Eastern Kentucky Language

This short study is dedicated to all the people of the highlands of Eastern Ky. Specifically Johnson Co. and the surrounding area. I always wondered why my accent was so much different than my northern neighbors and somewhat different from the southern ones. We have a unique manner of speaking and I will reflect on the subject in fact and theory. This work is not intended to be authoritative but until I find a theory more concrete than mine, this is my analysis.


The English language began in 406 A.D.. Vandals from Eastern Europe raided Roman territory. Its legions had to be recalled from Brittany. German tribes, mostly Angles and Saxons crossed the English channel and conquered the area of what is now Great Brittany. They killed or drove the natives to Wales and Scotland. The language spoken by them was called Gaelic or a branch of Celtic. Gaelic is spoken today in parts of Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Pope Gregory sent missionaries to Christianize the so called Pagans. Church services were in Latin, one of the oldest languages. Hundreds of words were added to the Anglo-Saxon vocabulary by the clergy. Two examples of words are Candle from Candere=(to glow). Monk from monicus=(solitary).

From 800AD, Norsemen from Scandinavia attacked the Anglican Coast and occupied the eastern portion. After a few years the Danes began to settle and take over most of the towns in the area. By 871 they were in total control of the Eastern third of England, north of the Thames river. Old Norse was the official language of the rulers. However the majority kept on speaking (spaking) Anglish. Words or forms of Old Norse words were adopted into the Anglish vocabulary of the time. Some examples are as follows,

English     Old Norse

cake             kaka

get               geta

scant           skant

skin             skinal

sky              sky

steak           steik

take             taka

ugly             ugga

I remember my father would tell me to buy some Aegs at the store. Most Americans would pronounce it as egg. They would classify our subculture as somewhat ignorant. However the word is Old Norse and spelled Aeg. Some of us still use the archaic way of pronouncing the word. Other O.N. words we use are help (helpe) (Heolp). clean
(Klan) These pronunciations are from the Elizabethan era. Words like Thank ye, We-uns, hyrabouts, effin, haint are still used in our wonderful subculture. The Victorian Aristocracy used locutions like "I aint and He don't" That later was deemed low by their modern counterparts. The above is still used in our culture of Eastern Kentucky. We are symbolically more Anglish than England.


William, Duke of Normandy, conquered Harold, prince of west Saxony in 1066, ending six hundred years of Anglo Saxon rule. The rulers kept one estate in England and another in France. French was the language used by the English upper class, courts, parliament and schools. The use of English was for the socially inferior classes. In 1216, King John (Duke Of Normandy) defeated king Phillip of France, destroying the French Fleet. This ended three hundred years of French rule. English Core words and German core words are the same or similar due to the Anglo Saxon tribes. From the valley of the Danube in Germany and the Vikings from the North. French influence had little effect on the speech of the common man. Furthermore, I speculate it had very little influence on the settlers of Harmons (Herrman) Station in, the first settlement in Eastern Kentucky.

Geoffrey Chaucer (1340-1400) established English for all time as the English of literature. John Wycliffe, a contemporary of Chaucer's, translated the Holy Bible into English. He used over a thousand words of Latin Origin, Thousands of French words that were added to our vocabulary. Such words that end in tion and tible. Words that dropped or changed one letter on becoming English such as petale, strategie and visite.

In my opinion modern English is a mongrel language. We have ten times more French words than Anglo-Saxon.

Some Authorities believe the English spoken in the southern Appalachians is the purest Elizabethan English spoken in the world. Others believe we speak a mixture of Archaic and African American lingo. Few of these Experts are specifically from Eastern Kentucky which is my area of concern.

My evaluation and theory

Very few black slaves were kept in the Highlands of Eastern Kentucky. Due to the lack of a strong agriculture base and flatland, it was not a profitable venture. Possibly in the bluegrass regions of the state ,black children were playmates with their custodial owners children, thus picking up on some of the African influence on English. Mainly dropping the r's in words. This is not the case in E. Kentucky for we use the r in our words.

History shows that Harmons Station was the first white settlement in Eastern Ky. It was located in Blockhouse bottom between Prestonsburg and Paintsville Kentucky (Floyd,Johnson counties). It was settled fifty years before Boonesborrow, at the beginning of the 17 hundreds. This was years after Elizabethan times. However authorities fail to realize the works of Chaucer, who spoke French, had little effect on the common Englishman who settled these Kentucky mountains. The tongue he spoke was passed down through memory. As I stated early in this work that only the court, aristocracy and scholars spoke French in England. Its influence and transition of its words effects modern English only. I speculate the settlers of E. Ky., spoke the old tongue of England. Mathias Harmon (Herrman) who settled the area was from the Valley of the Danube in Germany. My ancestor John Hager an early settler was from Hess Cassel Germany also. Most of the early settlers were Irish, English, Scott, and German decent. I conclude they developed a meltdown root language typical to a small geographical area that was isolated from the rest of Ky. and America. Black slaves were taught English but developed their own dialect also due to their African decent. A few of their words were added to southern English such as (goober). White plantation owners didn't have close neighbors so they selected black playmates as companions to their children. The white children being the minority began speaking their black playmates lingo. However this is not relative to the dialect that is used in eastern Kentucky as many outsiders proclaim in their summaries.

I theorize that many of the Germans in the area of Johnson and Floyd counties spoke a language where its root words were from the Anglo, Saxon tribes. This mixture could have recreated or fortified the old tongue of England. Words were picked up from from the Gaelic Irish such as moonshine.

Keep in mind that there were French settlements in bordering areas. In the region of Lousia Kentucky, the French had a logging operation. They furnished black walnut timber that were to be used for gunstalks for General Napoleons armies. The offspring of these settlers, being a minority, had to learn English. The few French words that are in our specific regional language are most likely from this source. Not from Chaucer's aristocracy. Some of their words like skillet instead of frying pan was adopted. Another clue is that we use the French nasal expression instead of the German guttural. Furthermore we hyphenate one syllable words into two. Examples are that (tha-at) , thick (thi-ack) brain (bra-in) and so on.

Due to Industrialization, mining, timber, modern highways, and means of transportation, the old Appalachian is changing. Higher education, modern communication and terminology is changing our manner of speech. Occasionally one might have the unique experience of talking with an old timer who's virgin speech hasn't been corrupted. The experience of going back hundreds of years in time. You might ask him where his son has gone. He replies, over yonder, meaning over seas. One might ask, "have you been hunting this year"? He may reply, I Haint seen nairey a squirrel all summer.

The above is my theory. I was born and raised in Van Lear Ky. This is a coal mining town in Johnson Co. I came to Ohio many years ago. People would look at me strange when I spoke. I always wondered why. This work is for the people young and old who wonder the same thing. All the generations of Eastern Kentuckian people who populate the cities of Detroit, Dayton, Walbash, Springfield Ohio, Middletown, Ohio and many more cities of the north. This is my gift to you. Never forget your Roots.

Jerome J. Kelly