A Catskill Catalog: Jan. 7, 2009
A banker in Cincinnati is on the phone with a banker from another part of the country. After finishing their business, the Cincinnati banker asks, “Is there anything else we can do for you?”
“No,” comes the reply, “but, you are not from Ohio, are you?” The Cincinnati banker allows that she is not. “You are from New York,” she is told. “In fact, you are from upstate New York.”
The Cincinnati banker, born in Mexico, was raised and educated in the Catskills. Having learned her English from teachers and classmates in upstate New York, she developed a pattern of pronunciation – in this case the way she sounded her As – that gave away her upstate New York roots.
We all do it. The way people speak English varies in pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammatical structure. People make sense, and sentences, in a manner that reflects their social and regional background. We’re all familiar with the “southern accent” that lets us know we have crossed the Mason-Dixon line, or the Cockney dialect of London that Liza Doolittle learned to replace with the Queen’s English in the American musical “My Fair Lady.”
We tend to be less aware of dialect variations in ourselves. When I first came to the mountains, my students made sport of the way I said the word water. I guess I sounded my As in a distinctly downstate manner. Gradually, I’m sure, my pronunciation changed.
A dialect is a variation of a language, a variation that develops as spoken language grows and changes within an interconnected group of people, a speech community. Today, that speech community may be a virtual community, connected on-line, but not very long ago, when people tended to stay put, speech patterns were more likely to develop regionally.
The study of American dialects, dialectology, had its high point in the period between the two world wars, when a monumental linguistic atlas project attempted to map the dialectology of the eastern U.S. That project, based locally on a 1940 Vassar College thesis, included the Catskills in the Hudson Valley dialect area.
Well, any trip to Kingston makes it clear that’s not correct. Catskill Mountain folks speak differently than the people of the valley, that was immediately clear to me, just as it was clear to my mountain students that I sounded “downstate.”
Looking for a research topic in my mid-’80s graduate school years, the dialect of the Catskills seemed like a natural. Living in a mountain hamlet, I was surrounded by the talk of men and women who had spent lifetimes wresting a living out of the hard Catskills soil, men and women whose talk resonated with a connection to the past and a love of place. Their Catskill Mountain speech was distinctive and memorable. Clearly not of the Hudson Valley, their Catskill Mountain speech was worth studying.
A local oral history project recorded the memories of dozens of local residents in the late ’70s and early ’80s. The project was sponsored by the old Erpf Catskill Cultural Center, now a part of The Catskill Center in Arkville, which had a wonderful folklore program working for a few years. People were recorded with an interest in preserving what they said. I listened to the tapes with an interest in how they said it.
Walt Wolfram, a professor at North Carolina State, had, with colleagues, identified the grammatical structure of the dialect spoken in the southern Appalachians, a dialect they call Mountain Speech. Armed with a chart (it would be a spreadsheet today) I listened to the tapes looking for those specific features.
I found them. Remember, if you are old enough (or watch reruns), “The Beverly Hillbillies?” Remember how grandma would say things like “Jed is a-fishing?” Well, that’s an actual grammatical feature of Mountain Speech, called “a-prefixing.” It has real meaning, a continuity of action that has a different shade of meaning than “Jed is fishing.”
I found what I’ll bet is the northernmost example of a-prefixing in the dialect literature right up in Haynes Hollow.
Right up in Haynes Hollow. It’s a landscape that is folded up and down in hollows and hills, a degree of geographic specificity might be expected. Double-prepositioning, the combination of several words of direction and placement, is a Catskill Mountain speech feature I identified. You got a house on Dingle Hill, you really are back up in. Double-prepositioning, an important feature of Catskill Mountain Speech, makes sense.
The dialect of the Catskills is a mountain dialect, related in grammar and structure to the dialect of our southern Appalachian cousins. Like all regional and social variations, our mountain dialect changes as our speech community changes. But we can still hear the speech of the mountains if we but listen to each other.