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Appalachian English and Silas House’s Clay’s Quilt

James W. Hensley

University of Louisville




This paper considers the use of language in Clay’s Quilt, a novel by Silas House. The language

used in Clay’s Quilt is shown to be an example of Appalachian English and conforms with the

uses of Appalachian English experienced by the author of this paper. Myths and stereotypes of

Appalachian language and Appalachian persons are discussed as well as autobiographical

examples of experience with those stereotypes. This paper is an example of the critical self

reflection necessary for continued flourishing of Appalachian English as well as an attempt to

minimize negative popular perceptions and myths of Appalachia.



Clay’s Quilt is the debut novel of Kentuckian Silas House (Dobson, 2009). The book

provides an accessible and exemplary text to use for a discussion of Appalachian speech and

dialect. A video file of House reading a section of Clay’s Quilt during his visit to Catawba

Valley Community College in March, 2009 (Gregory, 2009) is included on a compact disk

attached to this paper. Please view that file before continuing in order to hear Appalachian

dialect in use. House’s accent is typical of the pattern and mannerisms used by men in the

Southeastern Kentucky region. It was my original accent.

The regional and social dialect used in Appalachia and by Appalachian people outside the

region is described by the Appalachian English Morpho-Syntax Project team of the Comparative

Morpho-Syntax of Appalachian English Project in this way.

Focus of numerous rumors and myths, the language of Appalachia has been alternately lauded as pure and unadulterated Elizabethan English and condemned as a lazy and ungrammatical corruption of modern American English. Both these accounts are far from the truth—although Appalachian students cannot read Shakespeare with any greater ease than students from Texas or Vermont, Appalachian English is a full-fledged language with rules of discourse, pragmatics, phonology, and syntax. For over a century, researchers have studied the music, folklore, and speech of communities in the Appalachian Mountain region, which stretches from Mississippi to New York State. The group of related dialects known as Appalachian English are spoken primarily by communities in the central and southern portions of historical Appalachia, stretching from northern Alabama to southern Pennsylvania. (Tortora, Bernstein, Dikken, & Zanuttini, 2006)

Many Appalachians are of Scots-Irish descent and part of families that settled in the

region as early as 1720 (MacNeil & Cran, 2005). MacNeil claims that Appalachian language has

“retreated up into the hills” and in the areas of Kentucky immediately south of the Ohio River

“you no longer hear the keen Appalachian dialect” (MacNeil & Cran, 2005). The “heartland” of

Appalachia in Kentucky is not, however, near the Ohio River. My intuition is that rural

Kentuckians that live near the Ohio River use the Southern dialect rather than Appalachian since



they are not, actually, Appalachian. Kentuckians traditionally recognize a distinction between

“mountains” and “bluegrass.” “Bluegrass” means horse farms and bourbon. “Mountain” means

coon-skin caps, moonshine and poverty.

MacNeil provides an example of Appalachian from his earlier work The Story of

English. Rosa Hicks provided directions to her house for MacNeil and his production crew.

You fly in an aeroplane as far as you can come. Then you get in a car or a truck and ride as far as you can go in hit. Then you get down and run as far as you can. Then you crawl on your hands and knees as far as you can come. Go thataway and then you straighten up and then you find a house. It’s a old-timey one. It looks haunted but it’s really not. (MacNeil & Cran, 2005)

While Mrs. Hick’s prose is poetic, it does not provide usable directions to or from any

particular place. MacNeil presents the Hicks (Rosa and her husband Ray) as quaint, old-

fashioned and isolated. They certainly have the gift of storytelling but they seem to live in a

mystical, magical world where incantations (“Wickedy-wack, into the sack”) are commonplace,

things look hainted but they’re not and people travel from house to house on their “hands and

knees.” (MacNeil & Cran, 2005) Rosa and Ray Hicks no doubt use the pronunciations MacNeil

uses to illustrate Appalachian speech. “Where it (Appalachian English) does survive, the word

there becomes thar, bear is pronounced barr, and hair sounds like herr; and you might still hear

expressions like afeared, damnedest, and plumb right.” (MacNeil & Cran, 2005) You might also

hear expressions like carpet bagger and Yankee. Those descriptive terms are pejorative and

carry the connotation of amused outsider that has come to look at the free-range hillbillies sitting

on the front porch.

During ten years of education in Clay County Kentucky I did not hear the words

“Appalachian Studies,” “dialect” or “Appalachian English.” I was, however, told that “we talk

like the Bible.” My instructor was referring to the King James Bible and was attempting to



convince me that Appalachian English could claim to have a written prototype—namely

scripture. “Down home talk” was not, however, “proper English” or “grammatically correct

English.” “Hick talk” was “corrupt and uneducated” colloquial speech that needed to be

corrected and requires “improvement.”

