by Dr. Erik R. Thomas

The North Carolina Language and Life Project (NCLLP) has been interviewing residents of mainland Hyde County since 1997. The NCLLP is based at North Carolina State University. It was begun in 1993 by Dr. Walt Wolfram, the William C. Friday Distinguished Professor. Its purpose is to describe the dialects of North Carolina as part of the culture and heritage of the state. Instead of conducting a broad-based survey of the entire state, however, the NCLLP takes an ethnographic approach: that is, we conduct intensive surveys of individual communities. Walt and his former student, Natalie Schilling-Estes (now a faculty member at Georgetown University) began with a survey of Ocracoke that led to their book, Hoi Toide on the Outer Banks: The Story of the Ocracoke Brogue, a video called The Ocracoke "Brogue," and a CD and cassette tape called Ocracoke Speaks, as well as many academic articles. Walt and another former student, Adrianne Cheek, conducted a survey of Harkers Island that produced a video called That Island Talk: The Harkers Island Dialect. Walt and Clare Dannenberg, now a member of the Virginia Tech University faculty, conducted a survey of Robeson County (on the South Carolina border) that has resulted in some academic articles, with a video now in preparation. Kirk Hazen, who has since joined the faculty at West Virginia University, conducted a survey of Warren County (on the Virginia border) that has produced academic articles, and Bridget Anderson surveyed Graham County (in the mountains).

I joined the NCLLP team as a faculty member at North Carolina State University in 1995. We were interested in expanding our coverage to another community where I would direct the survey. Initially, I considered Edenton, Raleigh, and Goldsboro. However, in 1996, I happened to examine the speech of the sole African-American family in Ocracoke. Their speech was a mixture of dialect features typical of the Outer Banks and those typical of African-American English. In order to shed more light on their speech, I decided that I needed to look at the speech of other African Americans in the Pamlico Sound area. For that reason I thought that I should do a full-fledged survey (interviewing both African Americans and whites) of another community along Pamlico Sound. At first, I thought of Manteo, which has a small African-American community. However, after consulting U.S. Census records, I learned that the population of mainland Hyde County was nearly two-fifths African-American.

I already knew something about the dialect of mainland Hyde County because of a dialect survey that had been conducted during the 1930's. That project, called The Linguistic Atlas of the Middle and South Atlantic States (LAMSAS), had involved interviewing two natives in each county in all of the states from New York to Georgia. Hyde County was covered in 1936, and the two natives-both white-were a man from Engelhard born in 1854 and a woman from Tiny Oak born in 1897. Two people will certainly not provide a full picture of the dialect of a county, but LAMSAS did produce some interesting results. People from the Pamlico Sound area pronounced the r's in words such as door and here, while people from surrounding areas were more likely to "drop the r" and say "doah" and "heah." There were several local words around Pamlico Sound, such as shivering owl for a screech owl, slam across for "clear across," and trumpery room for a storage room. All of these terms are obsolete now. Most interesting to me was that the "hoi toide" or "brogue" accent, though it was found all around Pamlico Sound, seemed to be strongest in Hyde County. The "hoi toide" accent has to do with the way certain vowels are pronounced. It leads outsiders to think that Pamlico Sound natives pronounce high tide as "hoi toide" and down as "dine" or "Dane." Because of the relatively high African- American population of Hyde County and because of what LAMSAS had found years ago about the local dialect, Hyde County seemed to be the ideal place to go. Thus, the survey of mainland Hyde County was born.

The methods of studying dialects have changed a lot since the 1930's, when LAMSAS was conducted. At that time the usual method was to ask direct questions, such as "What kinds of owls do you have around here?" or "What's the number after 999?" The trouble with this method is that interviewees are likely to answer in a stiff, formal form of English instead of in their natural dialect. It was necessary at that time to use direct questions because audio recorders were too expensive and cumbersome and, without recording devices, the responses had to be written down on the spot. Now that tape recorders are available, affordable, and small enough to carry around, voices can simply be recorded and the analysis can take place later. For that reason, the emphasis today is on relaxed conversation, and open-ended questions that let interviewees talk freely are preferred. That was the approach that we took. We started at Cross Creek Health Care Center, where the staff kindly let us talk to their patients and even arranged interviews for us. After that, one of our students, Elaine Green, located the children of some of the Cross Creek patients and interviewed them and their families. Elaine ultimately conducted most of the interviews that we did in mainland Hyde County. She received valuable help in contacting people from many Hyde Countians, especially T.J. Mann.

We were interested in several issues when we began to interview mainland Hyde Countians. Some have to do with African-American English, but others have to do with white speech or are more general questions about how language changes. For African-American speech, there are two broad issues that have received a great deal of attention from scholars over the past generation: first, where African-American English came from, and second, where it is going.

