Cape Lookout National Seashore Historic Resource Study By

Down East and Far West: Bankers’ Linguistic Cousins in the Mountains

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Down East and Far West: Bankers’ Linguistic Cousins in the Mountains

Wolfram’s aim was not only to describe and analyze the way Ocracokers talk, but also to understand the relationship of their language system – whatever it was – to those of other areas, wherever situated: other Outer Banks communities, the lowland South, and the non-South (from New England to the Midwest).

He quickly concluded that the Ocracoke system was closely related in some respects to near-shore inland North Carolina, to non-Southern systems, to general “Southern” speech, and to some northeastern speech areas. With regard to vocabulary, he observed that "The bulk of the current Ocracoke vocabulary has a decidedly southern flavor to it, seasoned with some special Outer Banks terms and spiced up with a few words found only on the island."34

Once one passes beyond the near-shore area, however, the next area of linguistic congruence, Wolfram argued, was not the adjacent Piedmont, as one might expect, but rather the mountainous western counties. "One of the regions whose dialect most resembles the brogue,” he wrote, “is Appalachia.” In many respects, it turned out that the speech of Ocracoke “is more like speech in the mountains of western North Carolina than that of the intervening lowland areas.”35

This rather surprising turn in Wolfram’s argument appears to have arisen for several reasons. The most obvious was that as a linguist intimately familiar with American dialects, he simply noticed some similarities in pronunciation, vocabulary, and sentence structure between the Carolina brogue of the Outer Banks and the speech of the western North Carolina mountains. He had after all been studying speech variations in the Appalachian region for about twenty years (with some two hundred informants, he reported) before he turned to the Outer Banks, and was especially familiar with the data those investigations had produced.36

Indeed the many similarities in pronunciation, vocabulary, and sentence structure he cited were striking: a-prefixing of verb forms (a-fishin’), the completive done (She done went), double modals (might could), possessive pronouns ending in –n (hisn), and others. The vowel pronunciation bar instead of bear he said was “so strong in the Appalachian dialect that it even surfaces in songs about the mountains” such as “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” – an unfortunate choice of example, since the song actually derived from a Walt Disney movie of the 1950s.37

Another reason for Wolfram’s having concentrated on the Appalachian comparison appears to have been that he understood (misunderstood, as it turned out) the region to be (and to have been for a very long time) "isolate[ed] from other American dialect areas" – thus in that sense analogous to the “isolated” Outer Banks, and consequently useful for comparative purposes.38 “Many parts of Appalachia,” he observed, “far distant from regular transportation and communication routes because of the difficult mountainous terrain, existed in a kind of isolation similar to that created by the stretch of water that separates the Outer Banks from the mainland."39

The Outer Banks and Appalachia, it turns out, share more than the specific dialect ties Wolfram asserted. For more than two centuries, both areas have been viewed as remote, isolated and “different.” Appalachia has been widely (but wrongly) understood as a home to old stock whites descended from noble English forbears. Hence early settlers and the generations that came after them spoke – as many a commentator fancied – “Elizabethan” English. Steering clear of modernity it all its forms, they (it was thought) cherished the old ballads and folkways, told quaint folk tales, played haunting modal tunes on ancient instruments (the “Appalachian” dulcimer being favored), cooked in the old ways and used the old cures, and hewed to the old time religion in their little country churches. Such notions combined to cast Appalachia in popular understanding (and popular media – fiction, music, journalism, comic strips, advertising, and film and television) as exceptionalist -- a region outside (or exceptional to) mainstream history, experience, and norms.40

It was a myth (and an analytical trap) that Wolfram fell headlong into. Many pronunciation features of Appalachian English, he said, are analogous to those that have been preserved “mainly in regions that historically have not had much contact with speakers of mainstream English."41

This misstep is particularly surprising in view of the fact that Wolfram conducted much of his Appalachian research in two West Virginia counties (Mercer and Monroe), the first of which had (as he himself pointed out) experienced the dramatic rise of industrial coal mining – whit its attendant social, economic, cultural and political dislocations – after the turn of the twentieth century.42 Coal mining linked Mercer County tightly not only to national but also (given the structure of the coal industry) to international markets. Many Mercer County miners, like others throughout the coalfields, lived not on rural farms but in turbulent mining towns.43

Since the late 1960s, however, many scholars have reconsidered, re-documented, and rewritten the history of the region. Their work led inexorably to the consensus (already strongly emergent by the mid-1970s when Wolfram began his Appalachian work) that that history cannot be adequately understood from an exceptionalist perspective congruent with any notion of “isolation.” Scholars have documented again and again that all parts of the region were thoroughly connected to the “outside” from the eighteenth century onward: first by drovers’ roads and market paths, later by turnpikes, highways, and railroads, and through a succession of periods by print journalism and advertising, mail order merchandizing, film and recorded music, and radio and television.

