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Outer Banks Culture

The Outer Banks Dialect
This information is courtesy of Walt Wolfram, William C. Friday Professor at North Carolina State University

The historical flight of the Wright brothers on the Outer Banks of North Carolina did not take place in a cultural or linguistic vacuum. Native Americans had previously inhabited the region for at least a millennium and Europeans had already been living on the Outer Banks for a couple of centuries at the time of the flight, to say nothing of the fact that the site was adjacent to the location of the first landing of the English in the late 1500s. Perhaps ironically, the first flight took place in an isolated maritime culture and in a linguistic context resonating with the sounds of one of the most distinctive dialect traditions ever developed in the United States. In fact, the local residents would have referred to the Wrights as Wroits and flight as floit, leaving little doubt about the distinctive dialect surrounding the rudimentary airstrip. Language is one of the most reliable guides to regional and cultural context, and therefore provides an important window into the local setting of the Outer Banks at the time of the flight.

For a couple of centuries, the small, isolated communities dotting the barrier islands of North Carolina and the adjacent coastal mainland have featured one of the most distinctive varieties of English in the US, the so-called Outer Banks brogue, a word borrowed from Irish meaning "twisted tongue". Although the last half-century has witnessed the rapid erosion of this distinctive style of speech as the Outer Banks was transformed into a tourist mecca now flooded by outsiders, the vestiges of this unique dialect are still found among many of the older lifetime inhabitants of the coastal region.

The Outer Banks Dialect

What makes the dialects of coastal North Carolina so unique? To the casual observer, the answer to that question may seem quite obvious: people from this region simply do not sound anything like their mainland counterparts living in the coastal plain or piedmont regions of North Carolina and in other areas of the South. When I play samples of speakers from different regions of North Carolina for listeners, residents of the Outer Banks are relatively easy to identify. Sorting out the details that make the brogue distinct, however, is a bit more complex than it might appear to the casual observer who is satisfied to identify a couple of pronunciation icons.

Dialects are distinguishable on several levels: pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar. The dialects of the Outer Banks differentiate themselves on all of these levels, even though traits on some levels are more conspicuous than others - especially to outsiders but also now to the residents themselves as they have become increasingly aware of their dialect.

The most distinguishing characteristics of pronunciation are several vowel sounds, although there are a number of other differences described by dialectologists (e.g. Howren 1962; Wolfram and Schilling-Estes 1997; Wolfram, Hazen, and Schilling-Estes 1999). The most noticeable pronunciation trait is, of course, the long i vowel sound in words like time and high, which sound something like toim and hoi. In fact, one of the traditional labels for people from the Outer Banks is HoiTtoiders, an iconic imitation of this distinctive vowel sound. Although outsiders often caricature the pronunciation as sounding like the oy vowel of boy or toy, the actual production is more like the combination of the uh sound of but and the ee sound of beet, so that the Outer Banks pronunciation of tide really sounds something like t-uh-ee-d. The Outer Banks, however, is not the only region where this sound is found. It is characteristic of particular regions in the British Isles and in the English of Australia and New Zealand, and even in some parts of the United States (for example, some New Yorkers), though it does not nearly receive as much attention as it does in coastal North Carolina. In the South, the pronunciation contrasts sharply with the mainland pronunciation of these vowels without the glide, as in tahm for time or tahd for tide.

While visitors, as well as some Outer Banks residents, may focus on the distinctiveness of the i sound in tide to assert their identity as islanders, there are other vowels that are just as distinctive, and perhaps even more distinguishing among American dialects. The production of the vowel in words like sound and brown is every bit as distinct, but it has not received as much symbolic attention. The vowel sound in the word brown actually sounds closer to the vowel of brain and the word mound sounds like mind; in fact, outsiders have been known to confuse words like brown and brain or mound and mind.

Another pronunciation trait is the vowel in words like caught and bought, which is produced closer to the vowel sound in words like put or book. This pronunciation is unique among the dialects of American English, sounding more like its production in many British dialects of English than it does in most varieties of American English. In fact, it is one of the features that makes outsiders think that Outer Banks English is more like British English or Australian English than American English, though most people don't talk about this vowel nearly as much as they do about the vowel of high tide.

