A Google search for “hoi toide” produces more than 3,000 references to scholarly and popular books and articles, journalistic accounts, National Educational Television’s nationally distributed The Carolina Brogue (1994), the Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce’s “Outer Banks Lexicon” and the BBC’s characterization of Ocracoke as “the Galapagos of language.”16
No other single feature of Outer Banks life has received so much commentary, or is so widely trusted as a marker of its character. Long denounced as substandard English, it has in recent years been rehabilitated as a valued cultural feature – perhaps partly because it sounds vaguely British (hence culturally preferred).
In 1962, University of North Carolina linguist Robert Howren described some salient features of the Carolina brogue (as it is called) in Ocracoke village.17 As early as 1910, Howren noted, it was already viewed as endangered by the advent of daily mail boats, ending what he (incorrectly) believed to be the island’s century-long isolation. The brogue-eroding communication was accentuated by the completion of a road from Oregon Inlet to Ocracoke in 1957 and the inauguration of ferry service to Atlantic three years later.
Presaging what later investigators would also conclude about the brogue, Howren observed that its system of characteristically stressed vowels “differs structurally only in minor details from the systems of the other dialects of the Atlantic states.” Two of its “most immediately evident phonological features” were the postvocalic /r/ (“Cubar” instead of “Cuba”) and the oi diphthong in tide. Lexically (that is, with regard to vocabulary), mainland/general coastal/Ocracoke overlap was high. Hence the degree of uniqueness was not. Many words were current in all areas, but there was a “sizeable” group of Ocracoke expressions encountered infrequently or not at all in the rest of the state (e.g., the New England term comforterfor a padded bedcover, instead of comfort, the more frequently encountered southern term; hummock for a small tree-covered hill; and a few nautical terms, such as fatback for menhaden).
Howren concluded tentatively that Outer Banks speech “differs markedly from the Southern dialect” with regard to a few phonological and lexical features, but that those differences “should not be permitted to obscure the numerous similarities between [it] and that of the upper South.”18
Several years after Howren, Hilda Jaffe completed her Michigan State University Ph.D. dissertation on the Carteret County version of the brogue.19 Jaffe based her study on data from a then-recent linguistic atlas and a dozen local informants, lamenting “the overwhelming reluctance of the people of these isolated communities to be interviewed.”20
Unfortunately, Jaffe (like Howren before her) did not question the “isolation” of the Outer Banks. From the eighteenth century onward, she said, Bankers “stayed where they had settled,” and had been left “virtually undisturbed until . . . the early part of the twentieth century.” Only since the 1940s, she judged, “has the outside world begun to encroach on their isolation.” Their speech thus remained “surprisingly unlike the general speech of the rest of eastern North Carolina,” despite the influence of public schools and the media. Jaffe found that the brogue was still “distinctive enough to bewilder strangers,” and that people’s “communal solidarity,” tightly linked families and prior experiences with journalists who stigmatized them made them reluctant to trust or mingle with strangers from outside.21
Clearly, Jaffe’s understanding of the area’s demographic and cultural history was quite rudimentary. The volume on state history she used dated from 1858, and later sources were few and limited; her chapter on settlement history was three pages long.22 Her dozen informants, male and female, ranged from high school age through their mid-fifties, with the majority in their twenties and thirties. A few were descended from what Jaffe called “original settlers,” but they had lived in the area for varying (sometimes fairly short) periods of time, some having been born (and/or having spent much of their young – or even adult – lives) elsewhere. At the time of the interviews, several were living in Morehead City, and others in Marshallberg, Harkers Island, Williston, and elsewhere in Carteret County.23 Clearly they were not a promising array for the study she undertook.
Working out of a limited and skewed set of data, Jaffe argued that pronunciation (especially the diphthong of tide / toide) was the brogue’s most distinctive feature, rather than vocabulary or grammar, although it also examined a range of distinctive verb forms and a few other vocabulary features.24 Overall, her study turned out to be thin in every respect, and consequently of little use.
Fortunately, linguist Walt Wolfram took up the task anew several decades later, publishing a much more thorough study of the Carolina brogue.25 Besides being a superior linguist technically, Wolfram was a more sophisticated analyst of historical context and social/cultural change. His view of language was capacious enough to comprehend the dynamic processes through which the brogue emerged, changed, adapted, and distinguished itself (or did not) from other bordering or even distant language areas.
Wolfram established at the outset of his study that early settlers on the Banks came from several contributing areas, England, tidewater Virginia, and Ireland salient among them. Early Ocracokers, he explained, spoke several varieties of Early Modern English (EME), themselves in evidence in many other places and characterized by considerable inner diversity. The Civil War resulted in other significant contributing streams from the northeastern United States, and both the Great Depression and the growth of tourism after World War II introduced other change elements.26
Wolfram struggled with – but proved unable to resolve – the question of cultural isolation. On the one hand, he argued that isolation was an important factor in local language development, and even posited that despite the presence of fairly large numbers of slaves, the brogue “does not seem to have been influenced” by African American speech. The area, he said, has been "well removed from the language evolution that occurred [on the mainland] from Elizabethan times to the present day."
