“What Will Happen to the Secret Language of the Appalachians?”

An article caught my attention in the New Yorker, 21 Sep 1998, written by Tony Earley, “The Quare Gene.”  So I clipped it and filed it with my genealogy files.

Quare is an adjective the Scots-Irish used to mean queer, eccentric.  Most dictionaries say the word is archaic and obsolete.  Earley reported that as spoken around his mother’s dining table, the word quare “is as current as the breath that produces it, as pointed as a sharpened stick.”  It means suspicious, odd, unusual, strange as well as queer.  [Not to mention what modern English has done to the word queer.]

Words like peaked, trifling, poke, were words Earley grew up with and took for granted.  “I heard them around me, and I breathed them in like air,” he writes.  He was embarrassed and ashamed of his speech, when corrected by classmates.  When he entered college and took an Appalachian-studies class, he learned that he and his family spoke a dialect.

This Appalachian dialect is considered a sign of ignorance and stupidity.  Earley learned the dialect as his mother tongue.  Standard English he learned as a second language.  Teachers and even family members consider this speech to be “colorful.”

It was in Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders, written in 1904, that Earley discovered that his primary language was as close to the Elizabethan English that Shakespeare used or the Middle English of Chaucer.  And in the high mountain valleys of North Carolina and Kentucky, where the population was largely isolated until the building of roads, the mailing of the Sears Roebuck catalog, and the penetration of the hills by American radio,  the speech patterns of the Highlanders didn’t change.

This makes Southern language up to 800 years or more old!

These precious words represent the history and migration of these peoples across parts of Europe, the British Isles, and into the American South.

I invite you to go to your nearest Public Library and read or borrow on interlibrary loan Earley’s article and read it all. He talks of his ancient great-grandfather, Paw Womack, who placed him in his family lineage.  Then sat in quiet companionship and acceptance with him on the porch.  “I’m Reba’s boy, Clara Mae’s grandson, Tom Womack’s great-grandson.”

And he mourns the loss of the word quare and its contained history that will take place with his generation.  And although he does not try to make a case for ethnic integrity–you will wish as I do, that the culture and history represented in this word could continue down the generations.

Earley recognizes that no language is static forever.  “Words and blood are the double helix that connect us to our past.”

You will want to make it a part of your Scots-Irish tradition brought from North Carolina on the wagon trains that wound their way into the mountains of eastern Kentucky.  So I invite you again to get the whole article and read it–pp. 80-85.   Then you too will find a sense of belonging.  Your favorite Kentucky genealogist, Arlene Eakle  http://arleneeakle.com

PS  Language can unlock the secrets of your heritage only as you study the history behind the words.  If you do, it will give new meaning to your ancestry.

PPS  I am getting ready to launch my Scots-Irish blog–stay tuned.

About Arlene Eakle

I trace your family tree; or, teach you how.
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