Chapter 26: Lumbee English

[Narrator] Lumbee English may have been influenced by a number of different groups, beginning with the very first English-speaking colonist in the area. The earliest English colonist landed on the Outer Banks in the late 1500s. Scholars once speculated that the Lumbee were descendants of the lost colony; the group of English settlers who vanished from Roanoke Island around 1587.

[Walt Wolfram] There’s no doubt about it, there are a lot of similarities between Outer Banks English and Lumbee English. For example, the pronunciation of words like tide as toid you can hear among older people in Prospect and you can also hear on the Outer Banks. Also, words like mommuck and toten are found in both places, and then you hear grammatical constructions such as “I weren’t there” in the Outer Banks and also in Lumbee English. But it’s a stretch to say that this proves that there’s a connection between Lumbee English and Lost Colony English. What is probably more likely is the fact that there was an earlier English that because of isolation fueled the English that developed in the Outer Banks and Lumbee English as well.

[Narrator] While the English colonies gradually migrated inland, the movement of Scottish settlers up the Cape Fear River and into the Robeson County area was another likely influence on the development of Lumbee English. A third possible influence came from Scots-Irish settlers who migrated south down the Appalachian Mountain range and east into the Piedmont. From these diverse sources of English, the Lumbee carved out the unique dialect that today is strongly associated with Lumbee culture.

[Elderly Lumbee] And the farming. Big farms! Fifteen acres of tobacca. [Unintelligible]

[Hayes Alan Locklear] Language is very important. Um, as I talked to the reporter the other day, she said, “Well why is language so important? Why is there such- why does this need to be protected?” I said well that’s how we recognize who we are. You know, not only by looking at someone. We notice who we are by our language. You recognize someone is from Spain because they speak Spanish or from France because they speak French. I said, and that’s how we recognize Lumbees if we’re anywhere in the country and hear ourselves speak, we know exactly who we are.

[Karl Hunt] It’s like an immediate identification mechanism. Can I talk to this person, can I trust this person, do we share common experiences, do we have a common bond?

[Hubbard Lowery] Even if it’s somebody been away for years, there’s something that lingers about their language that if he talks long enough you’ll pick it up.

[Narrator] Lumbee English distinguishes itself through vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar. One of the most obvious features of Lumbee English is vocabulary.

[Hayes Alan Locklear] And a cup of ellick is actually su- coffee with sugar in it. You know, so it’s like a sweet cup of coffee, a cup of ellick.

[Georgia Locklear] Rod bring me a cup a that ellick in here, I need, I want some ellick.

[Hubbard Lowery] Juvember. Ok that’s uh, some folks call ‘em a slingshot, but it’s just uh, what we would take a fork-ed branch, uh, cut it off, put rubber bands on it, tongue of the shoe, and make uh, put a rock in it, why that’s a juvember. That’s all I ever heard until I got grown and found out they call em slingshots or something else you know. But that ju- that’s what a juvember is.

[Karl Hunt] Well, to mean when you mommuck something, and you like um, you just treat it bad, you like just mess over it. You know, you, you make a mess of it.

[Georgia Locklear] You mommucking up them clothes, you better get all that dirt out of em, and not mommuck em up.

[Hayes Alan Locklear] Toten is um, like a- an omen of something bad that’s going to happen or a sign of death. You can see a toten or you can hear a toten.

[Narrator] Many Lumbee terms are largely unknown outside of Robeson County.

[Non-Lumbee Male #1] Toten? Yes, to carry.

[Non-Lumbee Male #2] Juvember? Yeah, yeah Juvember.

[Male interviewer] What’s that?

[Non-Lumbee Male #2] Yeah that’s that’s when you have cold snap in July.

[Male interviewer] That’s Juvember?

[Non-Lumbee Female] Ellick? Name of a person? (laughs) That’s what it sounds like to me.

[Non-Lumbee Male #3] Mommuck? Not familiar with that one.

[Non-Lumbee Male #1] Mommucking? Um, trying to act like they mama?

[Karl Hunt] Now people round here, you know non-Indians around here, you know they’re used to it, they’re part of- their ancestors are part of the reason our ancestors talk the way we do. But you get anywhere away from this immediate area, people- some- they- they know it’s different, they know it’s something they never heard before, and they- a lot of times they’re fascinated by it cause it’s, you know, it’s something different.

[Lumbee Male] [Unintelligible] (laughs) Chicken n rice n rice n chicken. (laughs).

