A Way With Words

April 07, 1999 15 min read
Much debate has centered on how schools should teach students who speak a foreign language. But what’s almost never debated, and is little understood, is dialect.

This is a place known as much as for what it doesn’t have as for what it does. The 14-mile-long barrier island on North Carolina’s Outer Banks has no traffic light in town. No movie theater. No McDonald’s. No putt-putt golf. No shopping mall. And no home mail delivery.

Instead, it has lonely wind-swept beaches, pelicans, and character--in spades.

This place is also a virtual case study in how language develops and evolves. Accessible only by air or boat, Ocracoke Island’s relative isolation has helped forge a unique dialect that includes relics of the English used in Shakespeare’s day and speech patterns common throughout the rugged mountain communities of Appalachia. A fair number of the island’s roughly 750 year-round residents can trace their families to the British and Irish settlers who first called Ocracoke home in the early 1700s.

Largely lost in the Oakland resolution’s rhetoric was the district’s call for expanding existing programs to help black students master standard English.

Largely lost in the resolution’s rhetoric was the district’s call for expanding existing programs to help black students master standard English.

Linguists like Walt Wolfram of North Carolina State University in Raleigh point to the ebonics flap as proof of the need to educate teachers and schools about American dialects: The major ones number between 15 and 20, some experts say, and range from those spoken on the island communities off the East Coast to some newly developing ones in California.

Webster’s New World Dictionary defines dialect as “any form of speech considered as deviating from a real or imaginary standard speech” or “the form or variety of a spoken language peculiar to a region, community, social group, occupational group, etc.”

Some schools try to stamp out dialects; others simply ignore them. But with Wolfram’s help, the Ocracoke School is trying to help students understand the role dialects play in the English language, appreciate the island’s history and culture, and see the dialect’s place in that culture.

In its “dialect awareness” class, Ocracoke School advocates neither total acceptance of the vernacular in every circumstance nor a total ban on its use, but rather something in between: Like standard English, the Ocracoke brogue has a set of rules to follow and has its place in and out of school.

Vestiges of the local history and culture the Hyde County district school is trying to impart crop up across the island.

Ocracoke’s six-page portion of the 214-page Outer Banks telephone directory is dominated by the descendants of the island’s original British and Irish families, such as O’Neal, Garrish, and Howard.

On the back roads and in back yards, tucked into the shade of towering live oaks and cedars, seashell-adorned grave markers in small family cemeteries serve as tangible reminders of the generations that date to the island’s first settlement in 1715.

The Ocracoke School is trying to help students understand the role dialects play in the English language, appreciate the island’s history and culture, and see the dialect’s place in that culture.

Early on, British sea captains recognized the Ocracoke Inlet as a strategic passage through the hazardous chain of barrier islands. Large boats couldn’t pass through without help, so ship pilots, mostly from England, were stationed on Ocracoke to guide the way. Not all of the families settling in the village--first called Pilot Town--came directly from Europe; many had lived for a time in Virginia or elsewhere in North Carolina.

Linguists link some of the Ocracoke brogue’s pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammatical patterns to forms of Early Modern English, the language as spoken and written from about the mid-15th century to the mid-18th century. That time period spans the Elizabethan era and the early exploration of the New World, including Ocracoke’s first settlement.

Words still used on the island, like “mommuck,” surface in Shakespeare’s writings, though the term carries a different meaning today than when Shakespeare wrote in his tragedy “Coriolanus": “Hee did so set his teeth, and teare it. Oh, I warrant how he mammockt it.” Today mommuck means to bother or harass, not literally to shred to pieces.

The dialect demonstrates ties to a number of Early Modern English dialects--including those from Ireland and eastern and southwestern England--and shares many traits with Appalachian dialects, thanks in part to a common Scots-Irish ancestry.

Though Ocracoke remains relatively set apart, linguists are quick to point out that the island’s dialect has not been frozen in time since the 1700s.

In addition, Ocracoke’s isolation has waxed and waned with the economic--and geological--times. In the mid-1800s, shifting sand blocked the Ocracoke Inlet, knocking the wind out of a bustling shipping industry that thrived in the 1700s.

During most of the Civil War, Union troops occupied the Outer Banks, and Ocracoke strengthened its ties with the North--one theory for why some pronunciation here sounds more Northern than Southern. After the Civil War, improved land transportation and inland canals further decreased Ocracoke’s importance, and the island became more closed off than ever.

While many early Ocracoke residents made a living in ship-related trades, it wasn’t until the 1930s that the fishing industry took hold here. The Great Depression sent many Ocracoke families North in search of work; those who eventually returned brought yet another influence to the brogue. began to shift for the better.

Though tourists have always been drawn to Ocracoke, the postwar years were a turning point. In the 1950s, most of the island was designated national parkland as part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, and a paved road into the village and regular ferry service made Ocracoke more accessible from the mainland and the other islands that make up the Outer Banks.

Today, tourism is king. Most island jobs are service-related. And in the off-season, some year-round residents rely on unemployment checks because jobs simply dry up.

“Tourism is what’s making the brogue die, but it helps us live,” says Rex O’Neal, who works as a commercial fisherman and carpenter, mostly building rental cottages for tourists.

