Speakin' of issues in Eastern Kentucky...

December 21, 2013 

Mike Norris grew up in Jackson County and worked many years at Centre College. He writes children's books illustrated by Eastern Kentucky folk artist Minnie Adkins.

Even though this outstanding series has raised many valid issues — economic diversification, broadband deployment, entrepreneurship, reforestation, tourism, arts and crafts, locally grown produce — a more fundamental issue has not been addressed.

Language.

It's not surprising this touchy subject has gone untouched. But most Eastern Kentuckians know their birthright dialect is not regarded with favor by the larger culture. Many folks who rightly condemn racial stereotyping will readily use the same generalizing thought process to make broad, unfavorable judgments when they hear mountain-flavored pronunciation and diction, especially if combined with non-standard grammar.

We can protest the shallowness, shortsightedness and hypocrisy of this, but the reality is, it exists.

While cherishing our dialect, with roots reaching to Elizabethan England and beyond, we should declare Eastern Kentucky a "Linguistic Empowerment Zone" and aim to expand our language skills past proficiency to mastery. This will combat the cliché of the "ignorant hillbilly" and enhance our ability to mine the ultimate renewable resource — knowledge.

This proposal may sound like a forgettable bromide, but as a corollary of Murphy's Law states, "Some things are so important they become invisible." In our region of phrasemakers, storytellers and ballad-singers, this goal is not only transformational, but congruent with the culture and achievable.

Five ways to start:

■ Be up front with students about the prejudice that exists and make the case that it's doubly important for us to master the alternate dialect of standard English usage. It's not that this way is good and ours is bad — it's another style of communicating that in important contexts will make success more likely.

■ Intensify efforts to inspire a love of reading. When students read well and deeply, they write more gracefully, gain mastery of standard usage and tend to perform better in all their studies.

■ Honor and reward inspirational teachers who successfully transmit language skills.

■ Regularly bring writers and other word people into the schools.

■ Teach language skills across the curriculum.

I'm not suggesting these measures will solve Eastern Kentucky's economic problems by creating legions of wealthy poets. I am suggesting that ability with language, without which civilization would not exist, is the common currency of virtually all human interaction, and those who are more verbally accomplished will on average be more successful no matter what the area of endeavor.

I'm also predicting that as the chorus of well-trained voices in Eastern Kentucky grows, we'll be able to advocate more effectively for our region. (We might suggest, for example, that all the severance tax on coal mined in and around Lexington remain in Fayette County.)

As rhyme tends to remain after prose fades, I'll close with a bit of verse. A forthcoming children's book of Appalachian rhymes begins with a "meet-the-author" introduction, "About Mommy Goose"—

Mommy Goose is an Appalachian bird.

Like cows love corn, she loves words.

She says,

"Corn can be yellow, blue, or white,

And words change colors in different light.

To talk like your flock is no disgrace.

Just use the right word in the right place."

If we successfully equip our young people to use the right word in the right place in the right way, we will have laid the fundamental foundation for solving the problems of East Kentucky.

Mike Norris grew up in Jackson County and worked many years at Centre College. He writes children's books illustrated by Eastern Kentucky folk artist Minnie Adkins.

Lexington Herald-Leader is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service