Ante-over, jackleg and catawampus: How to speak Southern Appalachian

Beginning in 1937, the scholars who assembled the Dictionary of Southern Appalachian English spent decades interviewing residents of eight Southern states, from West Virginia to Georgia, to document the language of the region. Pictured is Mr. Jones, the miller of Mingus Creek. Courtesy of Edouard Exline
Caption
Beginning in 1937, the scholars who assembled the Dictionary of Southern Appalachian English spent decades interviewing residents of eight Southern states, from West Virginia to Georgia, to document the language of the region. Pictured is Mr. Jones, the miller of Mingus Creek. Courtesy of Edouard Exline

Credit: Edouard Exline

Credit: Edouard Exline

New dictionary codifies language from mountains of eight Southern states.

When Jennifer K.N. Heinmiller inherited the million-word project that would become the “Dictionary of Southern Appalachian English,” its principal author had blown past several deadlines, lost his publisher and then died.

The dictionary was a unique but expensive undertaking. It represented 85 years of research that would eventually produce a 1,225-page volume weighing about 12 pounds.

“It was a lot, considering that it was not my full-time job,” said Heinmiller recently. At 36, she is a freelance lexicographer; she is fluent in Japanese, and works as a translator; and she also does language analysis for a fintech company.

Caption
Jennifer K.N. Heinmiller began working on the Dictionary of Southern Appalachian English 13 years ago as a graduate student, she didn't imagine that she would be the only surviving editor to see the project through to publication. Courtesy of Jennifer Heinmiller

Credit: Jennifer Heinmiller

Jennifer K.N. Heinmiller began working on the Dictionary of Southern Appalachian English 13 years ago as a graduate student, she didn't imagine that she would be the only surviving editor to see the project through to publication. Courtesy of Jennifer Heinmiller
Caption
Jennifer K.N. Heinmiller began working on the Dictionary of Southern Appalachian English 13 years ago as a graduate student, she didn't imagine that she would be the only surviving editor to see the project through to publication. Courtesy of Jennifer Heinmiller

Credit: Jennifer Heinmiller

Credit: Jennifer Heinmiller

You might say this dictionary had a “circumvengemous” provenance (occurring ”in a round-about manner”). Heinmiller — an Asheville, North Carolina, resident — got involved in the project in 2008 as a first-year graduate student at the University of South Carolina. Her professor, Michael Montgomery, had published a more limited version of the dictionary in 2004, detailing the language of the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee and North Carolina, drawing on years of research by his mentor, Joseph S. Hall.

Caption
The Dictionary of Southern Appalachian English assembles the distinctive words and syntax of this much-mythologized region. Courtesy of University of North Carolina Press

Credit: University of North Carolina Press

The Dictionary of Southern Appalachian English assembles the distinctive words and syntax of this much-mythologized region. Courtesy of University of North Carolina Press
Caption
The Dictionary of Southern Appalachian English assembles the distinctive words and syntax of this much-mythologized region. Courtesy of University of North Carolina Press

Credit: University of North Carolina Press

Credit: University of North Carolina Press

This expanded version covers a much larger area, from West Virginia to Georgia. It includes 10,000 entries and 35,000 citations, and is one-third-again bigger than its predecessor.

Heinmiller and company researched the topic “down to a gnat’s bristle” (”something done exactly and meticulously”). What they’ve come up with is a veritable “frog-strangler” (”a sudden, hard, flooding rain”) of language, with citations from interviews, literature, Civil War-era letters and audio recordings of mountain folks, some of whom were born in the mid-1800s.

Heinmiller took responsibility for corralling the vast amount of material and finding a publisher after Montgomery’s sudden death in 2019. It was an honor to be listed as co-author and sole surviving editor, she said, but “it was suddenly a feeling of ‘heavy is the head that wears the crown.’”

Published this summer, the dictionary immediately met with approval from writers, academics and librarians. “What a joy it is to discover a single resource that packages so much about such a broad and diverse region,” wrote North Carolina novelist Wiley Cash.

“We ordered three copies at the library,” said Tom Brooks, communications specialist at the Cobb County Public Library, whose family comes from the same Georgia mountains that gave birth to many of the terms in the dictionary.

“I think I’ll be looking at it for years,” he added.

Frank X. Walker, a Danville, Kentucky, native who directs the MFA program at the University of Kentucky, said of the dictionary, “I was looking for things, like the words my parents used, and they were easy to find.”

