One evening, I was working on assignments for a college course when my wife descended to the basement to bring me some coffee. After explaining where I was in the editing process of a group assignment, she asked, “What is a toboggan?”
I stared at her for a moment, and finally answered, “A sled.” She asked if I was sure and I grabbed the Merriam-Websters dictionary from my desk and looked it up: “A long, narrow, flat-bottomed sled, used in coasting.” After I read the definition aloud, I asked why she wanted to know.
We are both from a small farm town in Adams County, Ohio. As she was chatting with one of our friends, also from the same area, this person referred to a toboggan, but indicated that it was to go on her head. A conversation ensued, and my wife insisted that a toboggan was a sled, while her friend stood her ground that a toboggan was a winter hat of some kind. Her incursion into the basement office had less to do with bringing me a fresh cup of coffee than it had with confirming her position.
But then I thought, the area from which we hail has always had its own way of saying things. “Y’all” is a word that most associate with country bumpkins like us, and it is a shortening of “you all”, used when addressing a group. In Adams County, however, we say “you’ins”, which can also sound like “yuns”. It is short for … Lord only knows.
The language of the Appalachia confounded me as an outsider who moved to the region as a young boy. I moved from Tucson, where I’d become accustomed to an eclectic mix of English and Spanish, to Adams County, Ohio, where the words were a mix of English and worse English, and grammar was optional.
My wife and I joke about the language sometimes because we are both transplants and not native to the region. It is our home and the place we plan to grow old, but we are amused by the charm of the language.
Not long after the toboggan encounter, I discovered an article written in 2017 that discusses the unique nature of the language of the Appalachia.
Originally published in Appalachian Magazine on November 23, 2017, the article “The History of Appalachian English:Why We Talk Differently” could not have provided a better insight into something I experienced growing up.
In that article, the author states that “it is believed that the Appalachian dialect is a remnant of Elizabethan English.” He points to phrases like “might could” and “might be able to” as enduring commonalities in the dialect, and which are mostly forgotten by English speakers outside of the region. There is also the odd practice of using the word “done” as a helping verb, as in “we done went” or “we done tried”, which was common in South and Central England in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Finally, the author points out that, outside of some place names, Appalachian-English has almost no Native American influences. The author believes that the relative purity of the dialect is a result of location, being that it “is the result of the isolation of the mountains beyond the Blue Ridge … making our dialect one of the most ancient and protected dialects in the nation.”
While there are disputes among some regarding the veracity of these claims, one thing is certain: language is a fascinating phenomenon. The very beginning of our existence happened when God spoke. Adam is reported to have named every creature under heaven, meaning he assigned a spoken sound to them. At the Tower of Babel, God confused and created languages in an instant because mankind was not following God’s directive to populate the planet.
My wife and I still speak Appalachian-English, but only when we are back home. It takes a day or two to fade away once we leave, but I believe that’s because the language is in our hearts, and not just our minds.
“The History of Appalachian English: Why We Talk Differently” by Appalachian Magazine November 23, 2017.