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The Dialect of the Ozarks

By Edited Oct 15, 2015 0 0

          The English that is spoken throughout the United States can be divided and classified into hundreds of colorful dialects spoken by different ethnic, cultural, and regional groups. Studying this topic can tell us a lot about the history of the English language, as well as its development across the United States. The Ozark mountain region of southern Missouri and northern Arkansas has a rich local dialect that varies from Standard American English in many ways.   

Variations from

          There are many words used by the people of the Ozarks that are exclusive to their dialect. Ozarkers call green vegetables “salat,” peanuts “goober peas,” cicadas “jarflies,” earthworms “redworms,” and an amount of something a “turn.” These are only a few of the many examples of variance in Ozark diction. Most of the words unique to the dialect have to do either with work, food, or nature; things that the people of the region would talk about a lot, and naturally develop their own words for.   

          Ozarkers have a few morphological deviations from Standard American English as well. These changes can be characterized by different rules. One such rule is the a-prefixing rule. According to this rule, the prefix “a-” may be added to the beginning of present progressive tense verbs. For example, instead of saying “I’m working on the railroad,” a speaker of the Ozark dialect would say, “I’m a-working on the railroad.” Another rule concerning verbs, the weak verb rule, governs the construction of past-tense verbs. Instead of using irregular past tense verbs such as “threw” and “drank,” the Ozark dialect says “throwed” and “drinked,” over-generalizing by adding an “-ed” to the end of all verbs to indicate past tense.  A different kind of morphological rule is the adjective construction rule. Speakers of the dialect frequently use adjectives like “worser,” “unkindest,” “more hotter,” and others considered “bad” grammar according to SAE. All Ozark morphological changes follow set formulas like these.  

          There are numerous syntactical discrepancies between Ozark dialect and Standard American English that can be described with standardized rules as well. Following the completive “done” rule, speakers of the dialect add the word “done” to the past-perfect verb tense. For example, instead of saying “He’s been here,” a speaker of the Ozark dialect would say “He’s done been here.” The double helping verbs rule allows for the combination of two helping verbs when only one is required in SAE, as in “he might could come tonight.” Because of the positive anymore rule, “anymore” is not limited to negative usage; saying “he works there anymore” is grammatically correct. The Ozark dialect is also considerably more liberal when it comes to subject-verb agreement. Ozarkers disregard SAE conventions when constructing a present-tense sentence with a plural noun paired with the verb “is” or a verb ending in “-s”. So in this dialect, it is perfectly acceptable to say phrases like “people is,” “people likes,” and “my brothers lives.” This could presumably be referred to as the present tense agreement of plural noun subjects with “is” or verbs ending in “-s” rule.  

            There are many instances where Ozark dialect follows the rules and language of SAE, but with different local pronunciations of some words. Some of these differences as governed by rules, like the previous examples, but most are simply traditional or culturally unique. One rule can be called the [  j] to [aj] rule. SAE words like [b  jl] and [d   jn] are pronounced [bajl] and [d  ajn] in the Ozark dialect. Both of these diphthongs are formed at the low-back area of the mouth, but in these examples the Ozark speaker tends to turn the rounded vowel [  ] into the unrounded vowel [a]. Another vowel sound change is the [ε] to [i] rule. In this rule, single syllable words such as [hÑ”rd] and [dÑ”f] change to [hird] and [dif], with the speaker turns the mid-central lax vowel into a high-front tense form.  Other discrepancies between SAE and Ozark English are less formulaic and simply stand by themselves. Examples include [potetÑ”r] for [poteto], [hIth] for [Ith], [rǽsl] for [rÑ”sl], and [t Imli] for [t Imni]. Many of these pronunciations are shared between the Ozark dialect and the Appalachian dialect, especially that of eastern Tennessee and Kentucky.        

Why the Differences?

And, What Can We Learn?

          Most non-Ozark speakers tend to perceive those that do speak the dialect as ignorant, uncultured, or inferior. They assume that the people of that region speak in that way because they are uneducated or just stupid. This is a misconception-the Ozark dialogue is a natural consequence of the historical migration of people across the United States.  During the early colonial time, different groups came over from England with their own regional dialects. With less language contact with England, uniquely American dialects began to develop. In most regions, those dialects eventually blended together and changed with greater communications and westward expansion. But, according to Steve McDonald, “When the great tides of immigration swept westward, the back hills section of the Ozarks was passed by. Here there was no melting pot. The people retained their original purity, and remained that way for some time before the outside world began to influence this part of the country.” Studying the Ozark dialect is like looking back into the past of the English language.  

          The “purity” that the Ozarkers retained was that of Elizabethan English. Studying the literature of the age of Middle English, such as Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and the many works of Shakespeare, one can find many similarities between the two dialects in syntax, morphology, and phonetics. Chaucer uses forms of many words that are similar to the Ozark pronunciation, such as “wrastelying,” “heerd,” “deef,” and weak verb forms like “growed.” William Shakespeare uses Ozarker adjective construction and shows a disregard for subject verb agreement in many of his plays. He also follows the [  j] to [aj] diphthong rule, using spelling like “bile” for boil and “p’int” for point. Many of the Ozark dialect’s other features have been found to still in exist in some rural counties in England as well, further indicating that the speech of the region echoes that of centuries-old British English. McDonald says that “the old usages have drifted out, but there is no denying that the pure Ozark dialect is a survival of older English usage-what basically was once the common country and village speech of Old England.”

            Studying the Ozark dialect can give linguists clues about the syntax, morphology, and phonetics of Middle and Early Modern English, adding to the general understanding of the development of the English language as it is today. People should not assume that because the people of a region use different grammatical rules or words they are unfamiliar, those people are ignorant in any way. Their dialect is merely a by-product of their region’s history, and echoes the language spoken long ago by our linguistic ancestors. 

For some basic info on one of America's great masters of dialect, click here for my InfoBarrel article on Mark Twain. Thanks for reading!



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