Old English Mountain Speech-
In developing the heroine for my new novel, Lost Hearts, I knew that with Johnny having been raised by outlaws, in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas, she would have had little to no education. Worried that her dialogue would sound too cartoonish and unbelievable I researched the dialect of the people raised as Johnny was, in the dense woods and hollers of the mountains.
What I learned was that the speech of the Ozarks comes closer to Elizabethan English than even modern day speech in England. Many of the quaint words and phrases used by these hill folk go back beyond Shakespeare to the time of Chaucer and even to the Anglo-Saxon period.
Johnny, in Lost Hearts-
“Is ya goin’ to put up that rifle-gun? I don’t want it a-goin’ off ax-ti-dental like iffen this here salve stings.”
These compound descriptive words, are also seen in the Old English poem, Beowulf. For example, “un-living” for the dead and a “bone-box” for the body.
“But Jack was give to me by my uncle Henry. I ain’t a-goin’ to let ya’ll sell him.”
Mountain speech often uses ‘a’ before a present participle. This is from the Old English prefix ‘on’ that preceded infinitives, like ‘onhuntan’ (a-huntin’).
Rab and Johnny-
“Please, Johnny. I’m tired, my leg hurts, and I’m cold. I’m so damn cold.”
“I caint, Rab. I’m afeared that worthless bunch a no accounts will see. They’ll know I ain’t no boy.”
Afeared is a common hill country word that dates back to Middle English, (1150-1500).
“Well, hell, ya ain’t got to give me no money, no how. After all the vittles I ate, I’d surely admire to help ya.”
Mr. Emory leaned back in his chair and steepled his fingers. “’Thou hast spoken no word all this while, Nor understood none neither, sir.’” A soft smile warmed his expression as he lifted his gaze to meet hers across the room.
“Love’s Labour’s Lost, Act five, scene one. I apologize, my dear, for spouting Shakespeare in the middle of our discussion, but your marvelous double negatives have brought to life the poetic beauty of Old English.”
She blinked, understanding him “none neither.” But from the way he grinned at her like a mule in a thistle patch, she couldn’t help but smile back as she realized, this wonderful, fancy dressed man liked the way she talked.
A use of double negatives, while considered uneducated today has strong links to Elizabethan English when a double negative was used to form a stronger, more effective negative.
As part of my research I corresponded with a wonderful man, the age of 96, who lives in McAlester, OK, where part of Lost Hearts takes place. He sent me a letter yesterday telling me how much he enjoyed the story. He also mentioned how accurately Johnny butchered the English language. He related how he was raised on a farm in the foothills of the Ozarks, where a few of the children who attended his school had talked like Johnny. He mentioned how his parents refused to allow him to form friendships with those children as they feared his speech would become contaminated.
Since I was worried that I had overdone Johnny’s character, this man’s letter was more reassuring than any review I could receive.
Between his help, and the books I read, Johnny took on a life of her own. She is feisty, pragmatic and fiercely loyal, and she grew into one of the most unique heroines I’ve created so far.