TIMES article on Hazen

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Mon Feb 7 17:30:06 UTC 2000

February 7, 2000
Linguist Finds Dialect A-Flourishin' in Appalachia

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LLENBORO, W.Va., Feb. 2 -- The lesson for the eighth graders was to indulge
their "holler" talk without guilt.
     Purist outsiders might yearn to correct that to "hollow," but the
teacher, Kathy Williams, born and bred to the lingua Appalachia of the local
hills and valleys, knows otherwise.
     "These kids live up the holler, they really do," she said, drawing a
fond distinction between the written and spoken language she teaches her
students for the larger world and the more vibrant but more stigmatized
spoken version that flourishes in Appalachia.
     " 'Holler' is not a word that we hear people straighten out around
here," Ms. Williams said, smiling as her class quieted down and awaited the
word from a visiting linguist, Kirk Hazen. He has been traveling Appalachia
(a "fur piece" from "crick" to "holler," in locally spoken English) and
emphasizing that natives should never feel ashamed of their time-honored
     "Dialects are not reflections of intelligence," Dr. Hazen told the 135
students gathered in the auditorium of Ritchie County Middle School. His
redeeming message was that there is no "good" or "bad" version of the mother
tongue. "In general, I think people's spoken language should go unmolested.
All living language is change."
The professor explained this basic tenet of linguistics even as complaints
and demands for his resignation pile up at his superiors' offices at West
Virginia University. "They want my head," he said in an interview, amazed
that critics consider him a threat to proper education. "They seem to feel
there is a certain set form to language and you can't think right if you're
not using that language, which is absolutely ludicrous. Language is not though
     For the students, Dr. Hazen drew out the distinction between spoken and
written English. While hardly arguing for the demise of the rules of
schoolroom grammar, the linguist celebrated the way things sound at large in
     "I'm here to tell you that your language is working fine," said the
professor, a lean 30-year-old from Troy, Mich. Written English is a useful if
difficult invention, he said. But the spoken language, he added, is a
developing creation that no frozen set of rules can constrain. He showed the
students that the language they have been using all their lives has its own
intricate form worth appreciating.
     Double negatives? They are at least as old and consistent as Chaucer and
continue to serve human speech worldwide, he noted. Grandmas talk hereabouts
of "a-sittin' and a-rockin' "? The use of the a-prefix strictly before verbs
ending in "ing" turns out to be as consistent in mountain dialect as any rule
of written grammar, he told the students.
     The only real problem with dialect, Dr. Hazen said, is the prejudice of
outsiders who rate some people as inferior and deny them opportunities
because of the way they talk. "The question is do you go ahead and say, well
their prejudice is just fine, I'll have to change who I am? Or do you say,
well the prejudice is simply wrong?"
This was the heart of the matter for Ms. Williams and her class here amid the
backwoods beauty of Appalachia.
     "I'm trying to educate about how language works -- that's my way of
trying to handle that prejudice," Dr. Hazen added.
     Ms. Williams invited a healthy dose of the linguistic truth from Dr.
Hazen to combat the "poor hillbilly" stereotype that has long plagued this
region. He is a contributor to the Encyclopedia of Appalachia and director of
his university's West Virginia Dialect Project.
     "I just feel sorry for the kids that they have to feel shame or
embarrassment," Ms. Williams said. She assigns her students to interview
their elders and become steeped in the sound. "The dialect is part of
heritage," she added, fearful it might be erased.
     "Not a chance," Dr. Hazen confidently told the class. He finds there is
a more interesting and modern question, which he is about to pursue under a
federal grant. It is whether, because of the increased mobility of
Appalachian natives, "bidialectism" is possible. Can someone move to a job in
another region, learn the dialect there and still slip back into the
down-home dialect upon returning?
     Here in the gleaming modern school where they gather from "up the
holler," students suggested their dialect was prompting more pride and
pleasure than shame. Kyre Bartz arose and, with an Appalachian flourish,
offered "a handed-down story" that has been in her family for generations. It
was replete with "crick" and "young 'uns" and "tomorry at sunrise" and "that
ole woman stumblin' up that there hill with a poke and a pig walkin' right
beside her."
     The performance sounded as lyrical as a song. Ms. Williams knew just the
right word of approval from her 93-year-old grandmother, Glenna Drain. "Where
my schoolkids exclaim 'Cool!' or 'Awesome!' Grandma Glenna always says,
'Forever more!' " the teacher said. "I just love what she does with the
language. 'Forever more!' "

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