In some ways, Ocracoke still feels very much like a place from the past.

Oyster-shell fragments crunch underfoot on a sandy lane the island’s only school shares with a picture-perfect white-clapboard church. A dolphin weathervane sits atop the school, which has no cafeteria; most students walk or bike home for lunch. As the transportation of choice, bicycles lie strewn in front of the school, unlocked.

“It’s like Florida in the 1950s,” says Sandra Winker, a Sunshine State native who moved to Ocracoke seven years ago and teaches math to grades 7-12. “And it amazes me that there’s still a place like this.”

Technology has thrown wide open the door to the outside, enabling students here to take classes from high schools and universities across North Carolina and beyond.

But once inside, it’s clear the 75-student school isn’t living in the past. Depending on the day’s attendance, computers may outnumber students. In the past decade, technology has thrown wide open the door to the outside, enabling students here to take classes from high schools and universities across North Carolina and beyond. MTV and the Internet abound in students’ homes.

Principal Larry Thompson, who came to Ocracoke in 1992 from a mainland North Carolina high school, says Ocracoke School’s mission is clear: to prepare students for life on or off the island. Without question, that means students must master standard English. But, he says, the Ocracoke brogue is an important part of the island’s heritage.

“You’ve got to know who you are and where you came from to know where you’re going,” Thompson says. “And the brogue is part of that.”

But the dialect’s decline among younger generations is clear in Gail Hamilton’s 8th grade social studies class, where Wolfram comes each year to teach a weeklong class on dialects and the Ocracoke brogue.

As Hamilton’s four students watch a video on the dialect, they point out community elders--who grew up speaking the brogue--who have since passed away. Two of the students were born and raised on the island; the other two have lived on the island from childhood but are transplanted mainlanders. Even compared with six years ago, when both Hamilton and Wolfram first started at Ocracoke School, the 7th and 8th grade teacher says she’s seen a drop in the number of students who have deep roots on Ocracoke and use the brogue.

Island native Mathew Parsons, 15, lives with his grandmother, who runs a gift shop, and his grandfather, who works in construction. Mathew says he leaves the island once every two months or so to help his grandmother load up on supplies from Food Lion and Wal-Mart.

While he still uses some features of the brogue, Mathew says, “I’ve backed off it some.” Tourists, he adds, have poked fun at the way he talks. In class, he can barely recognize his own thick brogue from Wolfram’s video, produced just a few years ago.

The 46-page curriculum Wolfram designed for the school is full of local history, discussion points on popular conceptions and misconceptions about dialect, and grammar and vocabulary exercises that point out the ways in which the Ocracoke dialect differs from standard English.

“When we study dialect issues, we’re not saying it’s the language you should use in school,” Wolfram explains to the class. “We’re saying dialects have a pattern, a history, and standards. If Ocracoke ruled the world, then Ocracoke English would be standard English. But that’s not the case, right?”

When the discussion turns to assumptions people make about those with a strong dialect, 14-year-old Chrisi Gaskill pipes up.

“The same way some people judge you on looks, they do it with language, too,” says Chrisi, who moved to Ocracoke at age 5 when her mother married into an established island family. “People think different is weird or bad. Or that you’re not as intelligent.”

North Carolina is a linguist’s dream, with a rich range of dialects from the mountainous region of Appalachia to the coastal plain to the Outer Banks islands. Wolfram, the founder of the North Carolina Language and Life Project at N.C. State, is negotiating with textbook publishers to include dialect-awareness study, like the program he runs in Ocracoke, in 4th grade social studies texts used statewide. Wolfram hopes the idea eventually takes hold in other states.

Hamilton says the week Wolfram spends with her class has made a real impression on both her and her students.

“I really learned for the first time that there were specific patterns and rules; it wasn’t just incorrect language or slang,” says the 53-year-old teacher, who grew up in Richmond, Va., but returned to the island her family has called home since 1759 to care for aging relatives. She recalls a transformation of sorts in the original group Wolfram worked with six years ago. “Many kids were truly ashamed of their speech,” she says. “For the first time, there was pride in the heritage of their language. They really opened up.”

Dialect study is not just a warm-and-fuzzy self-esteem exercise, Wolfram emphasizes. Plotting out rules of a particular dialect helps teachers better comprehend students’ speech and writing, and helps students understand why they’re being corrected. And dialect can influence students’ reading and writing, though in more subtle ways than with speakers of foreign languages.

“The community here is small, but the issues are big,” Wolfram says.

Many Ocracoke teachers, especially in the lower grades, say the dialect can crop up in students’ speech--among those who still use the brogue--and, more rarely, in their writing. When that happens in written work, teachers correct it. When it comes up orally in formal classroom activities, Hamilton says, she handles it by pausing, a signal students know means they need to “self edit.” The dialect class, she says, has helped them realize when they need to switch from dialect to standard English--which is one of the aims.

“Pinpointing language differences makes kids more aware of language and how they’re using it,” Wolfram says.

