PHYLLIS HARPER: Hill country's 'folk speech' common centuries ago

Language in the Hill Country of Mississippi, including its colorful folk sayings, began changing with the advent of radio, television and modern means of travel – and the technology of today is bound to hasten the changes. So it is with the language of any locality, whether in this country or abroad, but the blended speech patterns rooted in Scots and Appalachian cultures seem to have drawn more than a fair share of attention.

Our language has been studied and in some cases ridiculed as being uncultured by college professors and good ol' boys alike. A small book published years ago by the Travel and Promotion Division of Natural Resources of Raleigh, N.C., ended with an excerpt from the late Frank C. Brown's “North Carolina Folklore.” Let it be said, however, that his learned observation is germane to the folk language of many areas, and not limited to any specific place.

Many expressions, though sometimes held in contempt by the half-educated, have been employed over the centuries by some of the greatest writers. Brown cites the writings of Queen Elizabeth I and such men as Sir Walter Raleigh, Marlow, Dryden, Bacon, Shakespeare and compilers of the beloved KJV Bible. All are sprinkled with words and expressions still fairly commonplace, but also falling into disuse, in remote areas in our corner of the state in the foothills of Appalachia.

Language-wise, it seems fair to say what has been done to the King's English was also by the Queen, the popular monarch Elizabeth centuries ago. Through all this time, hill folks have spoken a sometimes outdated, not necessarily ignorant language.

Journal business editor Gary Perilloux recently gave me a print-out of an AP article titled “Scholar: Scots, Appalachians share dialectic discrimination,” and the writer made valid points about “a common suppression of folk speech' and native voices' from the highlands of Scotland to the hills of Tennessee.” The study by Dr. Richard Blaustein, professor of sociology and anthropology at East Tennessee State University, could pertain to many places in the hills of home here in Mississippi. I've ordered his book “The Thistle and the Brier: Historical Links and Cultural Parallels Between Scotland and Appalachia” and can't wait to peruse it.

Meanwhile, let us look at a few sayings collected from various sources, sayings that have a story behind them; and though we may not know the story details, we understand the general meaning. One of my favorites is “Jody picked the cotton, but he couldn't drag the sack.” Obviously Jody had bit off more than he could chew or he wasn't able to finish the job. There's bound to be a story about Jody picking cotton that illustrates the meaning, but I've been unable to find it.

Hyperbole was part and parcel of rural speech. Ol' Rewf, that fellow who wasn't always driving the team that was pulling his wagon, was ugly as homemade sin or some said homemade lye soap. He was as tall as a telegraph pole, but not quite as heavyset.

Mules figure prominently in the everyday speech of country folks, and rightly so because they were an important part of the cotton economy for decades, but that was before farming became mechanized. Rewf was as stubborn as a mule, or as a Missouri mule, or he had the gall of a government mule.

Grandy used to say you had best be careful around mules, that a mule would serve you faithfully for years, just to get one good chance to kick the daylights out of you when you weren't looking. However, my grandfather, like most farmers, took good care of the teams of mules that help them till the soil.

Phyllis Harper's column appears each Sunday in the Daily Journal.