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Frances Stead Sellers, "Amid flooding and rising sea levels, residents of one barrier island wonder if it’s time to retreat", WaPo 11/9/2019:

On any normal late-fall day, the ferries that ply the 30 miles between Swan Quarter and this barrier island might carry vacationing retirees, sports fishermen and residents enjoying mainland getaways after the busy summer tourist season.

But two months ago, Hurricane Dorian washed away all signs of normalcy here. After buzz-cutting the Bahamas, the giant storm rolled overhead, raising a seven-foot wall of water in its wake that sloshed back through the harbor, invading century-old homes that have never before taken in water and sending islanders such as post office head Celeste Brooks and her two grandchildren scrambling into their attics.

Ocracoke has been closed to visitors ever since. Island-bound ferries carry yawning container trucks to haul back the sodden detritus of destroyed homes. And O’cockers — proud descendants of the pilots and pirates who navigated these treacherous shores — are faced with a reckoning: whether this sliver of sand, crouched three feet above sea level between the Atlantic Ocean and Pamlico Sound, can survive the threats of extreme weather and rising sea levels. And if it can’t, why rebuild?

Most linguists know Ocracoke from the history of research on the variety of English spoken there — documented in Robert Howren, "The Speech of Ocracoke, North Carolina", American Speech 1962, and especially the 2000 book by Walt Wolfram and Natalie Schilling-Estes, Hoi toide on the outer banks: The story of the Ocracoke brogue. Works like that one make me hope for the day that books, or anyhow e-books, will have embedded audio and video.

Relevant audio and video are available on YouTube, e.g. here:

See also Walt Wolfram and Natalie Schilling-Estes, "Moribund dialects and the endangerment canon: The case of the Ocracoke brogue" Language 1995.


  1. Walt Wolfram said,

    November 10, 2019 @ 10:44 am

    We have more than 130 recorded sociolinguistic interviews footage on the language of Ocracoke on the Sociolinguistic Analysis and Archive Project website (https://slaap.chass.ncsu.edu/), as well as video on our YouTube channel (https://www.youtube.com/user/NCLLP). And Natalie Schilling, Jeff Reaser, and I will be doing a new edition of "Hoi Toid on the Sound Soid that will include many QRs where readers can access video and audio passages. The format we introduced in Talkin' Tar Heel: How our "Voices Tell the Story of North Carolina," with more than 130 QRs, has proven highly effective, and should become a regular feature of books about language variation. We have also argued for the recognition of Ocracoke as an endangered dialect, but generally been dismissed by those who control the language endangerment canon. That seems shameful and exclusive to me.

  2. Ralph Hickok said,

    November 10, 2019 @ 10:51 am

    I'm a bit doubtful about the idea that a dialect remains unchanged because its speakers are isolated. It seems to me that isolation would mean that a dialect would change to diverge more from the accepted language, not that it would be immutable.

  3. Lewis said,

    November 10, 2019 @ 11:08 am

    I'm sure that you and some of your subscribers are aware of the brogues of Tangier Island and Smith Island in the Chesapeake Bay? The accent sounds very similar to me.

  4. jin defang said,

    November 10, 2019 @ 3:05 pm

    It would be interesting to know what the ethnicity of the original settlers of the area was; sounds a bit regional English/Irish, but not sure which region. Dingbat is a common American expression not confined to Ocracoke; Archie Bunker regularly referred to his wife Edith as that on the TV show All in the Family. Perhaps it's due to poor sound quality on the tape, but a characteristic of several of the people interviewed seems to be failure to articulate words clearly.

  5. Blythe Creamer said,

    November 11, 2019 @ 8:09 am

    I've traveled to both Ocracoke Island and Tangier Island, albeit only as a tourist, and Guinea of Gloucester County in Virginia is often compared to them, although none of them are strictly identical. Rick Aschmann's map of American English dialects indicates all of these areas as part of the Tidewater Rising area (Something sometimes expressed with the example "Out the house and round about" as all having similar vowels"), and newer locals (like myself) sometimes thing of the general region as the place of the "Old Tidewater dialect", and people sometimes want to think that it reflects varieties of English with elements dating back to Colonial times, although how much of that is actually true is unknown to me.

  6. David L said,

    November 11, 2019 @ 11:12 am

    The vowels, cadence and running together of words (what jin defang calls a lack of articulation) remind me in a general way of southwestern English dialects — Somerset and Dorset in particular — but whether that's anything more than coincidence I have no idea. Are there are historical records or family stories that trace of the origin of the people who settled this area, I wonder?

  7. Lane Greene said,

    November 13, 2019 @ 10:10 am

    For unrelated reasons I was listening to a bit of Ben and David Crystal's original Shakespeare pronunciation readings. This is the American dialect that I've heard that seems to come closest, and validate those "somewhere in X they still talk like Shakespeare" rumors. Not identical at all; just the burr-like r and some of the centralized vowels, I think.

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