It has in fact been relatively easy to document that the region has not developed outside mainstream norms and processes, is not and has never been all-white (or even all English-speaking), has not remained stubbornly and pervasively rural and agricultural, and therefore has not escaped the turmoil and dislocation associated with industrialization and modernization. 44 Hence the current meticulously documented perspective on the Appalachian region (however mapped) is anti-exceptionalist. In all of these respects, the western mountains are very like the Outer Banks.

Whether Wolfram was sufficiently grounded in his understanding of Appalachian history and culture is not in itself overwhelmingly important for our purposes, but neither is it irrelevant. The important issues here are two: (1) Wolfram’s meticulous and irrefutable demonstration that the Carolina brogue is not a linguistically unique product of its own isolation, but rather a special mix of linguistic elements drawn from diverse sources and sharing most (but not all) of its defining features with other language systems, and (2) the implications of the nearly universal belief that the Outer Banks were “always” “isolated,” and thus that hoi toide survived both as product of the isolation and as a useful index to the exceptionalism of “Outer Banks culture.”

It is past time, we suggest, for this romantic notion about the Outer Banks to be subjected to the sort of scrutiny recently brought to bear upon its dialect-linked sister area to the west.

Why did that scrutiny arise with regard to the mountains, and of what use might it be with regard to the Outer Banks?45 It arose primarily because in the early 1960s a number of disturbing social and economic issues (poverty, poor schools, coal miners’ black lung disease, stripmining, and others) claimed the attention of both the general public and of younger scholars already energized by and engaged with broader issues of the period (e.g., school desegregation and civil rights, the Vietnam War, environmentalism).

Finding the then meager existing literature on the region to depend on a romantic narrative that could not be squared with the fairly easily available historical record, those scholars set out to rewrite the region’s history. Though initially occupied with producing a revisionist but still to some degree exceptionalist narrative, they moved slowly but inexorably toward an anti-exceptionalist analysis. That move consistently highlighted the analytical uselessness of the old narrative, which reinforced exceptionalism in what was clearly not an exceptional region. That old perspective had obscured whole areas of the region’s historical experience: industrialization and urbanization, race and race relations, labor history and class structure, women’s experience, trade and cultural exchange, intra-regional diversity.46

We suggest that an analogous misconception has prevented a now long-overdue re-examination of Outer Banks history and culture. A useful first step might be to ask why a historically unsupportable narrative of an isolated, culturally unique, universally hoi toiding Outer Banks came from, and why it has survived for so long.

As we pointed out earlier, early readings of the thinly-scattered population were rather negative – from William Byrd’s culturally lapsed Adamites to heartless scavengers of shipwrecks. Those rather depraved images seem to have waned in the early and middle decades of the nineteenth century, and thus were not picked up and developed by popular media, as were those of depraved mountaineers. Moreover, as these negative images of mountaineers were spreading in the media, the Life-Saving Service and the Coast Guard supplied publicly attractive images of courage and heroism linked to Outer Banks families – the Midgetts perhaps preeminent among them.

It also happened that the textile mills and tobacco factories of the Piedmont did not extend to the coastal counties and the Outer Banks, and thus did not produce the very visible class and racial tensions that attended such development – the “linthead” stereotype, for example. What industry there was at various periods was located inland rather than on the Banks themselves: turpentine and naval stores from the late eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century; rice and tobacco culture in the antebellum period; logging in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; phosphate mining mostly later – first in the Castle Hayne area north of Wilmington around 1900, and then in the vast Pungo River Formation of Beaufort County from the late1950s onward. Further, especially after World War II, the Outer Banks / coastal counties tourism industry organized itself to flood the media with positive images of Outer Banks folk and their maritime environment (a topic to which we will return at length in the following chapter).

All of these factors combined to allow (even support) the dissemination of a positive, romantic image of Outer Banks history and culture seriously at odds with important aspects of its actual history. That story of isolation and miraculous cultural survivals has proven widely attractive in some respects, but the much richer (anti-exceptionalist) story could be far more attractive – even to the tourists so assiduously courted by the little coastal towns and the Chambers of Commerce.

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