As it turns out, Americans are not the only ones who think that Outer Banks English sounds more like a British than an American dialect. At one point in our study of Outer Banks English (Wolfram and Schilling-Estes 1997; Wolfram, Hazen, and Schilling-Estes 1999), the prominent British dialectologist, Peter Trudgill, visited the Outer Banks with our research team. He took back some recorded samples of Outer Banks speech and played them to a group of 15 native speakers of British English in Essex, England, located in East Anglia. The listeners were unanimous in attributing the Outer Banks speech sample to a British Isles origin, with most people "opting for an origin in the "West Country" - that is, southwestern England" (e-mail from Peter Trudgill, 1995).

Most people focus on the pronunciation of the Outer Banks brogue, but there are also noteworthy vocabulary and grammatical traits. A word of caution is, however, necessary in presenting vocabulary differences. There are actually very few words that are unique to the Outer Banks; we have found only a few dozen out of the thousands of dialect words used in this area. Words like meehonkey or whoop and holler for "hide and seek" in Ocracoke, or the special meaning of words for outsiders, like dit-dot and dingbatter in Harkers Island, as well as terms for local places such as the ditch "mouth of the harbor" or up the beach "off the island" seem to be among the few newly coined items in these varieties. However, there are also some unique nuances of meanings assigned to Outer Banks dialect words that are shared with other areas as well. For example, the use of the word mommuck, an older English word found in the works of William Shakespeare and in some more isolated dialect areas such as Appalachia, has developed a meaning on the Outer Banks that sets it apart from both its original meaning as well as the meaning it has developed in other regions. In the works of Shakespeare it refers to "tearing apart" in a literal sense (e.g. They mommucked the curtain), whereas on the Outer Banks its meaning has been extended to refer to mental or physical harassment (e.g. The young' uns were mommucking me). This meaning is, in turn, distinguished from its reference in some mainland dialects of Southeastern North Carolina; for example, in Robeson County, and the western mountain area of the state it means "mess up" (e.g. They mommucked up the house).

Lexical items also reinforce an important point about Outer Banks dialects, namely, that it is the combination of the old with the new that defines its current state. For example, words like mommuck, quamish, (meaning "upset" as in quamished in the gut), and token of death (meaning "an unusual sign of impending death", such as a rooster crowing in the middle of the day) are all are words that have been in the English language for centuries. On the other hand, words like dingbatter and dit dot, terms for "outsiders", are relatively new. In fact, our research on the term dingbatter shows that it was adopted from the popular 1970s television sitcom All in the Family. Prior to that time, terms like foreigner and stranger were used for outsiders, so that the Wright brothers probably would have been referred to as "foreigners" or "strangers", the labels used to classify anyone not from the Outer Banks at the turn of the century. The observation that the term foreigners might be applied to those from the mainland US along with those from other countries is probably symbolic of the divide that sometimes existed between Hoi Toiders and those on the mainland. Bankers, another common term for residents of the Outer Banks residents a century ago, simply did not feel very connected with the mainland, particularly with the land-locked regions that did not offer ready access to the sea, the sounds, the rivers, and the pocosins found along the coast.

Along with a few special but highly symbolic word uses that clearly distinguish outsiders from ANCESTRAL ISLANDERS, or those whose family genealogies establish them as authentic Outer Bankers, it is important to understand that the vast majority of lexical items found on the Outer Banks are common in other dialect areas, mostly in the South. There are also dialect words associated with the marine ecology and are therefore shared with other coastal communities, such as slick cam for "smooth water", winard for "into the wind", leeward "with the wind"; these go along with local practices such as lightering, an activity in which the heavy cargo from large sailing ships was placed on smaller vessels that were able to navigate in the shallow waters of the Currituck, Albemarle, and Pamlico Sounds. Some of the lexical items for wind and storms such as nor'easter and sou'easter, squall for a violent gust of wind with rain, and boomer for a thundershower, were certainly used to describe the weather conditions that might have affected the original flight. The term camelback, referring to a small rise or hump in the sand along the beach, certainly would have been relevant in describing the sandy terrain at the point of departure.

