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 NEWS

For immediate use

April 18, 1997 -- No. 270

Unusual brogue of Ocracoke, N.C. islanders threatened with extinction

By DAVID WILLIAMSON
UNC-CH News Services

CHAPEL HILL -- The unique dialect of “O'cockers” -- what people native to the North Carolina barrier island Ocracoke call themselves -- may disappear within a few decades, thanks to the unholy influence of ferries, roads, “dingbatters” -- people who live elsewhere -- and electronic media.

That's what two North Carolina linguists have discovered after studying the island brogue. In warm weather, dingbatters invade the once-isolated island -- near where Lt. Robert Maynard lopped off the pirate Blackbeard's head in 1718 -- in large numbers, bringing tourist dollars and more conventional American English. The electronic invasion, which has less impact, is nearly constant.

University of North Carolina Press in Chapel Hill has just published their new book on island speech -- “Hoi Toide and the Outer Banks.” Authors are Drs. Walt Wolfram, William C. Friday distinguished professor of English, and Natalie Schilling-Estes, coordinator of the N.C. Language and Life Project, both at N.C. State University.

“Legislative action now protects a wide range of animals and plants on the brink of extinction, thanks to the combined efforts of concerned scientists and citizens,” the authors write. “At the same time, the dramatic decline of the world's languages goes largely unnoticed, except by the affected speakers and a small group of linguists and anthropologists.”

Worldwide, people speak an estimated 6,000 tongues, most of which are rapidly headed toward extinction, they say. At the current rate of language loss, between 50 percent and 90 percent of these languages will die out within the next century. In California alone, about 25 distinct languages -- not merely dialects of the same one -- have lost their last speaker in the past century.

Wolfram and Schilling-Estes began the most detailed study ever undertaken of Ocracoke speech in 1992, building on the work of retired UNC-CH linguist Robert Howren, former UNC-CH honors student Wynne C. Dough and others. By comparing elderly, middle-aged and young islanders, they found elements of both Southern English, which N.C. residents speak on the mainland, and Northern speech overwhelming native sounds and replacing words.

“We have found a drastic decline in some of the traditional features of the dialect,” said Schilling-Estes, who earned her Ph.D. at UNC-CH in 1996 and is a visiting scholar at Duke. “The `oy' sound for `i' is disappearing, along with other distinct vowel sounds and words such as `pizer,' meaning `porch' and `meehonky' for the game hide-and-seek.”

Words such as “mommuck” for “harass” and “quamished” for “nauseated” appear to be hanging on, she said. The brogue, which did not originate with pirates or Shakespeare as some claim, has survived chiefly because of the island's former isolation. Most Ocracokers descend from southern English and Irish immigrants.

Schilling-Estes said she and Wolfram were not surprised to find the dialect disappearing, but they were almost startled at how cooperative Ocracokers were during their many visits, countless questions and audio taping.

“We weren't expecting the people there to be so remarkably warm and open and so willing to help us learn about their dialect and their island,” she said. “Because we believe in giving back to the communities we work in, we have helped by teaching eighth graders about the dialect, having T-shirts made that have Ocracoke words on them and establishing a museum exhibit on language that's very popular down there.”

Why should anyone care whether languages and dialects disappear? Wouldn't communication be more efficient if everyone spoke a common language?

“A window of scientific opportunity closes when a language dies,” the authors write. “The more languages there are, the more information we have about how language in general works, just as we learn more about the general nature of life from biological diversity.

“But there's more. When a language dies, an essential and unique part of a human culture dies with it. To imagine the personal impact, consider what it would be like to be the last speaker of a language with no one to talk to in your native tongue -- the language of your childhood experience and your most fundamental emotional, artistic and spiritual expression.”

Likewise, whenever a dialect disappears, not only do linguists lose a unique tool for scientific study of major languages, but also a distinct, colorful and often fascinating portion of a culture disappears, the two say.

“Saying that dialect loss is not as important as language loss is like saying that we should be vitally concerned with the preservation of dogs, but not worried about particular breeds of dogs.”

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Note: Wolfram and Schilling-Estes can be reached at (919) 515-4151. To order a free review copy of their book, fax a request to Lisa M. Dellwo, director of publicity at UNC Press, (919) 966-3829.

Contact: David Williamson