[Female voice] Set’cha downside and you’re a good wife here. I want to tryin’ to look after fixin’ em a meal and I do one for em.

[Hubbard Lowery] In high school, we took grammar, you know of course everyone takes grammar. And English. And- and- and a lot of the words we use, we were discouraged from using em. Because it wasn’t proper English according to- to the grammar. We’d always heard, um, teachers that would come in outside the community would really downgrade the words that we would use it’s not proper and, you would be punished in certain cases.

[Chanting and drum playing]

[Narrator] Lumbee English often goes deeper than simple labels. Many words help to define a sense of community.

[Hubbard Lowery] A Lum, that’s- that’s just lingo, that’s just belonging. When you say you’re a Lum, that- that’s identity. And uh, I- we were up at Chapel Hill the other Sunday for uh Oleana’s graduation. And- and they referred to the alumni as “lums.” I said, “how bout that, we all Lums!” (Laughs.)

[Hayes Alan Locklear] Lum is a Lumbee. You know, we- we refer to ourselves as Lums.

[Karl Hunt] If you maintain your community ties, instead of if it’s just coming home at Christmas and for Mother’s Day and Lumbee homecoming and stuff like- it’s gotta be somethin’. You- some kinda way, I mean you know, this Heather Locklear thing, Heather Locklear ain’t no Lum, I don’t care what nobody says. I don’t care if her grand daddy, great grand daddy, or whatever it was came from here. She’s never lived as a Lum, she’s never been involved in this community. She’s never certainly had to experience the things that are just the- gonna be part of your life experience if you’re a Lum and you know you live in Robeson County. So it’s hard for me to see someone like that as a Lum, to me it’s got to be um, you just got to be a part of this community, even if it is from a distance. You know, so, I guess what I’m saying you gotta have the genetics and the culture.

[Narrator] An important part of the Lumbee accent is in the pronunciation, which is mostly Southern with a few distinct vowel differences, like the vowel in the word “side” or “ride.”

[Male voice – text on screen] I like to got bit though one time, the snake was right there on my hand, boy. It was a black snake. We was in a ‘baccer field croppin’ some ‘baccer, my uncle he- he kilt that black snake, put him in a box.

[Female voice – text on screen] Well when he got halfway to that little ditch on this soid…

[Narrator] Other language variations are found in Lumbee grammar, like the use of “bes” where other dialects use “am,” “is,” and “are.”

[Female voice – text on screen] You know how dogs smells down … that’s how that dog bes doin.

[Narrator] Another difference if the use of “I’m” where other dialects use “I have.”

[Female voice – text on screen] I’m forgot whether it was rainin’ there or no, but I was here by myself.

[Narrator] Lumbee speakers sometimes use “weren’t” where other English speakers use “wasn’t.”

[Female voice – text on screen] She just- that’s just the type of person she is. If I weren’t talking to him, I weren’t seeing him or anything, I had a boyfriend.

[Narrator] But Lumbee dialect is more than words and sounds. It is a combination of verbal and non-verbal presentation that makes it an extension and expression of Lumbee culture.

[Stanley Knick] I would say that the larger percentage of the time, you can tell a Lumbee by their speech. By certain words they use or pronunciations, or just the style and tone of the conversation.

[Karl Hunt] Ok, but you kinda, when you spot each other you kinda look “boy that looks like a Lum over there” and then when they say something, you know. You- you just know. There’s gonna be something. Even if it’s not the- the sound itself, it’s gonna be an expression.

[Hubbard Lowery] Now one of the most refreshing thing happened when I went to the- to uh, university, and I had an English teacher, and um, she said one of the first few sessions we had in class, she said that the English, or the- the words that you use, is used to communicate, and if it communicates with people, it’s just as right, just as proper in that context, as the proper English you would expect in Washington DC. But she said that the- the uh, the difference was knowing when to use what kind of English.

[Linda Oxendine] Since 1887, there’s been an attempt to standardize Lumbee English and they haven’t been successful. So there has to be something in terms of it being embedded in the culture, engrained in the culture, because you would think after 100 years of public education that something would have changed, when in fact it hasn’t.

[Instrumental music]

[Female on stage] Uncle Sam says we speak no native language. He says we do not live in a “traditional way.” Therefore, we cannot be Indian. I say for centuries, his ancestors made speaking our native language against the law, made practicing our traditions punishable by him. For this reason, many of our languages have died. Many of our own people know nothing of their culture and history. But the Indian blood runs thick and strong through our veins. We are Native Americans, Indian by birth.