There are also noteworthy grammatical differences that typify Outer Banks speech, but only a couple of them are unique. The use of weren't where other dialects use wasn't, as in I weren't there or It weren't in the house, is only found in the Mid-Atlantic coastal region, although its use extends from the coastal areas of Virginia and Maryland to the north to the southern areas of coastal North Carolina. The use of the preposition to for at as in She's to the house tonight is also fairly limited, though it is also found in some other coastal areas of the region. The use of an 's' on verbs in sentences such as The dogs barks every night is characteristic of the Outer Banks brogue, but it is also found in other historically isolated dialects as well, such as those in Appalachia, as is the use of the uh sound before verbs in The dogs was a-huntin' the possum. The grammar of the Outer Banks may not add many novel dialect features to the composition of the dialect, but it is certainly part of the overall profile that makes Outer Banks English what it is. While pronunciation remains the primary topic of conversation for outsiders and residents alike, vocabulary and grammar are certainly essential ingredients of the dialect mix that makes the Outer Banks unique.

Although some of the features of the Outer Banks brogue are retentions of older forms of English that have died out in other contemporary dialects of English - so - called RELIC FORMS -it is important to dispel one of the most common language myths about Outer Banks English: that it represents the preservation of Elizabethan or Shakespearean English. This romantic notion is not uncommon, and has been offered to me as the explanation for Outer Banks speech by observers who include some of my colleagues in the English department as well as casual visitors to the Outer Banks. In fact, at one point in our research on Outer Banks English, a television crew from BBC showed up on the Outer Banks with the plays of William Shakespeare for the residents to read, intending to record the sounds of the bard through the voices of current Outer Banks residents. The crew seemed disappointed but undeterred by my insistence that this was a romantic myth, and several weeks later I received numerous messages from friends around the world informing me that BBC and CNN International networks had aired a story claiming that Shakespearean English had been located on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. I had not convinced the producers of one of the most foundational truths about language - that all languages are constantly changing - but I also learned a lesson about the strength of preconceived language notions and dialect mythmaking. Outer Banks English certainly has retained some older forms of English, but at the same time it has combined them with innovative items. Thus, a contemporary Outer Banks English sentence such as Dingbatters sure do mommuck us during the summer juxtaposes the relic form mommuck with the innovative term dingbatters from a modern-day sitcom in a completely natural combination of something old with something new. Such is the natural and ordinary life of everyday language, a constantly changing phenomenon even in isolation.

The Context of the Brogue

Although the brogue tends to be associated mostly with longstanding, marine-based coastal communities on the Outer Banks like Wanchese, Ocracoke, and Harkers Island, the boundaries of the dialect area are actually more expansive than that, including coastal parts of the mainland adjacent to the Outer Banks as well. A map showing the approximate boundaries of the dialect encompassing the area is given below. The line demarcating the boundaries of the traditional brogue, called a DIALECT ISOGLOSS, is a composite based on the basis various dialect surveys that have been carried out since the 1930s (Kretzschmar, McDavid, Lerud, Johnson 1994; Cassidy 1986, 1991, 1996), as well as studies of particular Outer Banks communities by the members of the North Carolina Language and Life Project (e.g. Wolfram and Schilling-Estes 1997, Wolfram, Hazen, and Schilling-Estes 1999; Wolfram and Thomas forthcoming) over the past decade.

The dialect isogloss delimiting the brogue starts at the southern end of the Outer Banks, including the Bogue Sound and Core Sound, and extends northward beyond the North Carolina border into coastal Virginia and Maryland bounded by the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay. In fact, people who have visited island communities in the Chesapeake Bay, such as Tangier Island in Virginia and Smith Island in Maryland, readily notice some of the strong similarities, including the characteristic vowels of tide and sound, the use of weren't where other dialects use wasn't, and common vocabulary terms such as mommuck and quamish. As is seen on the map, the dialect also encompasses regions of the mainland bordering the Outer Banks, including all of Hyde and Dare County and the parts of Carteret, Pamlico, and Currituck Counties as well.

An isogloss marking the boundaries of a dialect area only gives a partial - and oversimplified?picture of the dialect region. The geographical delimitation is approximate since the dialect boundaries do not usually transition abruptly into the regional dialects of the coastal plain to the west. Perhaps more important in the description of the brogue is the identification of the kinds of people most likely to speak it, particularly as the region has been transformed from a locally based, marine economy to a tourist-based economy, with all the social ramifications that go along with such a change.

