Kin A Feller Get Some Holp?

By Stephen D. Bowling

On Saturday, July 2, 1966, The Pittsburgh Press reprinted an article that left many readers scratching their heads. The two-column piece retold, on page 3, the story of a mysterious population of Chicago school students who spoke an “unknown and unidentifiable” language.

The months-long and comprehensive survey identified numerous languages in the system. Still, most of the mysterious sub-set of 86 students used English-sounding words that were unrecognizable to most of their teachers. In fact, one source suggested they might be “Serbs or Croats” or from “another planet”.

The article, written by Mike Royko, was based on a system-wide report presented by Associate Superintendent Evelyn Clarkson. According to the report, officials completed a review of the students in the Chicago system to determine how many did not speak English at all or had a “limited use” of the language. They found 11,048 spoke only Spanish, 345 Polish, 38 Arabic, two Gaelic, one Maltese, Estonian, and Bengali. And then there was the 86.

The Pittsburgh Press reprinted Mike Royko’s Chicago article in their July 2, 1966 edition on page D5.

Reporter Royko phoned the Chicago School Board and asked to speak to the Superintendent of Instruction. A secretary informed him that the school’s director was in a meeting. She did answer his queries about the 86 students as best she could:

Royko: "Why is the language listed as unidentified."

Secretary:  "Because the teacher and princpals were unable to determine what language the children were speaking."

Royko:  "Do they have a rough idea?"

Secretary:  "Well between you and me, I think some of those children are from the mountains.  You know, Appalachians.  They've lived among themselves so long they speak a form of English that only they understand."

Royko:  "You mean they are hillbillies?"

Secretary:  "MMMMM.  Yes, and you can't understand half of what they say."

Royko hung up the phone and considered the new language that had been discovered- Hillbilly. A short time later, school officials tried to change the story by saying they thought there might have been some mistake and asked the reporter not to report the new Hillbilly language as the unidentified tongue. He attempted to contact several more school officials to clear up the issue but received the “silent treatment.” Officials would only say that the small group had common roots in the “mountains of the Appalachian Region of Kentucky.” When Royko suggested to one member of the language department that the children might be from another planet instead, the school official responded only with a “My goodness” and a dial tone.

After some thought, Royko decided that the “children speak English- but the teacher doesn’t.”

Many relocated Breathitt County students found Chicago schools very different from the small one-roomed schools they left behind. An example of the overcrowded school in Breathitt County in September 1940.

The story was reprinted in newspapers across the nation. A great debate ensued about the language or hybrid languages that the small population of students might be speaking and how an undiscovered language could still be left on Earth. One Kentucky reporter, who wrote for The Louisville Courier-Journal, picked up the story and answered the great mystery.

Joe Creason penned his response: “Holp for a Chicagoan: Air They Kentuckians?” in which he explored the idea that the language was not foreign but closer the the “Queen’s True English” than that spoken by those who breathed in the air of Lake Michigan. His response to Royko’s article followed on July 17, 1966, in The Courier-Journal. He attempted to explain a portion of the language and its usage:

When the supervisor used the words mountains and Appalachia, she undoubtedly meant displaced Kentuckians.  It seems that all outlanders think that only Kentuckians live in Appalachia, that mysterious land where the scenery is filled with all the high hills and the natives are living on government handouts.

If this particular supervisor knew the works of Shakespeare, Chaucer, and other authors who write in the school textbooks, she’d have known immediately whether or not the children speaking in the unknown tongue are Kentucky mountaineers.  If they are, it’s likely they speak pure English. In the Eastern Kentucky hills, more than anywhere else in the land, the Old World language of the Scottish, Scotch-Irish and English people who settled the area has been kept alive.

So They Say

Like Ariel in “The Tempest,” many mountain people today allow they’ve “et a bate” after a big meal; like Touchstone in “As You Like It,” they complain of “chopt hands,” and like Miranda in “The Tempest”, they “git distempered” when excited.

Old-timers boast of good health by saying they’re feeling “purty peart” or “passably tolerable” or “fair to middlin’ good.”  When they’re ailing, they may have the “fierce miseries” and go “punyin’ around, barely able to take vittles.”

Still used widely are such old English words as “a-feered,” “fetch,” “afore,” “sick like,” “pack” and “heap.”  Many pronounce “holp” for help, “hit” for it, “yit” for yet, “mought” for might and “chist” for chest.

Words like “clumb” for climb, “writ” for wrote and “et” for ate that were commonly used by Chaucer are found in use in the Kentucky hills.

So, if the Chicago educator had been even a tolerably fair hand in the literature, they surely teach in her schools, she’d have had no trouble identifying the strange-talking children as Kentuckians.

The Louisville Courier-Journal, Sunday, July 17, 1966, page D5
Joe Creason’s article from the Sunday, July 17, 1966 edition of The Louisville Courier-Journal, page 2., shed some light on the possible source of the mystery language found in Chicago’s schools.

Other articles would follow in Chicago about these “aliens” who spoke their true English. One article identified a few students, including some “Fugits”, “Nappers”, and “Nobels.” This “sub-set of English speakers” in Chicago became well-known curiosities from the mountain culture of Appalachia.

Marian Post Wolcott photographed Breathitt County students playing marbles in front of the Hampton Schoolhouse on Frozen Creek in September 1940.

In the end, it seems that Royko needed some holp when he writ his article about the mountain people who left their hillbilly homes searching for a way to clumb up in life. This fair to middlin’ article could have been a little more passably tolerable if he had fetched more information afore to holp him understand the pain and isolation of these displaced people. The article seemed like nothing more than a pig in a poke, and they han’t much been heard from hit since, and hit most likely ended up in quite a few of the mountain folks’ slop jars.

And the mountain people kept on talking that beautiful but distinctive “talk” to those who wanted to understand what they were saying. Many of these young students frequently came home to the mountains for holidays, and many more returned decades after graduating from Chicago’s schools and long work careers. They experienced another round of language barriers and conflicts in the mountains- now because they “talk too citified.”

The never-ending circle of clashing culture between urban and rural continues to spin to this day.

© 2023 Stephen D. Bowling


About sdbowling

Director of the Breathitt County Public Library and Heritage Center in Jackson, Kentucky.
This entry was posted in Breathitt County, Education, Traditions and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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