Walker was particularly delighted to see the writing of fellow University of Kentucky professor Gurney Norman used for some of the citations. “Kinfolks,” by Norman, is a collection of short stories rich in detail from life in southwest Virginia and eastern Kentucky.

In 1937, when the National Parks Service began considering turning the Smoky Mountains into a national park, they hired Hall, then a graduate student at Columbia University in New York, to study the language of the residents, to preserve their folkways.

Since the residents would soon be removed from the land and their houses destroyed, the preservation intent of the project might have seemed a bit “slaunchwise” (“slanting, oblique”).

But Hall threw himself into the project, returning to research a doctoral thesis in 1939, and coming back again in 1940, 1941, 1949, 1953, 1956, 1959, 1962, 1967 and 1976, “usually spending several weeks to record and take notes, but also to visit friends and attend family gatherings and other events,” according to the introduction.

Using two different recording devices he cut 160 aluminum and acetate discs documenting speech and music of the area. The musical selections lay unnoticed in the Library of Congress for decades until the Great Smoky Mountains Association released a compilation that was nominated for a Grammy in 2013.

Hall published several books and a glossary on the region, and in 1990 was approached by Montgomery, who suggested putting together a full-scale dictionary of Smoky Mountain-isms.

Hall agreed, but died in 1992. Montgomery produced the more limited Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English in 2004, but went immediately to work on the expanded version.

How did Hall and Montgomery get so many people to talk to them in a region that is famously insular and mistrustful of “flatlanders”? That’s a mystery, said Heinmiller, but she suggested that any group proud of its culture would want to see it documented by an interested observer.

By recording the language, and therefore the history of the area, Hall and Montgomery went a long way toward overcoming years of mythmaking that have colored the conventional image of the Appalachian people.

There is the “noble savage” trope — which characterizes the residents as prone to bust out in poetry, a la Byron Herbert Reece, or gunfire, a la the Hatfields and McCoys.

There is the Brigadoon scenario that has some small hamlets speaking in language identical to that of Shakespeare or Chaucer. (Still not true, said Heinmiller.) And there is the ignoble savage typified by James Dickey’s characters in “Deliverance.”

The Appalachian mountains are neither a secluded Shangri-La nor a hellish backwater, said Heinmiller. “In reality we have I-26 and I-40 running through, and it’s as touristy as anywhere else.”

Another myth of the Appalachians is that it is populated only by white Europeans. Walker, the UK professor, invented the term Affrilachian, to make the point that people of color, including himself and his family, are part of the story of this region.

He was glad to see their language also represented in the dictionary, including words such as “piddlin’” and phrases like “Johnny Law” and “noway nohow.”

“I was impressed that the research seemed to feel inclusive. I didn’t feel left out,” he said. “I heard my grand-people’s speech in these pages.”

The language is, however, in danger of disappearing, and Heinmiller’s experience in documenting a vanishing dialect in the Okinawan islands made her a likely rescuer. “One of the reasons I was tapped for this project is I have an affinity for endangered languages.”

Plus, the native Southerner understands why old language patterns disappear. “I moved from rural areas of coastal Carolina to Ohio as a child,” she said, “and I remember consciously killing my accent and trying to mimic my classmates,”

The culture of the mountains of the eastern U.S. is worth preserving, said Heinmiller, because it tells the story of a unique place — not a utopia, but still magical.

“There’s always going to be some inherent air of mystery when you drive out on Blue Ridge Parkway and watch the sun come up with the mist,” she said.

“I’m a hiker and trail runner, and it’s interesting to live in one of the few parts of the country where you might wake up to find a bear on your porch.”


“Dictionary of Southern Appalachian English”

Here are a few terms from the dictionary:

shivaree: A raucous celebration after a wedding.

frog-strangler: A sudden hard, flooding rain.

back-cuss: To curse in reply to someone else’s cursing.

flusterate: To frustrate.

mail carrier: A wildcat that seems to make rounds regularly, from place to place.

trash mover: A sudden, heavy rainfall, or an energetic person.

ante-over: A game in which two groups of people are situated on (either side of a house) and alternate in throwing a ball over for the other team to catch.

jackleg: Usually of a member of an occupational group: self- or poorly trained.

catawampus: Set at, or moving, in a diagonal manner; crossways.

The hardcover book is $169.95, though it is discounted at $129.43 on Amazon.com; digital versions at about $99.99 are available at Amazon Kindle and Apple iBookstore.