In some communities once typified by their heavy use of the brogue, it may even be difficult for visitors to find people who speak the brogue. This is certainly understandable given the simple demographic statistics and dynamics of change. For example, consider the summertime statistics for an island like Ocracoke. During a typical summer day, anywhere from 3,000-5,000 people visit the island from the mainland, inundating the 600 permanent residents. But not all year-round residents are natives. In fact, only about half of the people living there permanently are ancestral islanders. Furthermore, there are generational differences, as many younger residents no longer speak the brogue. The traditional dialect, then, might actually be found among less than three percent of the people found on any given day during the tourist season, and some of those people may be fishing in the sound or trying to stay out of harm's way as represented by the flood of tourists. I have sometimes been confronted by people who visited the Outer Banks during the height of the tourist season who report to me that they never heard the dialect that we described in various books and articles, as if we had lied about the dialect. My advice to them is to go again during the off-season and search out a store or meeting place where locals congregate on a regular basis just to "say a word."

Although we might profile the typical speaker of the traditional brogue as an older lifetime resident of the Outer Banks who is connected to the marine-based culture, for example, a fisher or a boat builder, this image does not always fit. The picture is really much more complex than that, and we have to be careful about stereotyping typical speakers, such as the older, rugged fishermen with little formal education. For example, we know a few middle-aged women who have a strong version of the brogue, and although younger speakers in general sound much less brogue - like than older Outer Banks residents, we have come across occasional younger speakers who have chosen to maintain a strong version of the dialect.

The detailed study of different communities on coastal North Carolina has led us to conclude that brogue usage does not always match outside expectations. For example, some of the speakers who sound the most "brogue-ish" are not the very oldest people who are the least educated, but rather a core group of middle-aged men who work and socialize together on a daily basis (Wolfram et al. 1999). Furthermore, this group includes a couple of men who were among the first college graduates of the island and even lived on the mainland for a period of time. It is not a simple matter of education or even continuous residency on the island that correlates neatly with dialect use. We found that the maintenance and intensification of the brogue by this middle-aged group of speakers was related to the fact that its members have a strong sense of island identity and are interested in maintaining certain traditional ways of life - including their dialect. We thus see that the brogue can be used symbolically to "make a statement" about being a part of the community culture and preserving certain forms of the traditional Outer Banks lifestyle.

Outsiders might also find it surprising that the brogue has been adopted by some African Americans on the Outer Banks as well, since people tend to associate it with the Anglo-American rather than African-American speech. However, we must remember that African Americans have been a part of coastal North Carolina for hundreds of years and have also participated in various activities related to coastal maritime culture. For example, there were over 150 slaves who lived on Ocracoke and Portsmouth before the Civil War, and although most of them moved to the mainland after the Civil War, they were certainly exposed to the traditional dialect.

Many African American slaves became skilled watermen, and were heavily involved in fishing, ferrying, and piloting; their expertise quickly became essential to the culture and economy of coastal North Carolina. At the same time, recent studies by David Cecelski (1994) have indicated a strong undercurrent to their life on the water - a maritime section of the Underground Railroad that flourished along the coastal waterways of North Carolina between 1800 and the Civil War. The combination of skillful African American watermen and a conspiring network of freedmen, fugitive slaves, and sailors situated within the complex network of rivers, estuaries, pocosins, and tidal marshes along the coast offered a opportunistic maritime route to freedom.

Although the Civil War changed the lives of many African Americans on the Outer Banks and altered the demographics of particular coastal locations, the overall ratio of African Americans to whites in the coastal population did not change appreciably. For example, the slave populations of island communities such as Hatteras, Portsmouth, Ocracoke, and Harkers Island were depleted during this time, but Roanoke Island became a large enclave for ex-slaves and the site of a vibrant freedmen's colony (Click 2001). At one point, the official Freedmen's Colony grew to more than 600 houses with more than 3,000 African American refugees on the island. However, in 1866 an order to restore the land to the original owners was issued, ending the experimental community and scattering the residents. Though the African American community was dispersed, some of the former residents stayed in the region and maintained a significant African American coastal presence.