On the other hand, Wolfram recognized that whatever part isolation played, it was episodic and conditional. "One key factor in the development of the unique Ocracoke brogue,” he said,
was the isolation of Ocracokers from the mainland, although in its earliest days Ocracoke Village was probably not as isolated as one might think. Rather, the village was a booming port town . . . . Thanks to all [the] ship traffic, early residents of Ocracoke would have come into frequent contact with travelers from throughout England, the colonies, and the world.
Hatteras Inlet began to close in the 1730s, Wolfram notes, routing traffic through Ocracoke, but a storm in 1846 reopened it, shifting traffic again. Canals and railroads introduced analogous dynamics, as did hard-surface highways and ferries in later years.27 Was it then isolated, or not, one must ask – and when, for how long, and how thoroughly? The historical record suggests fairly clearly (see especially Chapter 2 above on the Atlantic world) that it never was – certainly not very thoroughly, or for very long.
Whatever the truth about isolation, how did Wolfram describe the brogue?
In his detailed linguistic analysis, Wolfram focused on the phonological, lexical and structural features that had interested Howren and Jaffe before him. His field work was far more extensive and careful than Jaffe’s, however, stretching over several years and involving large numbers of informants.
With regard to the perennially fascinating matter of pronunciation, Wolfram observed that "To a large extent, the association of the Ocracoke brogue with British English comes from the classic pronunciation of the /i/ vowel" in hoi toide.” The vowel was regularly seized upon by commentators, he said, because it contrasts so strongly both with standard /i/ and with the characteristic southern /ah/. Unlike former commentators who cast the /i = oi/ as universal in the brogue, Wolfram was careful to note that how local speakers use it “depends upon age, social setting and even micro speech context or other words they are using at the moment.” High tide is always hoi toide, he said, but the same /i/ in tire or fire is rendered as a southern /ah/, resulting in tar and far.28
Similarly with the postvocalic /r/. Ocracoke is “an r-pronouncing dialect,” Wolfram argued: far instead of fah, cart instead of caht. At the time of early settlement, he observed, r-lessness was considered low and rustic; it achieved higher status only at the end of the eighteenth century. Such shifts reveal the essential fickleness of language, Wolfram cautioned, going further to insist that there is "nothing intrinsically 'better' about certain pronunciations than others. . . . Social judgments about pronunciations can change as rapidly and arbitrarily as the pronunciations themselves."29
Wolfram also examined both vocabulary and sentence structure, finding a long list of identifiable Ocracoke words and sentence patterns. Non-natives are dingbatters, menhaden are fatback, to mommuck means to harass or bother, down Sound is south of Ocracoke, and offshore can mean crazy or silly. Local sentence structure employs repeated negatives, a-prefixing (“I’m a-goin’ to . . . ), and completive dones (“I done forgot to get the mail”), as well as the socially stigmatized but etymologically grounded and useful pan-southern y’all and ain’t.30
Hence if one tries simply to describe the most characteristically recognizable features of the brogue, one easily comes up with a substantial list of items.
But what about the age-old claim that the brogue is unique, handed down in isolation from generation to generation, durably resistant to contamination, jealously guarded and cherished as a cornerstone of local identity, and often troublesomely unintelligible to outsiders?
Wolfram’s conclusion is: a little bit yes, a lot more no, and anyway it depends on the context within which one views it. And in any case, the system is far more complicated than most people (whether locals or outside journalists or even some scholars) argue that it is. Many of its features, Wolfram says, "are not unique to this island specifically or even to the Outer Banks in general, but are found in other regions of the United States as well." Not all of those features are used by all Ocracokers, especially younger and middle-aged speakers, and some who use them don’t use them all the time..
Wolfram’s “overall impression” of Ocracoke English, he said, is that it “is distinctive not because of the many structures found only in this dialect, but because of the way in which . . . patterns have been joined together in the formation of this particular variety."31 What makes the Ocracoke dialect unique, to the extent that it is, he says, is "the particular way in which [these] features are combined . . . [like] a new recipe that has been created by mixing some well-known ingredients with a few lesser-known [ones] in an imaginative way."32
The brogue is, that is to say, a continuously evolving product of the same processes of change that affect all language – all the time, everywhere. Our foregoing chapters have chronicled many of those changes: early settlement; later in- and out-migration; the opening and closing of inlets and the consequent modifications in shipping; the dramatic and destructive interventions of hurricanes; the advent of maritime slavery with its particular patterns; the disruptions of war; the coming (and going) of government programs, institutions and personnel; the development of tourism; and the designation of vast swaths of the Banks as national seashores.33
In sum, it appears that Wolfram characterizes the Carolina brogue as a distinctive assemblage of elements deriving in the earliest period from several dialects of Early Middle English and Irish brought by early settlers, adapted over the years through the creative admixture of northeastern and southern elements, with all components of which it shares recognizable features of pronunciation, vocabulary and structure. Those explanations we find easily demonstrable and unarguable. But we are aware of no historical evidence to substantiate any claim of isolation as a significant contextual factor, and much evidence to the contrary.