What Is (My) Rural Language Variety?

First, I’ll preface this post with the fact that I am not a trained linguist or sociolinguist. But, I am a speaker of a rural English variety. One that has always been at odds with the Standard Mainstream Upper/Middle-Class English valued in learning spaces. One that I worked hard to unlearn and keep out of my speech and writing in school. And one that I wish I could get back at its full capacity.

In my Reading Rural YAL (RRYAL) videos, I try to get it back – to use it where it feels authentic even though there’s always still an underlying uncertainty if I’m using it right. Or if it’ll be judged harshly by non-speakers or folks who just consider it “bad” English. A friend who attended a presentation I gave at a national professional conference, seemingly surprised, remarked at how “professional” I sounded in my talk because they had previously only seen my RRYAL videos.

Title Slide of My NCTE Presentation

I know they didn’t mean nothin’ by it, but it felt like a micro aggression.

Why can’t my rural language variety be professional, especially because the thoughts that I’m using it to deliver are deep and insightful analyses of literature? Why does the way I say those things render them less “professional” if saying them a different way wouldn’t?

I’ve also come across recent Tweets about cooperative overlapping and the use of “yonder” and “fellers” both of which are part of my rural variety and have me thinking about its other characteristics. In some scholarly conversations about language varieties, I’ve brought mine up and people in the group either ask me to produce something that would prove it’s a variety and not just improper English – either out of defensiveness or curiosity or both.

I’m always left flustered by those moments. It feels too performative and like there’s not enough time to go into all that. Plus, there’s a lot of shame for me that I chose to lose a piece of myself and police that piece of my family’s identity – for what? Some elite sense of superiority and worthiness? So, I usually stutter and stammer through something, and I imagine the skeptics in the group remain unconvinced.

Hearing My Variety in a New Way

It’s funny how your way of speaking becomes more noticeable when some unexpected person speaks it back to you. It could be a gas station attendant or an artist or new colleague. It’s especially interesting when that person is your three-year-old daughter. She uses certain constructions that I know have to come from me, but I don’t notice myself using them. Likewise, listening back to and reading transcripts of the interviews I conducted during my dissertation study and my RRYAL YouTube videos has also contributed to these noticings.

These things together have motivated me to start keeping track of the non-standard markers in my speech – to do a kind of informal self study. I want to say that it is possible that these overlap with other “non-standard” varieties for a number of reasons and that all of these varieties are generally not welcome in academic spaces.

Another Disclaimer – I’ve never seen hardly any of these words written down or spelled out anywhere, so I did my best to represent them as accurately through spelling as possible.

Characteristics of (my) Language Variety

(In the order
they came to me
rather than alpha order)
* No/nary-count – good for nothing
* Why-for? – a why with more emphasis
* Ain’t – isn’t
* Yonder – over there; a far distance
* How much? – used instead of “huh?” “It’s 1:00.” “How much?”
* Over’t – contraction “over at” I’m a-going over’t Mom’s place”
* Fixin’ to – About to start – “I’m fixin’ to make dinner”
* Supper – last meal of a regular day
* Dinner – last meal of a special occasion
* I’s, they’s – contraction for “I was” and “they was”
* Reckon – suppose or guess
* Bein’s-as – because
* On account of – because
* Nary – none; “Can’t get nary a thing done today”
* Whatcha gotcha – hello; what are you up to
* Yuns – you ones, y’all
* Bless your [little] heart – depending on intonation and inflection
could be an insult or a show of pity
* Jus’ listen at’im – indicates what is being said is ridiculous and/or
* Mamaw & Papaw – Grandma and Grandpa
* Aim – designates intent; “He didn’t aim to hit ya”
* Tin foil – aluminum foil
* Fellers – guys; can be used in mix gendered company
* Plum – very; I’m plum tuckered
* Tuckered – tired; exhausted
* Finer than a frog hair – doing well
* Hotter than a two-peckered billy goat – really hot
* Study on it – think about it
* Heared
* What have ya’s – a greeting; a comparative “I’ve got one of those
new iPhones or what have ya’s
* Ought (not) to – should or shouldn’t
* Might could – maybe
* Stove up – stuffed up, sick; “I would come out to see y’all, but I’m
feelin’ a might stove up
*Might/mite – a bit
* Pert near – almost
*Cattawampus/Cattywampus/Sigogglin – askew
* He/She/They ain’t done it. – I don’t believe it
* Shindig/Hootenanny – party; celebration
* Proud as Pete – (idiom) embarrassed