In some regions of coastal North Carolina, African Americans and European Americans have lived side by side for almost three centuries now. This long-term, isolated co-existence has given us a unique window into the extent to which African Americans shared in the regional dialect as well as insight into the development of a distinct ethnic variety - so - called "Ebonics" or African American Vernacular English. Interviews with over 150 long-term African American residents of Hyde County in the late 1990s indicate that many of the older African-American residents had quite strong versions of the brogue, including the traditional pronunciation of the i vowel of tide as toid, the pronunciation of the ou vowel of mound something like mind, and the use of weren't in sentences such as It weren?t me. Our research (Wolfram, Thomas, and Green 2000; Wolfram and Thomas forthcoming) shows that older African Americans used many of the traditional dialect features of the Outer Banks region, while still maintaining some subtle but distinguishing ethnolinguistic traits. We found that outside listeners could not reliably distinguish between some of the older African-American and Anglo-American speakers in mainland Hyde County when we played tape-recorded samples of elderly African Americans and European Americans from coastal North Carolina. Lifetime Bankers, however, tend to be more accurate at identifying ethnic distinctions in Outer Banks speech since they pay attention to some of the subtle distinctions rather than the adoption of the regional dialect by residents regardless of ethnicity. It is also quite likely that the famous all-Black lifesaving crew established on Pea Island in 1879 used a version of the Outer Banks brogue, and that they probably maintained the dialect until the Coast Guard finally closed the lifesaving station in 1947 (Weatherford 1999).

We conclude that the use of the brogue is most associated with long-term residency, lifestyle, and island identity. We have yet to find anyone who moved to this area from another dialect region who used the brogue in a way that resembled those who came from families who had lived there for generations, even though some outsiders are good mimics and may pick up some of the words that are used in the local community. At the same time, the changes that have overcome coastal North Carolina during the last half century have clearly affected the brogue. Those who are strongly connected with the traditional culture of the area seem to be most likely to maintain the brogue as it becomes diluted with the social transformation of the Outer Banks. For example, fishers, who spend a lot of time with each other in their occupation are more likely to show a stronger version of the dialect than those who spend their everyday lives interacting with tourists. But we also have to be careful about such simple descriptions because we have seen that it is also a matter of identity, and that those who wish to project their island heritage may maintain the brogue even in the face of their extensive interaction with outsiders and their current distance from former ways of living.

The Development of the Brogue

Given the distinctiveness of the Outer Banks dialect, it is natural to ask where the brogue came from to begin with and how has it has developed over the centuries? To some extent, this reconstruction is reduced to reasonable speculation since linguistic documentation of the dialect during the 1700s and 1800s is incomplete at best. Our evidence is thus based on various types of circumstantial historical and linguistic evidence, including an understanding of where the people migrated from, what dialect they might have brought with them, and how the dialect developed over time.

The development of most dialects shows a strong FOUNDER EFFECT (Mufwene 1996, 1999), in the sense that the group initially introducing the language to the region usually leaves a lasting imprint on the linguistic heritage of the area. In this case, it means that the English dialect brought to the Outer Banks by the earliest groups of European inhabitants will still be reflected to some extent in the current populations. Unfortunately, tracing this heritage if easier said than done, since there were different stages of settlement. Furthermore, all languages and dialects change continually, regardless of social and historic circumstance, so we need to consider both the original English language donors and the evolution of this variety over the past couple of centuries.

There are several levels of language influence to consider. First, we need to consider the contributions of different dialects from the British Isles to the dialect landscape of America. Then we need to consider the development of regional dialects of earlier American English that might have been brought to the area, since the earliest permanent English settlers of the Outer Banks did not typically come directly from England. Finally, we need to consider the patterns of language contact with other groups that might have affected the formation and subsequent development of the dialect.

Most of the early residents of the Outer Banks came south from Tidewater Virginia and from the eastern shores of Maryland. In fact, many residents of the Outer Banks have family genealogies that trace their roots back to the specific towns of origin in Virginia and Maryland. It should also be noted that most of the early migration south along the coast was by boat rather than overland. There were few mainland roads and bridges across the complicated network of rivers, estuaries and inlets, to say nothing of the expansive marshlands that made overland travel virtually impossible. The question of founder dialect thus focuses on the dialect that this group of English settlers from Virginia and Maryland brought with them when they started arriving on the Outer Banks by boat in the early and mid-1700s.

