You sure do talk funny.
Has anybody ever told you that?
If you grew up in North Carolina and moved somewhere else for a while, you surely got that kind of question from folks who just had to laugh when they heard you talk.
Or if you grew up somewhere else and moved here, folks may have told you that they know you are not from around here. They may have even said, “You talk like a Yankee.”
Is there something special about the way we talk here in North Carolina?
The best person to answer is Walt Wolfram, who has studied the speech patterns in our state since 1992 when he became the first William C. Friday Distinguished University Professor of English Linguistics at N. C. State. He and his colleague, Jeffrey Reaser, take on the task of responding to that question in their new book, “Talkin’ Tar Heel: How Our Voices Tell the Story of North Carolina.”
Their answer is, yes. There is something special about North Carolina speech, something more than the southern accents that we share with others in the South. In fact, according to Wolfram and Reaser, there are discernible and distinct speech patterns in almost every North Carolina region and locality, even the large cities where the mingling of voices from all over the state and nation has wiped away much of the earlier local ways of talking.
Wolfram and Reaser take their readers across the state to examine our various linguistic heritages. Probably the most often mentioned North Carolina dialect is the Outer Banks Brogue. We learn from them that the idea that Outer Bankers are speaking Elizabethan or Shakespearean English is a myth. Sometimes their way of talking is called “Hoi Toider speech” because that is the way Bankers say “high tide.”
The Outer Banks were originally populated mostly by migration from coastal Virginia. Because the Banks were isolated, those old Virginia coastal speech patterns survived, while the coastal Virginians, with closer contacts to the outside world, lost more. But, if you ask me, those Virginians still talk funny.
There is also a notion that old North Carolina mountain people also speak a brand of “Old English.” The authors write that this idea “is not linguistically accurate, and most linguists dismiss it as a romantic myth. But there is a kernel of truth to the idea.”
Some features of “Old English” have been preserved, thanks to isolation in the mountains. But isolated, mountain people’s speech changed over time, showing “the vibrancy of a culture that has managed to look both forward and backward.”
“Talkin’ Tar Heel” also carefully examines African American speech showing surprising differences among blacks living in different parts of North Carolina and surprising similarities between whites and blacks who live in the same areas.
Wolfram and Reaser examine the distinctive speech of Lumbee Indians, even though they long ago lost the native languages of their ancestors. They also demolish another myth, one that asserts that survivors of the Lost Colony joined the ancestors of the Lumbees and made their way to the lands along the Lumber River.
The authors give detailed attention to the influence of Spanish-speaking immigrants. They consider the continuing impact of Native American languages that have disappeared as well as that of the living and recently revived Cherokee language.
Wolfram and Reaser write, “We claim that there is more dialect variation in North Carolina than in any other state.”
They concede that some of our language patterns and some special ways of speaking are changing, even disappearing. But, they write, “Being powerless to stop linguistic change in no way impedes our ability to celebrate linguistic diversity.”
So, next time somebody says you talk funny, smile back, with pride.
— D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV.