‘Get your ears’: WVU researchers want respect from Appalachian English | Today

Two West Virginia University researchers, Kirk Hazen and Audra Slocum, examined how language has, in part, defined how Appalachians are viewed and judged elsewhere in the United States.
(WVU/Sheree Wentz Chart)

(Editor’s Note: WVU is the host site for the 45th Annual Appalachian Studies Conference, “Making, Creating, and Encoding: Crafting Possibilities in Appalachia,” which runs through March 20. During and after the conference, WVU experts are available to discuss all things Appalachia.)

Language and how we use it is important for more than communication. According to two West Virginia University researchers, the language has, in part, defined how Appalachians are viewed and judged in other parts of the United States.

In turn, the Appalachians, or people of an eight-state region that stretches from southern New York to northern Georgia, either held their own and continued to use the vowel sounds that betray their linguistic roots, or adapted their speech patterns to fit in new places. or situations.

Kirk Hazen, director of the West Virginia Dialect Project and professor of linguistics in the Department of English, said Appalachia people are stigmatized for their speech and may be marginalized in school or in the workplace because of that stigma. And therein lies the linguistic choices that speakers of the region make – those who choose to maintain their use of stigmatized linguistic features – such as their accents – because of a sense of connection to that identity and those who choose to use less stigmatized language features.

“Teachers who are more proactive can help create these classrooms where we interrupt stigma, whether it’s about language or racial or class identities,” Hazen said. “When we don’t disrupt the social stigmas that limit people’s ability to envision a broader future, then it’s a serious problem educationally.”

Enter “Shayla,” a high school student from Kentucky who was selected for a summer arts academy in Lexington where her speech was ridiculed and one of her peers offered to be “a performer.” “Shayla” said it wasn’t her language, but their perception that was the problem, telling them, “You need to get your ears checked.”

“And that made him never want to go back and never go to college outside of his area,” said Audra Slocum, an English education teacher. “She doubled down to stay home and keep those vernacular characteristics.”

Slocum, also co-director of the National Writing Project at WVU, notes that the linguistic characteristics associated with the region are not “right or wrong.” Society has assigned meaning to the variations.

“There is no singular Appalachian English,” she said. “There is not just one set of models. It’s a whole host that people choose in different contexts for different purposes and there are social consequences attached to those choices.

Hazen said that whenever people interact, language and linguistic nuances are exchanged. In fact, language evolution and vowel shifts only occur in two-way encounters, whether face-to-face or online.

And although Appalachia, in reality, is no more isolated than any other region of the United States, this description fits the purposes that some late 19th and early 20th century authors had for the depiction of the region – rural, pristine, pastoral. Other.

Slocum said an Appalachian “otherness” is still going on, the myth of an Appalachian exceptionalism that says it’s somehow different from the rest of the country. This myth, when rolled onto the tongue, she says, means that people, including Appalachians, will look for differences and retain certain items to sort people based on those differences.

Standard or not, Hazen finds beauty in iterations of Appalachian English, and he believes that if regional speakers and those who judge them find out how the language works, it can give them hope.

“We might be able to foster understanding of their own society and themselves, but also of others and their variety of languages,” he said.

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