To get a picture of American English earlier than that we need to examine the dialects of the British Isles that might have been represented in coastal Virginia and Maryland. The inhabitants from the British Isles did not come from a single location, though certain regions of England may have been a more dominant influence than others (Fischer 1989). For example, Southwestern England was well represented in the early population, although there was certainly representation from East Anglia and other areas as well. The prominence of surnames like O'Neal and Scarborough to this day on the Outer Banks suggests that an original Irish English influence was also part of the early dialect mix. We have already hinted at the possible affinity of Outer Banks English with some prominent features of Southwestern English, but there are also some features that can be traced to the influence of Irish English similar to that found in Appalachia, where the Scots-Irish English effect is well-established (Montgomery 1989).

Various dialects of the British Isles may have been represented among the early speakers in America, but the important point is the fact there was a selective process in the formative molding of donor dialects into a distinct dialect regionally associated with the coastal areas and islands of the Mid-Atlantic. This dialect was concentrated in the islands running from the Chesapeake Bay to the Outer Banks as well as adjacent coastal mainland areas. Obviously, the process of regional dialect development in English did not happen overnight, and dialectologists cannot pinpoint exactly when the distinct coastal dialect developed. One possibility is that the formative years of development took place during the early and mid-1700s. Accordingly, those who migrated to the Outer Banks along the coast from Tidewater Virginia and coastal Maryland would have brought the original version of the dialect with them. Most dialectologists are inclined to conclude that the dialect was formed in the early eighteenth century, but David Shores, in Tangier Island: Place, People, and Talk (2000), suggests that the formative stages of the coastal dialect that ranged from the island communities in the Chesapeake to the Outer Banks took place between 1800 and 1850. If Shores is right, then much of the Outer Banks dialect developed after the primary settlement had already taken place. So how would we then account for the strong semblance between the Outer Banks dialects and island and coastal dialects to the north? In this connection, we should point out that much of the movement of people was determined by the coastal waters. For example, at one point the lower Outer Banks was involved a whaling industry that connected with the whaling industry along the New England coast. We also know that many older men on Outer Banks today spent time working in ports to the North, including those in Wilmington, Delaware, and Philadelphia. So it is quite possible that continued movement up and down the coast after settlement and the development of a maritime culture might have led to the diffusion of dialect traits along the Mid-Atlantic coast.

Although we cannot be certain about the time of the formative development of the Outer Banks brogue, our examination of some of the written documents of the nineteenth century, including the logs kept by the lighthouse pilots, letters, and memoirs of residents, indicates that the dialect was well in place by the mid-1800s. Interviews with residents born in the mid and late 1800s (Kretzschmar et al. 1994) and our own interviews with residents born around the turn of the twentieth century suggest that the dialect was still in its prime at the time of the Wright brothers' flight. One can only speculate as to the reactions that the Wright brothers had to this strange-sounding dialect, but we can be assured that they had an ample opportunity to hear it as they interacted with local residents.

Preserving the Brogue

What will happen to the brogue? Is it dying? Will it survive the steady wave of foreigners, strangers, dingbatters and dit-dots that has changed the economic and social complexion of the Outer Banks dramatically over the last half century? And does it make a difference?

The classification of Hoi Toider speech as an "endangered dialect" has sometimes caught the fancy of the media and headline stories such as "Ebb Tide on Hoi Toide" have been circulated by the Associated Press in prominent regional newspapers. Is this simply media hype to call attention to the changing status of Outer Banks speech or is an endangered dialect a significant cultural and scientific loss?

First of all, we must admit that the threat to the brogue in communities up and down coastal Carolina is very real. Some of the once-common traditional dialect traits are vanishing rapidly. If we compare just three generations within the same family, we can see how quickly a unique language can die. In some families, the grandparents may still retain many traditional speech characteristics of the dialect, including the traditional pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar; the children, however, show a significant reduction in the use of the forms, and the grandchildren have virtually none of these features. So the dialect could, in fact, vanish in a couple of generations. We have clearly documented this pattern of dialect erosion in a number of families we have interviewed over the past decade.

Certainly, dialectologists and linguists worry about the disappearance of the brogue, and liken language loss to the extinction of biological species. People may argue that it is not the same, arguing that speakers don't give up talking when a language dies; they just use another one. In fact, some people would applaud language death and say that the reduction or the world's languages to just a few would make international communication much more efficient. It is also true that manufacturing would be much more efficient if we all wore the same style and same size of clothing, but where would that leave us in terms of the expression of individual and cultural identity?

