Ocracoke School

An alternative spring break: learning the Ocracoke brogue

Jeff Reaser, a professor at NC State, leads Ocracoke eighth-grade students in a game of ‘Dialect Jeopardy’ that he designed. Photo courtesy of Walt Wolfram

Jeff Reaser, a professor at NC State, leads Ocracoke eighth-grade students in a game of ‘Dialect Jeopardy’ that
he designed. Photo courtesy of Walt Wolfram

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.

NC Stat grad sstudents, left to right: Karissa Wojcik, Jessica Hatcher, Regan Hale, Brooke Wallig, Eric Wilbanks. Photo by P. Vankevich

NC Stat grad students, left to right: Karissa Wojcik, Jessica Hatcher, Regan Hale, Brooke Wallig, Eric Wilbanks

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.

Karissa Wojcik

Karissa Wojcik. Photo by P. Vankevich

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.

Categories: Ocracoke School