Monday, February 21, 2011

Old English Mountain Speech

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.


Tina Donahue said...

I commend you on your research, Kathy. Dated (historical) or colloquial dialogue is so very difficult to write and to make it sound reasonable. As you said, non-cartoonish.

Your book sounds fabulous. May you have many happy sales. :)

Paris said...

Kathy, your research sounds fascinating and so does your heroine. Finding a balance with colloquial dialogue so that it becomes a natural part of the book is an awesome task and it looks as if you've managed it very well. Congratulations and best wishes for many sales!

Kathy Otten said...

Thanks Tina. Johnny's no nonsense, practical outlook, combined with her mountain sayings also provided some comic relief in the story. She really did take on life of her own and even now still invades my thoughts with one of her opinions.

Kathy Otten said...

Hi Paris,
Research is fun for me and Johnny was especially fun because she was so different from most heroines. Thanks for the good wishes. :)

Sarah J. McNeal said...

All I would have to do is fall into the lingo of my mountain neighbors to get Johnny's manner of speaking.
Amazingly intense research, Kathy. I love Johnny's character speech and all. Lost Heart's is going to be a delight to read.

Margaret West said...

I had a real battle this time around with an editor when I gave my characters accents and so forth. I was told it's distracting to the reader. It's better to intimate, his texan drawl or her slight french accent.
Feed back on the book when it was released did lean towards the editors pov (bah humbug!!) readers did find it little hard going because of the characters accents etc.

Kathy Otten said...

Hi Margaret,
I personally would rather not read a reminder in speech tags of the Irish lilt or the Texas drawl. I guess it goes back to my love of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. There is a balance with it though. With Johnny's character, I didn't put everything in. I picked a few distinctive aspects and stuck with those, like a-goin'. So far response has been positive. I also used an Irish accent in my first book, Between the Lines. I don't know if it was too much or not, I never received any feedback one way or another. My editor didn't seem to have a problem with either of my characters, so the accents stayed in. I did have a published author in my critque group who had a problem with Johnny's accent, but since that was only one person, I kept Johnny the way I written her.

Kathy Otten said...

Hi Sarah,
Thanks for stopping. Being so close to you mountain neighbors gives you the 'ear' you need to be able to tranpose the sounds in your head, onto paper (or the screen). You're lucky to have neighbors. I had to watch episodes of The Beverly Hillbillies, Andy Griffith, and Gunsmoke in order to hear the nuances in my head as I wrote.

Lee Barwood said...

Kathy, the speech you've used in your book puts me in mind of the speech that surrounded me when I lived in the Ozarks. I too had to choose what and how much of it to incorporate in my own novels, but it was so beguiling I couldn't resist it. Language survivals such as "I don't care to" -- meaning, "Of course I will," not "I don't want to" -- meant that I had to make the context very clear, so that readers unfamiliar with the dialect would know what my characters were saying.

And it's more than language survivals, as well. Many of the folk beliefs from those times persist, as well, and so does the music -- traditional melodies with "new" lyrics that were written by the immigrants to the region to reflect their own stories.

Travel in the region was so difficult, and life was so hard -- rocky soil, less than ideal growing conditions in the shadows of the hollers, and the incursions of bandits and Civil War brigands as well as soldiers -- that people were more isolated than in other parts of the country. That kept those linguistic, cultural, and musical traditions alive in ways that most other regions couldn't match.

Good luck with Lost Hearts. Johnny sounds a treat!

Kathy Otten said...

Hi Lee,
Everything you said is so true. Our belief system, traditions and music have deep roots not only in the Ozarks, where Johnny was from, but the Smokey Mountains, the hills of Pennsylvania and New England. As a nation we've become so gobal generations will forget where we started and who we were as a people. By incorporating a piece of our language history into the story, I tried to keep that bit of the past alive.

Fiona McGier said...

Me faither was from Glesga and he told me that the mountain folks was "our" people...that when they moved here, they sought out land similar to the old country, and that's where they settled. The old joke asks how can you tell an immigrant's nationality? The British build a home first, to live in. The Germans build a barn first, to house their animals. But the Scots-Irish build a still, get some whiskey brewing, drink a bit, then ask each other, "Where the hell we gonna sleep?" I asked him if that meant the folks with green teeth who marry their cousins were "our folks"...he said to just listen to their music and their speech, and I would know. He was right. So your heroine's accent is very familiar to me.
Great post!

Kathy Otten said...

Hi Fiona,
Cute joke about the Scots-Irish. You gave me a nice chuckle. My family is German, so I guess we built the barn. If I remember right, Louis L'Amour had his famous Sackett family hailing from Irish descent, in the hill of Tennesse. It's good that you have strong family roots. Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. :)

Paty Jager said...

Johnny is a wonderful character and Lost hearts is a fantastic read! It's fun to learn how hard historical writers work to make their stories accurate.

Kathy Otten said...

Hi Paty,
Glad you stopped by. My brother said the same thing after he read the book. When he started thinking about all the details he said he was amazed by how much research went into it.