Oct 29, 2019

The English of the Appalachian Area

While all of the text in Susannah is in English, it may sound different than the English you speak. Susannah is written in a verismo style, meaning that the characters, language, and plot are rooted in reality as much as possible – everything in the opera must be believable. Operas in this style often employ colloquial language, and Susannah is no exception. To create a believable opera set in America’s Deep South, Carlisle Floyd chose words and a dialect that are uniquely Appalachian. Here are some of the more noticeable characteristics of this dialect.

Vowels are formed towards the back of the mouth rather than the front: “can’t” sounds like “cain’t”; “get” sounds like “git”; “forgive” sounds like “fergive.”

The “s” sound that ends some words may be replaced with an “n” sound: one might say “her’n” instead of “hers.”

Participles and gerunds ending “-ing” are pronounced as though they ended “-in,”
as in huntin’ or preachin’.

The letter “a” is often added as a prefix to verbs; such as  a-bathin’, aspyin’, or a-prayin’.

As with any dialect, some words have a colloquial usage. Examples in Susannah include:

Afore – before
Allers – always
Brickbat – a piece of brick; also an insult
Chitlins – fried pig intestines
Crick – creek
Jaybird – a blue jay; also someone who talks too much
Jest – just
Out’n – out of
Mighty – very
Mite – small amount
Plum – completely, absolutely
Reckon – to suppose
Seed – saw
Spell – length of time
Sum’mers – somewhere
They’s – there is or they are
Twarn’t – it wasn’t
Varmint – vermin

Floyd’s mastery of this dialect is playfully displayed in the silly “Jaybird” song in Act 1 of the opera, into which he sneaks some clever wordplay:

“Oh, jaybird sittin’ on a hick’ry limb,
He winked at me an’ I winked at him.
I picked up a brickbat
An’ hit him on the chin.
‘Looka here, little boy, don’t you do that agin!’”

Taken literally, it could describe an easily imagined and somewhat comic scene; a blue jay sitting on a branch catches a youth’s attention, and the youth throws a rock at it. Startled, the bird squawks angrily at the boy. Read a bit differently, knowing that in the Appalachian dialect a “jaybird” is someone who talks too much, and a “brickbat” is an insult, it describes an interaction between a youth and a person who is heckling him.

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