Dialectologists argue that science, culture, and history are lost when a language or a dialect of a language dies. In our quest to understand the general nature of language, we learn from diversity, just as we learn about the general nature of life from biological diversity. For example, the observation of many different kinds of birds can teach us more about the aerodynamics of flight than the observation of a single species limited to one size, weight, and skeletal structure. (Wolfram and Schilling-Estes 1997:118). Thus, studying varieties of English helps us understand the nature of the English language and language in general - a worthy scientific justification.

When a language or dialect dies, there is also an essential and unique part of a human knowledge and culture that dies with it. The Outer Banks would certainly still be the Outer Banks if the dialect were to disappear completely, but a part of the traditional culture of the island would be lost if it does. I personally find it hard to imagine certain stories being told without the embellishing sounds of the brogue. Similarly, I find it hard to imagine the same effect if terms like "harassed" instead of mommucked, "upset in my stomach" instead of quamished in the gut, or "tourist" were used instead of dingbatter.

At the same time, even as we may mourn the seemingly inevitable passing of traditional dialect, we can be assured that people and their dialects are dynamic and resilient, and that communities desiring to assert their uniqueness will find a way to do it--culturally and linguistically. We know, for example, of cases where communities have changed their overall ways of speaking but chosen new features of speech to continue to set them apart from others. For example, it may be that a couple of features of Outer Banks speech might be kept and redefined in terms of their symbolic significance or that new features or words will be created to maintain dialect and community distinctiveness. Dialect distinctiveness in its traditional form is probably not a realistic option for the Outer Banks, but new creations or the selective retention of a couple of the traditional features could perpetuate dialect distinctiveness in the Outer Banks. In fact, some of our studies over the past decade suggest that a couple of structures of Outer Banks English have actually been reinforced by some younger speakers (Schilling-Estes and Wolfram 1994; Wolfram and Thomas forthcoming). While this is a selective process, it is also a testament to the fact that the Outer Banks is maintaining some distinctiveness, albeit different from that of previous generations.

One thing seems to be certain about the brogue. It has been an essential part of the traditional Outer Banks culture, and people in the community and students in the schools need to know about it if they have any desire of staying in touch with the legacy that has made the Outer Banks such a unique place. The dialect heritage deserves to be indelibly documented and preserved - for Hoi Toiders, for new residents, and for tourists who wish to understand why it is such a special place. That is why our activities on the Outer Banks over the last decade have involved conducting extensive recorded interviews with lot of different islanders of all ages, producing a school-based curricula for students to learn about their dialect heritage, producing video documentaries audio compact disks and cassettes, and developing museum exhibits that highlight the dialect, along with the traditional publication of numerous articles and a couple of books documenting the Outer Banks dialect.

As a linguist and anthropologist, I personally think that it would be an irrecoverable loss if the Outer Banks brogue died, but I have no say in such matters. The fate of the brogue is solely in the hands of the various coastal communities who will decide for themselves. However, all of us--especially islanders--should have a stake in ensuring that this tradition will be preserved. Wouldn't it be nice if the dialect traditions of the Outer Banks were documented as carefully as some of the genealogies that trace family heritage? At the time of the Wright flight, we could only do that through written records that don't fully capture the flavor of the dialect. However, now all we have to do is turn on the video and audio recorder so that "young 'uns" and their young ?uns may share the sounds, the stories, the phrases, and the observations of the people who nurtured the linguistic life of the Outer Banks for so long. This tradition certainly deserves to be respected and celebrated as one of the greatest dialect traditions ever to develop in American society. In this respect, it seems like an appropriate, distinctive linguistic context for the inception of the age of flight.


Cassidy, Frederic G. (ed.). 1986, 1991, 1996. The Dictionary of American Regional English, Vol 1 (1986), Vol. 2 (1991), Vol. 3 (1996). Cambridge/London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Cecelski, David. 1994. The shores of freedom: The maritime underground railroad in North Carolina, 1800-1861, The North Carolina Historical Review 71:174-206.

Click, Patricia G. 2001. Time Full of Trial: The Roanoke Island Freedmen's Colony, 1862-1867. Chapel Hill/London: The University of North Carolina Press.

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Did You Know ... The most noticeable pronunciation trait of the Outer Banks dialect is the long i vowel sound in words like time and high, which sound something like toim and hoi. In fact, one of the traditional labels for people from the Outer Banks is HoiTtoiders, an iconic imitation of this distinctive vowel sound.

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