After leaving Appalachia for school in Louisville I

learned that Appalachians use Elizabethan English. Unfortunately that isn’t true either. It has,

however, become a cultural myth. Michael Montgomery says, “The idea that in isolated pockets

somewhere in the country people still use “Elizabethan” or “Shakespearean” speech is widely

held and is one of the hardier cultural beliefs or myths in the collective American psyche.”

(Montgomery, 1998)

The idea arose in the late nineteenth century and has often been associated with the southern mountains—The Appalachians of North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia, and the Ozarks of Arkansas and Missouri. At one extreme it reflects nothing less than our young nation’s yearning for a stirring account of its origins, while at the other extreme the incidental fact that English colonization of North America began during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I more than four centuries ago. Two things in particular are responsible for its continued vitality: its romanticism and its political usefulness. Its linguistic validity is another matter entirely. Linguists haven’t substantiated it, nor have they tried very hard to do so, since the claim of Elizabethan English is patently based on very little good evidence. But this lack of support is a secondary, if not irrelevant, matter for those who have articulated the Shakespearean English idea in print—popular writers and an occasional academic—for over a century. It has indisputably become a powerful cultural belief and acquired mythic status. (Montgomery, 1998)

My conjecture is that the “Elizabethan” language myth has diminished while the “quaint

free-range hillbillies” myth has grown. It is crucial that Appalachian people and those who use

Appalachian English critically reflect on their own language and provide better and more

articulate explanations and examples of the way the language and the culture are intertwined and

reflect each other. House attempts, through fiction, to provide that reflection.



In his public reading at Catawba Valley Community College (House, Clay's Quilt

Reading, 2001), House interpolates Appalachian idiom into the text even when it does not

appear. The novel, however, uses idiom and dialect extensively in dialogue but switches to

Standard English in descriptive sections. This code switching is typical in Appalachian speech.

An attempt is made to “use correct grammar” when Appalachian speech is perceived as

“incorrect” or “idiomatic” even by Appalachian writers. Though they are writing about

Appalachian subjects for the express purpose of telling Appalachian stories to a wide audience,

“grammatically correct” English will be favored.

For example House says in the video, “The blacktop of the parking lot glistened, so soft

that it threatened to seep right down the hillside.” (House, Clay's Quilt Reading, 2001) The text

actually reads “The blacktop of the parking lot glistened, so soft that it threatened to seep down

the hillside.” (House, Clay's Quilt, 2001). No doubt House’s grammar checker (and perhaps

editor) did not approve of the idiomatic phrasing. Another similar interpolation occurs a short

while later in the recording. “Laughin’ into his rearview mirror at the miners behind him, …”

(House, Clay's Quilt Reading, 2001). The passage in the book reads “He laughed into his

rearview mirror at the miners behind him, …” (House, Clay's Quilt, 2001).

House is from Lily, Kentucky (DeRosier, 2003). Lily is a very small town adjacent to

London, Kentucky approximately 26 miles from Manchester. Manchester is my hometown.

Manchester is the county seat of Clay County. London is the county seat of Laurel County.

Lily is 85 miles south of Lexington and 93 miles north of Knoxville. Manchester is 20 miles east

of London, deeper in the mountains. House was born in 1971 and has lived his entire life in

Kentucky (DeRosier, 2003). He is a graduate of two eastern Kentucky post-secondary

institutions, Sue Bennett College and Eastern Kentucky University (DeRosier, 2003). He



received his MFA from Spalding University in Louisville in 2000 and currently serves on the

faculty there as an instructor in the Creative Writing program (Spalding University, 2009).

House is the author of a three other novels in addition to Clay’s Quilt.

His other works are A

Parchment of Leaves (House, A Parcment of Leaves, 2003), The Coal Tattoo (House, The Coal

Tattoo, 2004), and Eli the Good (House, Eli the Good, 2009).

There are two crucial influences on House’s dialect that differentiates him from the

accent and dialect used in my family. First, House is not an Urban Appalachian. Second, he

uses unique personal names. In addition, Crow County, the fictional home of House’s title

character, Clay, is very different from Clay County, my family’s home. Crow County has

extensive underground coal mines, Clay County does not. Crow County is “wet.” It is legal to

buy and sell alcohol. Clay County is “dry.” Prohibition has not yet been repealed.

Whereas House has remained in Kentucky his entire life and tended to stay in the

Appalachian area, my family migrated from Appalachia and moved to Cincinnati, Ohio.

