“You ain’t from around here, are ya?” Despite my best attempts to learn local vernacular, I’ve been interrogated with this question a lot over the last ten years. I’m from “down east” where people put vinegar on barbeque and eat cohn on the cob, so locals here can tell I’m a flatlander whenever I open my mouth to eat or speak. My in-laws have tried to rehabilitate me with only meager success.
My wife’s clan hails from Shelby–really Patterson Springs to be exact, or Pleasant Hill Church Road to be more exact. Using precise levels of exactness is a good way to endear yourself to locals. However, mispronouncing a place is a tell-tale sign of a newcomer, if not a downright insult to inhabitants. If you’re new to the Shelby area, you’d best learn to say Cherryville (Churvuhl), Mooresboro (Moesburo), Polkville (Pokevuhl), and Rutherfordton (Roughton) properly. Casar (Kayzer) is the benchmark pronunciation. Most out-of-towners have no idea how to pronounce the small Cleveland County town, population 296. Nearly all newcomers guess Caesar like Caesar salad. Make that mistake in Casar, and you’ll be fed to Knobby, the local sasquatch.
Throughout the foothills, the aw sound is widespread. While walking through the woods, you might see a frawg sitting on a lawg. Or inside watching tv, you might take a fawn call while watching Game of Thrawns. The drawn-out aw often takes the place of the letter o.
Occasionally, it’ll be included with an i, too. Look no further than the word hill itself. Natives to the foothills pronounce it with a little extra emphasis and stretching. For instance, a Foothillian might say, “Did you go sledding down that hillawl?” The bigger the hill, the more drawn out the pronunciation. The same goes for addition of the awl in God, or Gouawld. The more drawn-out the pronunciation, the more Baptist the speaker is or the bigger the swindler he is. Sometimes both apply.
The best way to learn the foothills dialect is to listen to my wife’s popaw, Lowry. He’s eighty-five and was born and raised in Shelby. He speaks old-school foothills, which is reflected in his use of the letter r. Confusingly, he drops the r in some words and adds it to others. For instance, he refers to Charlotte as Shalut, but says wash as warsh. He often adds ar to the end of words like fellar. Then he’ll turn right around and remove the ar by saying something like backerds instead of backwards. To me, a former flatlander, none of this makes a lick of sense. In fact, as Lowry might say, it’s got me buffaloed, which is his go-to term for baffled.
Lowry calls coke, as in Coca-Cola, dope, which he claims was once common terminology in Shelby. However, I tried ordering diet “dope” from a local eating establishment in Shelby, and the teenage waitress threatened to call the police.
That said, talking foothills does have one perk. We used ain’t down east, but up here it’s also used in cain’t. Personally, I kinda like that because my mom (an English teacher) used to make me put a quarter in a jar every time I said ain’t. She strictly enforced this policy till I went bankrupt, after which I still avoided using it in her presence for fear of future reparation. At least now as an inhabitant of the foothills, I can say ain’t by hiding it cain’t and not run afoul of my mom.