A new class that seeks to teach youngsters how to lose their Appalachian accents has set off an age-old phonetic debate: Should mountain natives drop the drawl or hold tightly to their twang?
The class, put on by an eastern Kentucky theater group, is designed for children in middle and high schools who want to reduce their accent to “broaden their performance opportunities and improve overall marketability.”
“We don’t want people to be held back just because they have an accent,” said Martin Childers, managing director of Jenny Wiley Theatre in Prestonsburg. “If you want to work professionally, you have to be able to drop the accent when it’s required. We want to give people the opportunity to learn to do that.”
Wrestling with the accent
People from central Appalachia have been wrestling with the accent for as long as they have been driving to northern cities to land jobs. Some quickly adopted the speech patterns of Cincinnati or Detroit co-workers to avoid being ridiculed. Others held onto the accent like a cherished keepsake from home.
The Appalachian accent is the sort of southern drawl heard in the movie “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” about singer Loretta Lynn, a native of Van Lear, Ky. It shows up at times in the fitting of words together into what sounds like one word: “Did you eat?” becomes “jeat?” and “young ones” becomes “young’uns.”
An Appalachian accent can be an asset if a casting director wants an authentic mountain sound, but Childers said a strong accent can prevent actors from being able to fill some roles, especially those involving characters from the Northeast or Midwest.
“We’re proud of our accent, but there are times we have to lose it in order to get the parts we want,” he said. “We’re not slamming the accent, but if we need to drop it, we need to be able to do that.”
'Hold on to the language you dream in'
Dee Davis, head of the Center for Rural Strategies, which fights rural stereotypes, said he has no problem with the class as long as teachers keep one thing in mind.
“It’s important that they make sure the kids understand that their language is beautiful, that their culture is powerful, and that it’s not something they should be embarrassed about,” he said.
Davis, a Hazard native who went to the University of Kentucky and the University of Pittsburgh, said some of his classmates had trouble understanding his mountain dialect. When he told them his field of study, “riding,” they’d look at him quizzically and say they didn’t know it was offered. He’d then spell it: W-R-I-T-I-N-G.
“There’s nothing wrong with being able to speak in different accents, but you should above all things hold on to the language you dream in,” he said.