By Peter Vankevich
NC State linguistics professor Walt Wolfram has a special fondness for the disappearing Ocracoke brogue.
That’s why, for the last 24 years, he, along with faculty and students of the North Carolina Language and Life Project (NCLLP) that he directs at NC State, have spent spring break teaching Ocracoke middle schoolers about the languages and dialects of North Carolina.
Of particular interest is the Ocracoke brogue, which, Wolfram said may be a thing of the past in about 50 years.
“The fact that it’s the only American dialect that is not identified as American is fascinating,” Wolfram said about the brogue. “It has some pronunciation, grammatical structures and vocabulary items that are not found anywhere else in North America, making it one of a unique and memorable variety.”
Gwen Austin, the middle school social studies teacher, said her students look forward to the visit by Wolfram and his colleague, associate professor Jeffrey Reaser.
“It’s almost a rite of passage that the kids look forward to in eighth grade,” Austin said. “I have students that are in college that come visit on spring break and ask me if they still come in and do the dialect class and they tell me how much fun it was.”
Many students have limited exposure to true local folks, and find everything the college professors teach very interesting.
“As an educator, it’s an added bonus for me because they are able to draw similarities to the NC mountain folks, connecting them to other communities that experienced isolation,” Austin explained. “The sad thing is that this unique island brogue is disappearing.
“In fact, many of my students never have heard the local brogue. The kids who are ‘half local,’ meaning they have one parent from the island the other not, tend to find pride in the fact that their parent carries such a ‘cool’ accent. This class makes them want to seek out people just to hear them talk.”
If they can’t find an islander who talks the brogue, they can always visit the OPS museum where a video of locals speaking the brogue runs continuously.
However, all can visit Annabelle’s Antiques on Back Road where they can chat with owner Chester Lynn who speaks the brogue as well as Mable Gaskins in Styron’s Store, Lighthouse Road. And they can buy Wolfram’s CD “Ocracoke Speaks: The Distinct Sounds of the ‘Hoi Toide,’” in which islanders talk all things Ocracoke in their patois.
A prolific and honored academic, Wolfram has published more than 20 books and more than 300 articles. Wolfram’s book “Hoi Toide on the Outer Banks” (1997 UNC Press), written with Natalie Schilling-Estes, is available for sale at Books to Be Red, The Village Craftsmen and the OPS museum.
Along with his students, Wolfram has conducted more than 2,500 sociolinguistic interviews with residents of North Carolina and beyond. Reaser, who created the audio CD, “Ocracoke Still Speaks: Reflections Past and Present,” gave the middle school students an overview of how people learn and use languages.
“This year I was especially happy to be able to teach the students a little about Cherokee, the last American Indian language spoken in North Carolina,” he said.
One of the graduate students, Amy Hemmeter, was impressed with the students’ enthusiasm for the subject.
“We as a culture treat this material as if it’s the type of stuff that only college students can understand,” she said, “but the Ocracoke students prove to us year after year that learning about dialect awareness is not only an attainable goal for kids, but a desirable one.”
Eva Yuqiu Liu, a graduate student from China, found herself in an American classroom for the first time.
“The students were very bright and cooperative, sincerely interested in language and dialect, and actively engaging in class discussions,” she said. “Teaching them was such a pleasant experience that I began to seriously consider becoming a middle/high school teacher.”
Another of the graduate students, Kelsey Campolong, enjoyed introducing the students to the dialect diversity of North Carolina.
“I am extremely grateful to everyone at the school who made it possible for us to spread our love of language, and to all of the O’cockers who met with us throughout the week,” she said. “The beauty of both Ocracoke and O’cockers will not soon be forgotten.”
A goal of Wolfram’s program, which inspired a state-wide curriculum endorsed by the state Department of Public Instruction, is to instill pride and celebrate language diversity–a long-term passion for Wolfram, who, along with William Labov pioneered the study of African-American dialects in the 1960s.
“Studying language on (Ocracoke) is one of the most important things I have done in a half century of linguistic research and engagement,” Wolfram noted. “While the brogue disappears, it will be interesting to see if any vestiges are retained. At least it is nice to celebrate it as it passes.”