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Special to the Observer
By Frankie Pennington, Katie Conner, and Katie O’Neal
One of the first things that sociolinguistics students at N.C. State University learn about is the legacy of engagement, outreach and community that Walt Wolfram and his students began on Ocracoke in 1992.
Having the opportunity to be involved in the annual alternative spring break trip teaching the
“Voices of North Carolina” curriculum developed by Jeff Reaser and Walt is something that we all look forward to the entire year. Although not all of us may end up being teachers, this trip is an invaluable opportunity to engage with a gracious, welcoming community and classes of extremely bright students who are just as excited about us being there as we are.
The Ocracoke brogue has been of interest to linguists and researchers for decades now for its interesting vowels, unique vocabulary items and grammatical features. It is also critical to study it as an “endangered dialect” that is rapidly eroding. Even though we were all excited about the prospect of hearing the brogue in person after hearing it in video clips and documentaries in the university classroom, we knew that there was something bigger and much more meaningful to be experienced.
Katie O’Neal, a native O’cocker (O’cocker is the island moniker for natives) and majoring in education at North Carolina State, is the first student from the island to participate as an instructor.
“When Walt first called me into his office, I was not expecting his offer to teach with him and the graduate students over spring break,” she said. “I had little knowledge of linguistics, but I had an advantage–returning to my former classroom and teaching the material that I had been taught before. I was honored when Walt asked me to teach and I wasn’t going to turn down an opportunity to educate the Ocracoke youth about the importance of the Ocracoke Brogue.
“At first it was a little strange teaching in my old middle school classroom at Ocracoke School. I knew all of the students and they were engaged and excited to learn about North Carolina dialects (and quite possibly to take a hiatus from regular schoolwork). The eighth-graders, including me, all laughed when we heard the familiar recorded voices of Rex O’Neal, James Barrie Gaskill, Candy Gaskill and Chester Lynn.”
In addition to the Ocracoke brogue, Katie taught Southern vowel pronunciation, Cherokee syllabary invented by Sequoyah in the early 19th Century, Lumbee vocabulary (another Native American dialect in North Carolina), language change in urban North Carolina and Spanish and Hispanic English in North Carolina.
“It was so interesting seeing the brogue from a different perspective and realizing its importance more than I ever had before,” Katie said. “It also made me so appreciative of everything that Walt Wolfram and Jeffrey Reaser, along with their students, do for the island. I hope this program will continue on for another 25 years and get local kids more interested in their heritage’” she said.
One of the traditions of the week is the “Brogue Banquet,” attended by students, instructors, and
some of the local O’cockers to celebrate the dialect. Delivering a toast in Gaffer’s, Walt reflected on his time in Ocracoke since the first trip he made.
“What a great community to do research with… Thank you so-so much for all you’ve given us, you’ve made us famous, we’ve made you famous, and it’s been the greatest fun ever,” he said.
Others chimed in with their thanks, appreciation for the work and time shared together over the years the program has existed.
Twenty-five years is a long time… new roads are paved, houses are built, new families are settled, and friends come and go. But it is also long enough to have seen an O’cocker come home and teach the language diversity curriculum that she first learned years before.
The quarter of a century has seen many North Carolina State students make the journey from Raleigh and bear witness to the important relationship among Walt and Jeff, the students who have come each year and the residents of Ocracoke. It’s a long time, but a great tribute to the preservation of an integral part of the community and its incredible language tradition. Here’s to the next 25!
Pennington, Conner and O’Neal are students at North Carolina State University, Raleigh.