By Karissa Wojcik
As I prepared for my first trip to Ocracoke in early March, everyone had suggestions of things to do and places to see–the usual tourist locations. I smiled and thanked them, but I knew that wasn’t Ocracoke I would see. I would see what summer visitors don’t–an off-season Ocracoke an indigenous community. Not only did I go to the Ocracoke Preservation Society (OPS) Museum and see the O’Neal family tree, but I actually met and taught some of the members of that family.
I also talked to Rex O’Neal about shedding crabs and did puzzles with his wife Miggy O’Neal and the grandkids. I attended an OPS meeting and interacted with members of the community who still used the traditional dialect such as Chester Lyn, James Barrie Gaskill, Candy Gaskill, Roger Garrish and Rena Dell Garrish. It was a trip that I won’t forget and a community that of which I hope to always be a part.
Since my first week of graduate school, I also looked forward meeting community members and to teaching eighth-graders in the Ocracoke School about language diversity in North Carolina in general and Ocracoke in particular. I had heard wonderful stories about the people of Ocracoke and the amazing experiences previous students had in Ocracoke. Finally, it was my turn.
For the last 23 years, my professor, Walt Wolfram, has visited Ocracoke to research, teach, and learn from the community. He reassured me that the students would be excited.
And they were. Every day, the students were prepared to learn and eager to participate.
We talked about the history and settlement of North Carolina. We talked about Cherokee, Appalachian English, Spanish, the Ocracoke Brogue and African-American English.
I was amazed how quickly the students understood dialect patterns that seemed quite technical—like dropping the r in the pronunciation of “fah” for far, a-prefixing, as in “They were a-fishin’ in the sound,” and the habitual “be,” as in “They always be playing.”
They quickly caught on that all dialects are patterned and have rules. They also learned that everyone speaks a dialect and that this is something to be celebrated, not be ashamed of.
People have biases about language and what is “right” or “wrong,” but now, after teaching in Ocracoke, we hope they will be less biased about language.
The next time you run into students from the Ocracoke School in the eighth-grade or older, ask them about dialects. I’m sure they will have a thing or two to tell you.
And for a dollar, they may even tell you what an isogloss is–a line drawn between one dialect area and another.
The tradition of giving a dollar to any student from the past who can define this term is part of remembering and celebrating the unique legacy of the Ocracoke brogue, one of the most distinctive dialect traditions ever developed in the United States.
Editor’s note: Walt Wolfram is a professor of linguistics at NC State University. His work and recordings of the Ocracoke brogue can be experienced at the Ocracoke Preservation Society museum, 49 Water Plant Rd. Karissa Wojcik is one one of his students.