PINEVILLE, W.Va. (AP) — In a sparsely populated Appalachian county, the young couple is recounting how they met while a language researcher captures their story with a high-end audio recorder.
“She smiled at me, then I got shy,” 20-year-old Pete Culicerto recalls of his first encounter with Ginger Smyth at Wyoming East High School.
The story itself is routine, but it’s the underlying sounds that researchers are most interested in.
West Virginia University linguist Kirk Hazen is among a wave of scholars seeking to put to rest “Beverly Hillbillies”-style myths and stigmas about Appalachia.
Three books in the past year and a fourth to be published soon challenge these century-old stereotypes by noting, among other points, that Appalachian residents speak a variety of Englishes — and not a single monolithic dialect — and that scorn for the region’s speech is often based on outdated notions of how they talk.
In southwest Virginia, English professor Amy D. Clark has held summer workshops for 15 years to help rural teachers teach students to write effectively without shaming them about their speech. The same message runs through teaching units on dialect for schoolchildren in North Carolina and West Virginia.
“You’re trying to get across the idea that all language varieties are legitimate. There’s not one that’s somehow damaged and then others that are just fine,” Hazen said. “They’re all just fine.”
The first step in changing perceptions of mountain speech is documenting how contemporary Appalachian residents talk, which is why Hazen is interviewing Culicerto and Smyth. Discussion topics include friends, community, and how involved Wyoming County parents are in teens’ love lives.
When Smyth says, “It depends,” the latter half of the word sounds similar to “pin,” an example of a merger of vowel sounds common in the southern part of the state.
Culicerto remarks that in their relationship, both sets of parents ask the couple out to meals, showing an example of a redundant pronoun: “Both sides, they always ask.”
The two examples are among enduring dialect features, which Hazen’s research shows have remained steady in West Virginia.
Hazen, who’s spent two decades conducting interviews around the state, has used his research to illustrate that other stereotypical features of Appalachian speech have become rare — such as the demonstrative them (“them apples are the best”) or a-prefixing (“I’m a-going to the store”). Neither was heard during the Pineville interviews.
Despite Hazen’s research, many outsiders still have negative impressions about mountain accents, sometimes based on outdated speech features. It can take decades for perceptions to change.
The interview questions turn to how outsiders react to Smyth and Culicerto’s accents.
“I think they look at me and they’re like: ‘Oh my gosh, she lives way back in the holler … and is so redneck!’” said Smyth, who’s 17.
Increasingly, educators are seeking improve students’ confidence and test scores with novel ways of teaching grammar.
Among them is contrastive analysis, an approach in which students diagram spoken sentences and compare them to formal written English. Contrastive and other methods are discussed at the Appalachian Writing Project’s summer institute for teachers, led by Clark, the professor in Virginia.
Lizbeth Phillips, a middle-school teacher in southwest Virginia who’s worked with Clark since 2004, assigns her students to keep journals of how adults in their community switch between formal and casual ways of speaking. Educators say the approach known as code- or style-switching allows students to preserve the way they speak at home and improve their writing without feeling ashamed.
“If you’re marching out the red pen … you’re really criticizing their culture and their family heritage and other things. It’s not just about standardizing the language,” she said.
Some lovers of mountain culture see confidence starting to take root.
“There’s a kind of re-appropriation of things ‘hillbilly,’ which were once considered to be a negative stigma, and embracing it and turning that around into something positive. So people will say, ‘Yeah, I’m hillbilly, and proud of it!’” said Walt Wolfram, a linguist at North Carolina State University.
Last summer when the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in East Tennessee canceled optional accent reduction classes after some employees complained, a newspaper headline hailed it as: “ORNL bows to Southern pride.”
Culicerto, who made straight A’s in high school and attends Marshall University, said stereotypes can run both ways — people where he’s from sometimes look down at residents of big cities — but they’re usually misguided.
“The way they look at us, we might look at them the same way, like: ‘Oh they have a city accent,’” he said. “But really, we’re all the same.”