spoke that “country talk.” 

“Murders the King’s English,” my mother used to say.

I was pretty bad myself to use words and phrases that I had heard from my mountain kinfolk and friends. I had to go off to Clemson to learn how to talk right. 

When spoken by a bona fide mountain man, woman or child, the words and phrases flowed off the tongue like warm honey from a jar. Mountain Speak was a euphonic, vividly descriptive, close to the bone way of speaking – mesmerizing music to my young ears.  Nowadays, my “citified” ears yearn to hear it again. 

A burlap bag was a “toe sack” and a paper bag was a “poke.”  You could plow with a horse or a mule using three simple words: “gee” (turn right), “haw” (turn left) and “whoa” (stop).  You would “grabble” the first new potatoes of the year. A chimney was a “chimbly.” A “granny-woman” was a midwife/herb doctor. Enough of anything edible for a meal was a “mess.”

A bear was a “bar.” A hemlock tree was called “spruce pine.” A ruffed grouse was a “pheasant” and a pileated woodpecker was a “wood hen.” Ginseng was known as “sang.”

An idle fellow was described as not having any “gumption,” as evidenced by the fact that he was frequently seen “loafering around.”  When you threw something away, you “got shed” of it. When somebody or something flipped end over end, my father used to say it “turned a tumasod.” 

I recall being told a story that involved a sow bear and her cubs climbing a tree – “That ole she-bar and her gang o’ littluns clem that hickry tree lickity split. I swanny, I never seed enythang like it in all my born days.”  Another story about a panther began, “One day, of an evening, right about dusky dark, that ole painter commenced ta caterwauling, screamin’ like a full-growed woman.  Hit wuz right up thar on the tippy top o’ that ridge.” 

People also had different ideas about things back then. My uncle Clenith divided everybody in the world into one of two categories. You were either “from around here” or you were from “off.”  “Off” could be anywhere from Berea to Brazil. 

His son, Michael, who was my age and my best bud growing up, once teased that my wife, Jane, was a Yankee because she was from Rock Hill, which is slightly north of here. 

Dennis Chastain is a Pickens County naturalist, historian and former tour guide. He has been writing feature articles for South Carolina Wildlife magazine and other outdoor publications since 1989.

Appalachian Family

So, what’s so special about this story? Well, actually it’s not the story that’s special, but rather the picture that was included with the story. You see the young girl on the far right? That girl is my great grandma, Minnie Dacus Roper. The adults in the picture with her are her aunt and step-uncle. I don’t have their names, I only know their last name is Chastain and I assume the rest of the children pictured are theirs.

But wait! There’s more! My mom and her siblings called their grandparents Ma and Pa Roper. I have a pie safe and a rocking chair that belonged to them. These were pieces of furniture they used to “set up house-keeping”. The rocker has been refinished, reupholstered, and placed in my office. The pie safe is in storage, but I hope to get it out this winter and finish restoring it too. There is a note written on the back of the pie safe. My great grandma signed it and dated it. I don’t remember the exact date, but it was in the late 1890s.

We have roots in these mountains. Deep roots. History is so cool. Especially family history. Do you know your roots? If you don’t, do some digging. You might dig up a pot of gold and you might dig up some rotten taters, but it’s the journey, not the destination that enlightens us.

“If you don’t recount your family history, it will be lost. Honor your own stories and tell them too. The tales may not seem very important, but they are what binds families and makes each of us who we are.” ~Madeleine L’Engle

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