Lots of Swearing Substitutions:
* Aw Flitter
* Dadburnit
* Dadgummit
* Dadblastit/Dadblasted
* Dadblame
* Sam Hill (often misheard as Sam Hell)
* Cripes
Syntax* Deleting the subject of subsequent sentences. “Mom called. Said _;
Wanted to know _.”
* Double negatives – “Don’t need none.”
* Prefix “a” added to certain gerunds – I’s a-walkin’ down the road”
* Dropped “g”s from gerunds
* Done been – shows emphasis; “Why didn’t you write that on the
shopping list? I done been to the grocery.”
* Subject/Verb agreement – we was, feets is; I seen
* Pluralizing and making possessive things that aren’t plural and/or
should be possessive; Book of Revelations/’s; Hills’s
* Using “the” to refer to businesses – I’m a-goin’ to the McDonalds
* Using best instead of better – “You best listen to your mama.”
Pronunciation* Dropping “th” from that, there, them – Who’s ‘ere? Where’d you
get’at? It’s on ‘ere.
* Dropping “h” from him and her and here – “Would you jus’ look
at’im.” “You best listen to ‘er.”
* Shortened diphthongs – R[ah]ght instead of R[ai]ght
* Exaggerated “a” sounds – Ch[ayeee) L[i]n is how my Grandma Jean
would say my name.
* No differentiation between p[e]n and p[in]
* [e]t instead of ate – “yuns done already et?”
* Warter & warsh rag
* Whale & well; hail & hell all sound the same
* Ornge vs. orange
* Dun’t vs. doesn’t
* In’t vs. isn’t
* Cran vs. crayon
* Mondee vs. Monday (applies to all days of the week)
*Progrum vs. program
*Restrunt vs. Restaurant

I’m sure if I waited longer and did a more systematic study, I’d come up with more. I’m going to continue to keep track and possibly update this list later.

Paralinguistic Features (non-language stuff) & Behaviors

Along with the vocabulary words, rules of syntax, and characteristics of pronunciation, there are certain behaviors that are considered valuable in conversation. Eye contact, for example, is generally regarded as a polite way to show you’re engaged with what a speaker is saying in the U.S. (though not in all cultures). In my rural variety, cooperative overlapping is most definitely one of them. If you want to show someone you’re paying attention, you “mhmm,” nod your head, and say things like, “sure” and “oh, honey.” You also try to anticipate and finish the other person’s sentences, which can be read as rude to outsiders.

This was one of the most striking revelations for me. After not understanding why I was called out in academic spaces for not giving other folks room to talk, I discovered listening to my dissertation interviews that I participate in conversations in these ways. And although my professors didn’t understand it or consider it valuable, the rural participants in my study (from various different regions) participated in our interviews in much the same way. I often wonder if I was able to get the incredibly rich stories and examples I did because I talked with them in this way. Those conversations felt like home to me, and I’m wondering if maybe they did for them too.

Upon further reflection and thought, I realized that my Mamaw even moves her mouth with you as you’re talking, making the shapes of your words with her own mouth. She embodies your words to show you how invested she is in what you’re saying. While some folks might see it as distracting, it’s how we know she’s really listening. If she ain’t movin’ her mouth, we know to call her out.

The cadence and rhythm of this variety is different too. Where speakers pause/slow down and the emphasis they put on certain words in certain positions of the sentence is different. There’s a musicality – a lilt – to it that isn’t present in Standard Mainstream Upper/Middle-Class English.

Well, So What?

So, this language is me. It’s my family. It’s my history. It’s my identity. And despite its rules and the ways that certain phrases and pronunciations and paralinguistic behaviors communicate different meaning, it’s still considered simply bad and improper English. Probably because its speakers are generally regarded to be poor and ignorant and backwoods.

There are several movements in educational scholarship to broaden the scope and beauty of the linguistic landscapes that exist in English language arts classrooms, but most of the time rural language varieties aren’t included in them. I’m still working through all the possible reasons for that, but I want to work against them.

Folks can communicate wise and complex and sophisticated thoughts and knowledge in sentences that have double negatives and “ain’t” in them. Whether or not listeners are speakers of that variety, they will likely still be able to understand the content the speaker is communicating. So what does it matter if the thought is delivered in a “non-standard” variety of English?

Thinking about Language & Teaching

As I embarked on this journey, this inquiry into my language variety, it sparked so many ideas for how I wish I would’ve run my classroom differently. How I also privileged Standard Mainstream Upper/Middle-Class English in my classroom and the myriad ways students pushed against that (and rightfully so).

If’n I had it to do over, I’d invite students to engage in this very same inquiry.

I’d want them to investigate the non-standard markers of their speech. How are they used? How do they communicate and alter meaning when changed?

I’d want them to talk with their families and communities about how and why these ways of speaking are used. In creating the characteristics chart for this post, I talked with my dad and sister to think about aspects of our language practices that we take for granted as “normal” but might be seen as weird to outsiders. We thought together about the ways we slip into this way of speaking and being with one another without even noticing it even though our non-rural partners do. We told each other stories about moments we were made to realize how we spoke was different or wrong and how using it makes us feel included and closer to our kin. My sister and I both currently live far away from our hometown, and we talked about how sharing our variety and using it with one another makes us feel more connected to our home. These discussions were fun and rich, and I learned so much from them. I want my students to be able to experience those things too.

Finally, I’d want them to consider how their language is connected to the movement of power. How does the use of their language variety in certain situations grant them less or more power than others? Why is that? How can they use that knowledge to their advantage in and for their communities? Which is what I’m trying work out in my code switching/meshing and the way I slip in and out of my rural dialect in different areas of my scholarship.

Above all, though, I’d want students to know that their way of speaking and knowing and being in the world doesn’t make them lesser. That they are valuable and don’t need to unlearn their variety or deny who they are to be seen as the intelligent human beings they are.

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