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The “H” word: fighting negative language stereotypes in Appalachia

WVU linguistics expert Kirk Hazen advises filmmakers on stigma surrounding Appalachian dialects
Appalachians know the “H” word well. Often referred to as “hillbillies” by most of the world, Appalachians have been fighting prejudice and negative stereotypes since the early 1900s.

Kirk Hazen“Appalachia is the most misunderstood region in the nation,” said Kirk Hazen, professor of linguistics in the Department of English at West Virginia University. “No other region gets more negative press and wildly inaccurate statements said about it than does Appalachia.”

Most of the world know Appalachians as the stereotypical hillbilly characters portrayed in comic strips, television shows and films, he added.

Think Gomer Pyle, Li’l Abner or Snuffy Smith—Appalachian characters that can be identified internationally. “Snuffy Smith” is distributed worldwide and has been translated into 19 different languages. These hillbilly portrayals, Hazen said, shape the beliefs of non-Appalachians about the region, and in turn misrepresent a large population of people.

These stereotypes have been reinforced in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, where Appalachians have gained national attention for voting favorably for Donald Trump.

A team of filmmakers, led by documentarians Ashley York and Sally Rubin, is hoping to use this spotlight to examine the problematic hillbilly archetype as it has evolved over the last century as well as how people view poor, white and rural America.

“Hillbilly: Appalachia in film and television” is the working title for a documentary aiming to accurately represent Appalachia and the diverse people living in this region. Hazen is acting as a consultant for the filmmakers, and will appear in the documentary along with several undergraduate students working with the West Virginia Dialect Project. Several scenes were shot at WVU last spring, including Hazen’s lecture on literacy awareness and an interview with a student and her grandmother about growing up in West Virginia.

Hazen’s main focus for the film is the stigma surrounding southern Appalachian dialects.

“In the U.S. there are two dialects that are overwhelmingly seen as negative—Black English and southern English,” Hazen said. “They’re seen as negative because the speakers themselves are seen negatively in U.S. society.”

While these language features, such as different vowels, may be seen negatively by outsiders, they are a key part of a southern English speaker’s identity. Stigma only reinforces negative feelings that southern speakers have for their own dialect.

“Society is constantly telling Appalachians that they are wrong and that they need to change to fit a more ‘normal’ speech ideal,” said Krislin Nuzum, May 2017 English graduate and member of the West Virginia Dialect Project. “They are always underestimated and undervalued because of their dialect, and that can take a toll on a person's self-confidence and their self-worth.”

Poor self-confidence can lead to code switching, where a person alternates their speech patterns to match their audience, researchers say. This can include dropping dialect features in front of strangers or picking up features to match the audience. Some code-switchers even teach themselves to speak without certain dialect features, which eventually leads them to drop the feature entirely.

It can be tricky to approach the representation of negative stereotypes for both Appalachians and the audience that you are trying to educate, said Janelle Vickers, May 2017 English graduate and member of the West Virginia Dialect Project. It’s important for filmmakers to examine the effects of the stereotypes without criticism.

“You’re trying to make a product for [the people of] Appalachia, so you don’t want to talk down to them,” she said. “You’re making a product for them and about them, but you’re also making a product for people who fundamentally misunderstand Appalachia.”

Nuzum and Vickers were among several students who helped Hazen study more than 200 interviews with West Virginians to uncover hidden dialects features—ones that aren’t stigmatized and often go unnoticed.

A feature called L-dropping has been observed all around the English-speaking world, and occurs when an L that comes after a vowel has been dropped, such as pronouncing “bell” as “beh.” West Virginians have been dropping their L’s for years, Hazen said. He and his team of undergraduate researchers are analyzing data on this speech pattern.

This research has helped Hazen advise filmmakers about the stereotypes surrounding certain speech patterns, as well as how each pattern has evolved.

A final cut of the documentary will be submitted in the fall to the Sundance Film Festival. Filmmakers anticipate releasing the film in December 2017.