And once teachers recognize a dialect’s structure, he says, they may be less likely to size up students’ academic potential based on the way they talk. Just a handful of the school’s 15 teachers are from the island; the rest hail from mainland North Carolina or places like New York, Michigan, and Florida.

Winker says that when she first moved to Ocracoke seven years ago from Florida, the dialect made a strong impression.

“On my way here, I went into a 7-Eleven on [nearby] Cedar Island, and I thought, my goodness, if my kids talk like this I won’t understand them at all,” the 52-year-old says.

Though Winker now recognizes many of the dialect’s patterns, she says she still corrects her students when they use the brogue in class.

“I know it’s part of the dialect. But I also know when they go away, some people think they sound like bumpkins,” Winker says. “As far advanced as people have come, the dialect gives the sense that you’re not as smart. And I don’t want my kids to be put down for that or have their opportunities limited because of it. You can’t assume they’ll stay here forever.”

As it is, teachers here say, many students find it hard to leave the shelter of such a small community. This year, four of the school’s seven graduating seniors plan to go away to college. More often than not, teachers say, students wind up dropping out and coming home.

“It’s a real culture shock,” Hamilton says, standing on the front steps of her mother’s home. She gazes toward the sprawling white house her grandfather built in 1896, shaded by trees covered in Spanish moss. “But I want them to have the best of both worlds.”

Although Hamilton’s class demon-strates in microcosm the shifts the island is undergoing, it’s clear that her students and some in the community want to preserve pieces of the past.

“Ocracoke is special and isolated,” 8th grader Chrisi Gaskill explains. “I think the language should be like that, too.”

In an old house affording views onto Silver Lake Harbor and the Pamlico Sound, the Ocracoke Preservation Society Museum features an exhibit on the brogue and sells “Save the Brogue” T-shirts. Museum director Ross Gersten is a tourist-turned-resident, one of the mainland transplants lured by the island’s quiet pace and clear night skies. An astronomy aficionado, Gersten says Ocracoke is the only place where he’s seen Jupiter’s reflection on the surface of the ocean.

The 45-year-old says he’s acutely aware that while tourism brings needed income to the island, if it grows unchecked it could further erode the very traditional aspects of island life that attract visitors in the first place.

“In some ways, I expected to hear more of the brogue when I got here,” he says. “But I wasn’t the first tourist to think of living here, obviously.”

To Alton Ballance, a high school English teacher and local historian, the loss of the brogue is “as inevitable as the island being paved and ferried.”

“It’s important to recognize the dialect, but not make it so it becomes just another tourist attraction,” says Ballance, 42, who can trace his ancestors back to some of the island’s first settlers.

Rex O’Neal would like to see the brogue live on, but he realizes the hurdles are steep. And the changes from his generation to his children’s have been swift.

“As kids, we weren’t able to get off the island much, and now, my kids can,” says O’Neal, 45.

Chester Lynn, 41, says he’s proud of the brogue. He says he’s even been mistaken for an Australian or Englishman. But he recalls being constantly corrected at school and feeling looked down on by some teachers.

“They’d say, ‘That’s not proper English.’ And all I knew is that everyone I knew talked this way, and here they were trying to take it away somehow,” says Lynn, who owns a landscaping business. “I don’t have no idea that they even understood the word ‘dialect.’ And neither did I. It was just the way we all talked.”

While the brogue is dying out among younger generations, it’s still going strong in the voices of residents like 83-year-old Essie O’Neal, who raised 11 boys here, including Rex. From her rocker, she regales visitors with childhood tales of hurricanes and crabbing. Small-scale farm plots now eaten up by rental cottages with names like “Sea Mist.” And being chased up a tree by one of the island’s formerly wild ponies. “Bought me own clothes,” she says with pride, noting that she had to start work young to help support her 10 siblings.

With the onslaught of summer tourists still months away, the ingredients of small-town life loom large.

A plaque commemorating the recent death of Ollie, a popular tabby cat, hangs outside the Community Store, whose blackboard announces birthdays and other local happenings. On the community bulletin board at the post office, next to a flier hawking a $6.50 church spaghetti dinner, a posting announces Catholic Mass--to be held in the Methodist Church recreation hall. Ocracoke is just now getting formal street names; they weren’t needed until now because everyone knew where everyone else lived.

Even for those who leave Ocracoke, the island seems to lure many back. Like Ivey Belch, 23, who earned a degree in computer technology and is back running a computer business. Or David Esham, 57, who grew up here but left for many years to join the military, go to college, earn an M.B.A., and work as an accountant in Raleigh. He returned in 1973, as did his brogue, bought the Pony Island Motel, and hasn’t looked back.

While 8th grader Angel Zito doesn’t use the brogue herself, she says she finds herself listening more intently to older generations--like her great-grandmother Essie O’Neal--after taking Wolfram’s class. She wants to go to college and study art. But the 15-year-old says she’d come back to the island eventually, even if only for summers. She likes knowing every shortcut and path on the island. And heading to her favorite spot to sketch, or just think, at the southern end of the island. There, on Springer’s Point, she watches glowworms flash green light in the marshy ponds.

“I’ll always come back,” she says with a faint smile. “This place is just in my blood.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 07, 1999 edition of Education Week as A Way With Words

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