In the years following World War II, 3 million people left the Appalachian region. Because of worsening economic conditions, including mechanization and closing of the mines, the people were forced to leave in order to survive. Looking for work, they headed for large cities. Detroit, Chicago, Columbus, and Indianapolis became home to many. Cincinnati, because of it's (sic) proximity, was the most frequent destination. Today, 34% of Greater Cincinnati's population is of Appalachian descent. (Urban Appalachian Council, 2007)

My father referred to accent changes that I and my mother presented as “Buckeye talk”

and often mentioned how living in Ohio and Indiana had “messed up” our language. The

example that looms largest is “pop” for soft drinks. Also our pronunciation of Cincinnati varied

with that of our neighbors. We say “sin-si-nad-i” rather than “sin-si-nad-uh.” Another small

town in Clay County, Oneida, is pronounced “o-need-i” in the local accent but I pronounce it “o-




The other crucial difference is the character, Clay’s, experience in a mining community.

There are very few underground mines in Clay County. Most of the coal mines I have observed

are strip mines, often mountain top removal mines, with crews that are hired by the company in

its headquarter’s town rather than from the local area. House’s experience as a native of Laurel

County shows here. Laurel County has had a better transportation infrastructure, especially since

Interstate 75 was built. That transportation infrastructure attracts coal mine operators and

encourages them to locate their offices (and their jobs) there. In 2006, for example, Harlan

County had 50 underground mines and Pike County had 82 but Clay County had only 3

(Kentucky Office of Energy Policy and the Division of Fossils Fuels & Utility Services and the

Kentucky Coal Association, 2007). Crow County has underground mines (similar to Pike) rather

than mine offices (similar to Laurel) or strip mines (similar to Clay County).

The availability of

work off the farm and the fact that the work is mostly in an isolated, single-sex environment

influences the speech of House’s characters. It also provides disposable income that allows the

character Clay and his friends to go to the honky-tonk.

Another startling and unexpected contrast between House’s characters and my

experience of Appalachia are the unique personal names he creates. Unique personal names are

usually associated with African American Vernacular English. Their scope and idiosyncratic

spelling has almost reached the point of caricature. In an interview for Southernscribe, House

discusses the names he gives some of his characters:

MW: Many of your characters have unique names--Anneth, Easter, Dreama, Cake. How did you choose these names? SH: I have always been disgusted by Southern novels that use stereotypical names like Jim-Bob, or Homer, so I decided I would only use names that I knew were true of the region. Every name used in this book is one that I am certain people in contemporary times use. Appalachian names are often very specific, poetic, or musical. Often they are biblical names, and sometimes quite symbolic. For instance, Dreama's name completely



suits the personality of the dreamer. And Alma, of course, means soul. I chose the name Clay because Anneth was such an earthy person, and this seemed like something she would name her child. I have an aunt named Easter. And Cake is an inside joke. It's what I called my brother when I was little because he would founder on Little Debbie Cakes. (DeRosier, 2003)

My name is James William (or Jimmy Bill if you must) and my brother’s name is Farris.

Both are “stereotypical names.” My parents were Farris and Della. Their parents were William,

Amelia, James and Hannah (most often pronounced and spelled Hannie). I have never heard any

of the “true to the region” names House mentions. While Farris is uncommon as a personal

name, I have often heard it as a family name.

The honky-tonk where Clay and his friend Cake spend their weekends getting drunk and

picking up women, the Hilltop Club, is very different from the bootlegger shacks and social

clubs prevalent in Clay County.

“How I look?” Cake asked. He had on a black bowling shirt, tight black Levi’s and shiny black boots. He brushed his hair again and studied himself in the visor mirror.

“You look all right,” Clay said.

“Just all right? You mean I don’t look damn good?”

“You look good, Cake,” Clay said. Cake knew exactly how good-looking he was, and his vanity annoyed Clay. They went through this every time they went out somewhere.

“Well, hell, why didn’t you say that instead of just ‘all right’? Now I feel like I look awful.” (House, Clay's Quilt, 2001)

Masculinity and hyper-masculinity are on display at the Hilltop Club and the interactions

are effected. Femininity and hyper-femininity are presented in conjunction. “As soon as they sat

down, their waitress arrived to put napkins and a bowl of pretzels on their table. She also sat two

longneck beers and two shots of whisky before them.

‘I seen you all coming in,’ Rose

explained, ‘so I went ahead and set you all up. I know what my boys order.’” (House, Clay's



Quilt, 2001) Notice that Roe uses “you all” rather than “you” for second person plural. She

“seen” them come in rather than “saw” them.