The issue of where African-American English came from has two camps. One group, called the Anglicists, thinks that all features of African-American speech originated as features in British dialects that were brought to the United States by colonists. They think that slaves picked up these dialect features from their white overseers. The overseers were a different breed than the plantation owners. They often had little education and thus had many dialect features that the better-educated plantation owners avoided. The other group, called the Creolists, thinks that slaves spoke what linguists call a Creole. A Creole is not something that came from Louisiana, but instead is a language that develops when people who speak various different languages, such as west African slaves, are thrown together and have to find a way to communicate. The first generation develops a simplified form of communication called a pidgin, but the next generation changes the pidgin into a full-fledged language called a Creole. Creoles often took their vocabulary from the language of the slave owners but their grammar and pronunciation from the African languages that the slaves originally spoke. Many creoles are spoken in the Caribbean, such as Jamaican and Haitian creoles, and another Creole-Gullah is spoken along the coast of South Carolina and Georgia. Over time, creoles often become more and more like the dominant language (for example, English or French). In addition to the Anglicist and Creolist camps, there is a third possibility, too. This possibility is that African slaves learned English, but that they retained some traits of African languages, that is, a "foreign accent," in their speech. In Hyde County, older African Americans have virtually the same accent as older whites, which is quite unusual. We hoped that we could compare the speech of older African Americans and older whites to learn whether there are any subtle, long-standing dialect differences between the two groups. Long-standing differences, or their absence, would shed light on how African Americans first learned English.

The second issue about African-American speech, where it is going, is also divided into two positions. One group thinks that African-American speech is becoming more like white dialects, while the other thinks that it is becoming less like them. Of course, it's also possible that it is becoming more like white speech in some ways and less like it in others. To investigate this issue, we interviewed Hyde Countians, both African-American and white, of different generations. By doing that, we could compare the changes in dialect that are occurring within each ethnic group. We would like to know how the speech African Americans and the speech of whites are becoming more alike or less alike and in what ways they are changing together.

The speech of whites in mainland Hyde County has its own questions. We know that, just as in Ocracoke, the traditional "hoi toide" accent is disappearing. However, the pressures that have affected Ocracoke have not made much of an impact on mainland Hyde County. That is, mainland Hyde County doesn't have large numbers of tourists and hasn't had a massive influx of outsiders who moved there permanently. So why are the traditional dialect features dying out there? We don't have a complete answer yet, but the fact that good roads have linked Hyde County with inland areas since World War II is certainly part of the answer. Nothing blurs dialectal differences like movement of people, and the combination of a few outsiders moving in and Hyde County natives leaving for college or jobs (where others pointed out their accent to them) and then moving back might have been what killed the "hoi toide" accent.

We hoped to learn something from mainland Hyde County about the more general questions of how language changes, too. It's known that changes in a language can be due to linguistic factors, such as slurring sounds together to make them easier to pronounce, hyper-enunciating them to make them sound more distinct, or misperception of how other people pronounce something. It's also known that changes can be due to social factors, such as movement of people, a need to switch from one language to another, trendiness or ridicule of a particular word or pronunciation, or, most importantly, the identity that people want to project. We would like to have a better understanding of how linguistic and social factors affect each other. In the Pamlico Sound area, the dialect developed on its own for many years but has abruptly changed since World War II. Young whites in Hyde County are speaking more like whites from inland parts of North Carolina. The speech of young African Americans in Hyde County sounds more like the African-American dialect that is widespread in the United States, but it still has a Pamlico Sound flavor. It seems as if Hyde Countians identified mostly with local Pamlico Sound values through all the years of isolation from the rest of the state. Fishing and grain farming set the area off from other parts of North Carolina, and most of the trade was by water, not over land. During that period, linguistic factors caused the dialect to intensify, becoming more and more different from the dialects of the rest of the state. However, with the improved roads linking Hyde County with inland areas since World War II, it seems likely that white Hyde County natives are identifying more with North Carolina as a whole. African Americans from Hyde County have been moving to large cities, especially Norfolk and New York City, but they stay in contact with their relatives who haven't left Hyde County, and these contacts allow those still in Hyde County to identify more with urban African-American culture. For both white and African-American speech, social factors have suddenly overwhelmed linguistic factors.

As the situation in Hyde County shows, one's dialect is inseparably tied with his or her identity. Identity is a reflection of culture. The culture of the Pamlico Sound area is certainly changing: small fishing and crabbing operations often struggle, subsistence farming and sharecropping have been replaced by agribusiness, and communities are searching for ways to attract new types of jobs and more tourists. It is not surprising that the dialect is changing, too. The NCLLP seeks to document these changes at the same time that it records the dialect heritage of Hyde County's past.

Copyright 1999

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