Dialect mommucked by tourists Language: The endangered native tongue of Ocracoke Island, N.C., still cherishes words left over from the days of Shakespeare.

Sun Journal

March 13, 1997|By Wade Rawlins | Wade Rawlins,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

OCRACOKE, N.C. -- Ocracoke Island has long been separated from the rest of North Carolina by two things: the waters of Pamlico Sound and the islanders' brogue, echoing the speech of the early English settlers.

Older islanders have their distinct pronunciations, turns of phrase and rich vocabulary. Their vowels clang together with a bell-like quality; their sentences contain relics of early English such as an extra "a" -- as in "The stars were a-shining."

Their daily speech retains a few words long since vanished from mainstream English, such as "mommuck" ("to bother") and "quamish" ("queasy"), remnants of Shakespeare's day.

But the dialect is yielding to time, much as fishing has yielded to tourism and as all but one of the single-lane sand streets have given way to asphalt.

Within the past 40 years, the brogue has fallen from the majority dialect on the island into a "moribund status," according to Walt Wolfram and Natalie Schilling-Estes, language researchers at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.

Two decades ago, they say, the Ocracoker who didn't pronounce the "i" in "high tide" as "hoi toide" was an oddity. Now, the youngster who does is an exception. In a generation or two, who knows?

Ocracokers' speech certainly sounds different from the southern accent of rural eastern North Carolina. When a television station in Raleigh, about 200 miles inland, broadcast interviews with several Ocracokers, it included subtitles.

To many ears, the brogue sounds strikingly like British English. Even the British think so.

Peter Trudgill, a British researcher, made recordings of the Ocracoke brogue and played them to students in Britain as part of an experiment involving the identification of English accents from around the world.

A high proportion of the students identified the brogue as British; none pinpointed it as American.

Linguists say the pronunciation of the "i" as "oy" is similar -- though not identical -- to that of the colonists who established the first permanent English colony at Jamestown in 1607.

Ocracoke's early white settlers came about 1715 from England and Ireland, many of them through Jamestown. They were boat pilots who guided commercial ships through the inlets to the mainland; the sliver of sand was called Pilot Town.

For generations, the island remained isolated, separated from the mainland by 20 miles of water. So the brogue remained nearly free of outside influences.

It's not that it stayed frozen in the Elizabethan era. The dialect just evolved differently and more slowly than language spoken on the mainland. It changes in the way that waves lapping upon themselves affect the tides and reshape the shoreline.

But in the past three decades, the brogue's decline has been marked. That concerns longtime residents who pride themselves on their speech almost as much as on their ancestral ties to the island.

Candy Gaskill runs a small general store opened in the 1920s by her great-grandfather, Albert Styron, who vanished at sea while fishing. The little store reflects the island's changing personality. The back room is stocked with commercial fishing tackle; the front shelves hold an assortment of fine wines and premium beers to cater to tourists.

Gaskill, 30, says she has heard a noticeable change in islanders' speech in her lifetime. Speakers of her grandparents' generation, she says, had much heavier accents than today's youngsters.

She laments the disappearance of the brogue as one of the inevitable changes affecting the island: "You hate to see something that your grandfather and his father done die. It's almost like a part of yourself is dying."

Larry Williams, another native Ocracoker, says outside influences have had a flattening effect on the accent. A retired English professor, Williams says the lilting accents of the older islanders sounded English or Scottish, but the younger speakers sound more Australian.

"Even from my grandmother's day to my day, you can hardly tell it's the same dialect at all," he says.

When people in a restaurant or bar remark on his accent, they usually ask if he is from Australia. "I used to say, 'With every drink, it got a little thicker.' "

People sometimes assume that television is mainly responsible for homogenizing distinctly inflected regional drawls, twangs and creoles into a bland, midwestern patter. But the linguists say that studies have repeatedly shown that TV and other mass media have very little effect on speech patterns.

XTC People's speech is most influenced by those with whom they come into daily, face-to-face contact. Many Ocracokers increasingly have daily contact with tourists.

Since the 1960s, the island, with its picturesque harbor and colorful (if brief) history as a hide-out for the pirate Blackbeard, has drawn more and more tourists. During summer months, the island's population jumps to 5,000 from 750.

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