When Rose came back, she sat right down at the table with Clay. She shook a cigarette out of his pack and lit it. “What’re you up to, Clay?”

“Nary, thing, Roe. Gonna try and get drunk.”

“What’s wrong?

“Ah, I don’t know. I feel kind of lonesome tonight.”

You don’t seem like yourself tonight.”

“Well, you in the wrong place, then,” she said with a wheezing laugh. “People don’t come to honky-tonks to be lonesome.”

“People don’t go nowhere to be lonesome, do they?” he asked, and smiled.

Roe laughed loudly as she got up. “Naw, I don’t reckon they do. I don’t see what a good-looking boy like you is doing lonely, though. I don’t understand it.”

“Well, I don’t neither,” Clay said. (House, Clay's Quilt, 2001)

Notice the use of “nary” in conjunction with “thing.” “Kind of” rather than simply

lonesome. “You in” rather than “you are in” and the classic double negations “Naw, I don’t

reckon they do” and “people don’t go nowhere.”

Bootlegger shacks are illegal and tend not to provide entertainment nor encourage

customers to linger. Alcohol purchased at the bootlegger’s would most likely be taken to a party

spot and an impromptu but regularly scheduled and expected celebration would begin. The same

kind of heterosexual market place would organize itself but more interaction would be directed

to the other attendees rather than at the Hilltop where Clay and Cake interact with Roe, the

waitress. The crowd at these field parties would be younger than the crowd at the Hilltop even

though there is no mention in Clay’s Quilt that anyone ever checked identifications or worried

about driving under the influence. Adults go to clubs where alcohol consumption is discrete and

brought by the customers rather than purchased at the club.



One other influence on the language used in these social settings is the music. At the

Hilltop Club there is a live band singing country music. Field party entertainment tends to be the

radio, CDs or tapes. Urban hip hop has begun to penetrate the Appalachian market and has had

an impact on the speech of young people. My nephew said, “Yo! How yu do’n?” When I

visited my family at Thanksgiving. Broadcaster English and years of PBS failed to make an

impact on his speech but Eminem has succeeded.

Clay’s Quilt provides a convenient starting point and an excellent example of

Appalachian English. Written by a Kentuckian about Kentuckians, it is unselfconsciously self-

reflective and articulate. While it does not mirror my own language use or that of my family

perfectly it does provide a starting point for a discussion of the Englishes of Kentucky.



Works Cited

DeRosier, L. S. (2003). Silas House: Kentucky's Literary Light. Retrieved December 9, 2009, from Southern Scribe: Our Culture of Storytelling:

Dobson, J. (2009, May 17). About Silas House. Retrieved December 9, 2009, from Silas House Official Website:

Gregory, K. (2009, February 13). ovelist Silas House to Read at CVCC March 17 & 18. Retrieved December 9, 2009, from Catawba Valley Community College:

House, S. (2003). A Parcment of Leaves. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

House, S. (2001). Clay's Quilt. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

House, S. (Composer). (2001). Clay's Quilt Reading. [S. House, Performer] Hickory, North Carolina, United States of America.

House, S. (2009). Eli the Good. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press.

House, S. (2004). The Coal Tattoo. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

Kentucky Office of Energy Policy and the Division of Fossils Fuels & Utility Services and the Kentucky Coal Association. (2007). Kentucky Coal Education. Retrieved December 9, 2009, from Kentucky Coal Facts: 2007-2008 Pocket Guide:

MacNeil, R., & Cran, W. (2005). Do You Speak American? Orlando, FL: Harcourt Books.

Montgomery, M. (1998). In the Mountains They Speak like Shakespeare. In L. Bauer, & P. Trudgill (Eds.), Myths in Linguistics (pp. 66-76). New York, NY, USA: Penguin.

Spalding University. (2009, September 21). Spalding MFA in Writing Faculty. Retrieved December 9, 2009, from Spalding University:

Tortora, C., Bernstein, J., Dikken, M. d., & Zanuttini, R. (2006, August 7). The Comparative Morpho-Syntax of Appalachian English Project. Retrieved December 10, 2009, from The Comparative Morpho-Syntax of Appalachian English Project:

Urban Appalachian Council. (2007). How Do You Know if You're Appalachian and What does That Mean Anyway? Retrieved December 9, 2009, from Urban Appalachian Council of Greater Cincinnati:




Worthington, M. (2002, February 26). Clay's Quilt, Author Interview: A Conversation with Silas House. Retrieved December 9, 2009, from Random House: