Professor explains language tradition
What’s the difference between a and y?
In the Ozark Mountains, it can be a perplexing question.
Names that ended with an “a” sound were often pronounced by hill people as if they ended in “y” or “ie,” at least through the first half of the 20th century.
Iva became Ivy. Alva became Alvy. Oba became Obie.
And it wasn’t just first names.
“The early Luna settlers of Arkansas became Looneys,” said Brooks Blevins,
a professor of history at Missouri State University who specializes in Ozark Mountain culture. “And, lest we forget, the University of Arkansas once had a football player, Jeb Huckeba, who pronounced his name just like that of a certain governor.”
Blevins was referring to former Gov. Mike Huckabee.
Blevins grew up in Violet Hill in Izard County. His parents ran the Violet Hill Store.
“My grandma was Alverda (always Alverdy or just Verdy), and in our little country church was an Alvah (pronounced Alvy) and an Alta (Mrs. Alty),” Blevins said. “The one exception I recall was my elderly greatgreat-aunt Cora, who never pronounced it Cory. But she was an artistic and sophisticated woman (at least by Izard County standards), and I suspect she probably insisted on being called the more proper Cora. I’ll bet she was Cory as a kid.”
The unusual pronunciation also existed in Appalachia, Blevins said.
“Tom Dooley of the famous folk song was actually Tom Dula,” he said. “According to Michael Montgomery’s work on Smoky Mountain speech, the practice actually dated to colonial America and just seems to have disappeared from common usage except in Appalachia and the Ozarks,” said Blevins, referring to Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English by Montgomery and Joseph S. Hall.
June Westphal, a Carroll County historian, believes the a-to-y pronunciation was more tenacious in the Ozarks.
“It’s unique to this region, I think,” Westphal said. “It’s very, very common.”
Westphal said the pronunciation has become rare over the past couple of generations, but people researching grandparents and more distant relatives from the Ozarks should be aware of it. The spelling of names on official documents might not match the pronunciation passed down by ancestors.
In some cases, Westphal said, names ending in “a” were given an “r” sound instead, such as in the case of her mother Lena.
“We called her Len-r,” said Westphal, as if referring to someone who leans.
The trend goes beyond names, according to Troy D. Smith, an author and history professor at Tennessee Tech University.
“An a at the end of a word often becomes a y/-ie,” he wrote on his Tennessee WordSmith blog. “Thus the names Lula and Sara become Lulie and Sary, and the town Sparta is sometimes Spartie. Extra becomes extrie, soda becomes soadie. Noah becomes No-ee.”
Smith noted the “r” ending that Westphal mentioned.
“In a few rare cases, though, an r is added at the end of the word instead of changing the a to ie/y: Cuba = Cuber and Jonah = Joner.”
Smith said he still hears the “a” at the ends of words pronounced like a “y.”
“I am 50,” Smith said. “I rarely hear it from people my age or younger but often hear it from people 65 or older. So, like a lot of Southernisms, it seems to be dying out.”