Mountain talk

A painted poem that my great grandmother Sallie Thomas Avery wrote about her early childhood in the mountains. “And I who passed that country way/ When life was yet at early day/ … Saw Earth as one vast Eden fair/ Pure as the bloom of crab hedge there.”

My great-great grandfather, Will Thomas, was born and raised deep in the heart of the mountains of North Carolina.  His daughter, my great grandmother, Sallie Thomas, lived there for the first 9 +/- years of her life, on a farm three miles away from the nearest (tiny) town. But when Will came back from the Civil War insane – sometimes violently so – her mother sent her away to live with relatives.  For her, the towns of Waynesville (NC), Jefferson City (TN), and finally Asheville, were big cities where the other kids made fun of her mountain talk. 

After being sent away from home, Sallie had a hard, sad life and became a prickly, difficult person.  She got rid of her mountain accent and became a bit of a snob herself.  But at the heart of her identity was that bereft little mountain girl who got made fun of and didn’t quite fit in anywhere.  Her maternal line, and mine, was pure Scotch-Irish. Writing this book, I’ve learned that the “mountain talk” she was so ashamed of was imported straight from Ulster. And that my Scotch-Irish inheritance is not only genetic, but also linguistic.  These are some of the things I’ve said all my life that come directly from Ulster.

1) The combination of “could” with “used to” or “might” – e.g. “You used to could do that,” or if someone asks me to do something, answering “I might could do that for you.”

2) The use of “done” as a helping verb or adverb: “We done finished up the chores” or “I was done wore out.”

3) The pluralization of “you” into “y’all” (or as they say here in Pittsburgh, “yinz” which is a version of “you’uns”).

4) The combination of “all” with other pronouns or even nouns: “I don’t know who all was there” or “I don’t know what all they did.” Occasionally “Mama and them all went to the store.”

5) “Till” added to expressions of time: “She said she’d be there at a quarter till eight” (rather than a quarter to eight). Also, the use of “till” meaning “to the point that” – e.g. “I was beating those egg whites till my arm about fell off.”

6) “Wait on” instead of “wait for.”  “I’ve been waiting on you since lunch!”

7) The prefix “a” on verbs: “a-runnin’” or “a-comin,” as in “Don’t worry, I’m a-comin’!”

8) “Piddle” meaning to waste time, as in “Stop piddling around!”

If you haven’t heard me talk this way, it’s because I say these things around my family more than I do around other people. But I say them all, and I love knowing that these phrases travelled with my maternal line from the Lowlands of Scotland, to Ulster, to the mountains of North Carolina. And it makes me feel deeply connected to that little mountain girl my great grandmother once was, before she was sent away from home and became a prickly snob.  Sallie would probably be appalled, but I’m delighted.