Stereotypes have surrounded Appalachia for a very long time. Society has made Appalachia viewed as inferior, or less than other regions. Although the Appalachian region deals with issues such as poverty, a lack of literacy and more, these issues are grouped into stereotypes.
Stereotypes are defined as an exaggerated idea of a certain group of people or thing. In terms of dialect, dialect is defined as a particular type of language in a region. In this case, Appalachians have been stereotyped as “hillbilly” or “uneducated” just by watching movies or television shows that have depicted Appalachians and their dialect in a negative light.
Jesse Graves, poet in residence and professor of English at East Tennessee State University, shares his own thoughts about Appalachian dialect and culture.
“Dialect is one of the most distinguishing stereotypes that Appalachians have,” Graves said. “I think it is often portrayed in an exaggerated way, I am not sure if this is as true as it was 20 years ago, but I feel like Appalachia was one of the last outposts of allowed mockery, and sometimes it still is.”
Although mockery of Appalachia is not as extreme as it was many years ago, there are many ways that the culture is mocked and stereotyped. According to The Appalachian Online, former presidents of the United States such as Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson have gone on “poverty tours” to only show the part of Appalachia that has its flaws.
Appalachian dialect is known to be very southern and stereotyped as “not a proper accent.” The Appalachian Mountains actually stretch from Pennsylvania to Georgia, and there are many people with many different accents due to the vast amount of land it covers.
Graves shares what he believes are the most pronounced stereotypes on dialect, “I think the dialect and the depictions of the way people speak, especially grammar and accent, are some of the most pervasive Appalachian stereotypes,” Graves said.
Appalachia is home to a diverse group of people. Dialect is constantly changing, especially with accents. A person from Georgia is not going to speak exactly like someone from Pennsylvania. Yet, these stereotypes of wrong dialect are still around. Many urban areas are located within Appalachia, but they do not get the same treatment as rural areas do.
“I don’t think many people think of urban Appalachia, which there are quite a few cities in the region,” Graves said. “It is more so the areas like western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee that become peoples’ idea when thinking of Appalachia.”
Appalachian literature is not represented fairly in the literary world. “I teach an American Poetry class out of the Oxford Book of American Poetry, it is over 1,200 pages of poetry, and in all of those pages there is one poet who is identified as an Appalachian poet,” Graves said. The poet is Charles Wright, who grew up in Tennessee.
Ultimately, there is a trend of stereotypes surrounding everything Appalachian. Appalachians should not have to hide under these stereotypes. According to the Appalachian Regional Commission, 26.1 million people live in Appalachia. That means there are 26.1 million different lives, stories and testimonies. The diversity of Appalachia is something that is special, and ideas of others can be completely different than who or what it truly is. The dialect and culture of Appalachia is incredibly diverse, and that is not to be stereotyped.
Photograph of Jesse Graves, taken from ETSU's website.