Language and Landscape: Retaining Heritage Through Words

When I heard and read about the number of indigenous languages dying off, I thought of the Appalachian Mountains where my mother grew up and where several of my relatives are buried in a small wooded family cemetery in Southeastern Kentucky. It’s not just other languages that are becoming obsolete, certain aspects of the English language are also changing. In the region where part of my heritage stems, as older generations die, phrases, expressions and a certain sentence structures are also disappearing. While people travel to Appalachia to take in the music, crafts and beauty of the scenery (providing coal mining leaves something behind), many people who once lived here have hit the highways long ago for points beyond and an income. Those that have stayed behind can flip on the TV and join the rest of the U.S. in the endless stream of coast to coast media blitz that, I think, is partly responsible for the growth of sameness.

There is an effort to retain the culture and language patterns here. People determined to retain and promote this sense of place through language are an integral part of the literary, music and art scene. I’ve been to the Appalachian Writers Workshop twice now, and Appalachian Family Folk Week once, both held at in Hindman, a town that has dwindled from the bustling county seat I remember from my childhood, to one where you can almost envision the tumbleweeds blowing through town in the late afternoon if this was in the west. The drugstore lunch counter is the one place to get a meal and that closes about 2 PM.

The Hindman Settlement School, established more than a century ago has operated both workshops for years. These endeavors have continued to nurture established writers like Lee Smith and George Ella Lyon while providing a venue for those who have moved from workshop participant status to presenter and successful published novelists in their own right. Silas House, and Gretchen Moran Laskas come to mind. All of them are travelers of the human spirit in this part of the world. This is where they call on words to sustain them and us in this place they call home.

For a wonderful read about one person’s experience with English use in this area, check out this essay, “Where the Creek Turkey Tracks: Wild Land and Language.” It is in the Winter 2007 edition of Appalachian Heritage.

The photo is of Uncle Sol’s cabin on the Settlement School grounds. Fred1st snapped this shot of the house where one of my great greats lived. Uncle Sol Everidge is one of my kin and credited with getting Katherine Pettit and May Stone to come to Hindman eons ago to establish the school and bring education to the mountain’s children.