Chapter 22: Ocracoke Brogue

[Narrator] Ocracoke, located on the North Carolina Outer Banks, is an unusual place because it is so isolated from the rest of North Carolina. It takes either a forty-five minute ferry ride from Cape Hatteras, or a two-and-a-half hour ride across the Pamlico Sound to get on or off the island. The language of Ocracoke has grown very distinct because of this isolation. In fact, isolation is one of the reasons the original inhabitants came to the island.

[Alton Ballance] And some of the early settlers, they perhaps came into Virginia first in the sixteen to seventeen hundreds, and uh a number of them were folks straight out of the debtors' prison. Now today that wouldn't mean a whole lot, you know, you'd have to lock ninety-five percent of the country up if you, you know, if you- if you- you wanted to get at all the people in debt, you know, with the credit card situation, but back then if you- if you owed ten pounds, and, you know, you were thrown into prison. So a lot of those folks were so disgusted with government that they wanted to get to, you know, a- as far away from civilization as they could get, or any form of government, so they left Jamestown, you know, they left Williamsburg, and- and trickled on down there to be out, you know, on their own.

[Narrator] As a result, the Ocracoke dialect, or Brogue, has many distinctive features that set it apart from other North Carolina dialects. These are pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammatical differences.

[Walt Wolfram] When people are isolated for one reason or another, either because of the mountains, or because of water, then they often will retain some features of older English.

[Narrator] An example of a grammatical difference is the use of the word weren't where other English speakers use wasn't.

[Young speaker] I heard some footsteps, and it weren't me, and it weren't Linda. I heard some footsteps, and they weren't- the dogs- the dogs was sitting near the beach, near the water.

[Narrator] Another highly noticeable feature of the Brogue is the pronunciation of words like tire and fire.

[Male speaker] Hoi toid on the sound soid; last night the water far [fire], tonight the moon shine, no feesh! Whattaya s'pose's the matter, Uncle Woods? [laughs]

[Female speaker] Now- now tell me what you said.

[Male speaker] All right, I said, "High tide on the sound side."

[Female speaker] High tide on the sound side, yeah.

[Male speaker] Last night the water fared.

[Female speaker] The water fired?

[Male speaker] Yeah, that's phosphorous in the water. You ever-been to the ocean, you see the-

[Female speaker] Okay, yeah.

[Female speaker] Last night the water fired.

[Male speaker] Well the old people used to call that uh water far. When the water fared- fired.

[Female speaker] Yeah, last night the water fired, okay.

[Male speaker] Yeah, and at the night the moon shine.

[Female speaker] At night the moon shine.

[Male speaker] And at night the moon shine, so they had- one night they had the water fire against 'em. The next night they had a moon shine against 'em.

[Narrator] Another example of a pronunciation difference is the unique pronunciation of the "eye" vowel sound in words like high and tide.

[Male speaker] You usually can't catch, you know, couldn't catch so much on broit [bright] nights, you know, when the nights are broit [bright].

[Female speaker] Right.

[Male speaker] You don't catch much fish, so.

[Female speaker] I see, I see.

[Male speaker] So uh so that's why [unintelligible] when they went out there, you know, they'd been fishing for two nights and still hadn't uh uh caught no fish so he went to this odder g- odder- odder old guy and said, "Last night the water fared, tonight the moon sh- hoi toid on the sound soid, last night the water fared, tonight the moon shine, no feesh. What do you suppose the matter, Uncle Woods?" [laughs]

[Narrator] One of the biggest differences is the choice of words that they use on Ocracoke.

[Female speaker] Quamish means sick in the gut, like you're sick in the gut, have a stomach ache.

[James Barrie Gaskill] That's like- like bilious when you're stomach's [gestures].

[Female speaker] Oh really?

[James Barrie Gaskill] Yeah, upset stomach.

[Male speaker] Stomach's upset.

[Female speaker] Oh it's- it's-

[James Barrie Gaskill] I think- I think it's really just probably come from the word queasy or something, you know.

[Male speaker] Queasy, you know.

[James Barrie Gaskill] Around here, you say it's bilious or uh or uh quamish.

[Older male speaker] I still say it. Feel a little qua- quamish to my stomach, you know. Little bit sick stomach, like you're gonna have a sick stomach, or-

[Younger male speaker #1] Well, quamish is sort of like sick a little bit, you know, stomach's not feeling too good, something like that, as far as I understand. [laughs]

[Younger male speaker #2] When somebody's laying on the deck green.

[Younger male speaker #1] [laughs] Yeah. [laughs] You're shoving over the side, when you're quamish.

[Chester Lynn] At one time it was the [Name] which was the mail boat that would come in, and uh and the mail would come in, and everybody would meet down to the- to- say Jack's dock, and the boat would come in and dock, and the whole crowd knew it, and they knew that this particular time the mail was coming in. And everybody met down there, and they'd, and somebody would stand right there, and they'd hold the- a letter up, and they'd holler, and holler the name on it, "Candy Gaskill!" and they'd holler at the- over the village, you know, and over everybody that was out there, and if you weren't there, then somebody you c- the mail weren't like it is today, you know, if you weren't there, you know, your neighbor'd carry it to you. It weren't a big deal, you know.

[Candy Gaskill] And it's funny now, a lot of the older ones and stuff, like I noticed Clinton and different of the older ones and like Chloe and them, like at one o'clock, they'll go out the post office and they'll wait and sit there for half an hour/hour for the lady, you know, the post mistress to put the mail in the box.

[Male speaker] There's plenty of good, short language that comes up out on Ocracoke I think for describing things. I think the language is very useful language. It's easier to talk that way.

[Older male speaker] It's just hiding and finding, and running through the bushes, and hide somewhere else, hollering, "meehonkey," and they- "meehonkey," and they know you're wherever you are. Now where they got that name, now I don't know.

[James Barrie Gaskill] It's really just another name for- it's sorta like hide-and- hide-and-seek.

[Male speaker] Hide-and-seek.

[James Barrie Gaskill] You chose teams. And you just have to run and holler, you know, if they- if they got too close, you kept quiet, but when you're way off, you can holler "meehonkey" or something, you know, let them-

[Male speaker] And the other side-

[James Barrie Gaskill] Let them know, you know, give them some idea, you know, where to chase you at.

[Walt Wolfram] We don't know where it comes from, but actually we have this- we have this theory, and the theory is- and the- the theory is that it's the sound of a goose, so you say, "meehonkey, meehonkey."

[Older female speaker] Mommuck. Oh, that means when somebody gets you playing, and they get hold of you, and they're mad at you about something in the game, and they- you'll try to shake you up a little bit. They wanna box with you. [laughs]

[Young male speaker] Mommuck's like to irritate somebody or pick on somebody, you know, yeah, give them a noogie.

[Kenny Ballance] And the words mommuck means in Ocracoke slang means to torment and aggravate and pick on, and it- that's what me and my brother was doing.

[Older male speaker] It's hardship, really. Mommuck, you get out here in the boat, and you get caught in some bad weather uh that can beat you to death in a boat. Ask him. [points] He can tell you that, and he hadn't been near there for a while. [laughs] That's what we call being mommucked.

[Walt Wolfram] And dingbatter, all right, does anybody remember how we got the term dingbatter here? Ben.

[Ben] It's for- foreigners, and like.

[Walt Wolfram] Yeah, it's foreigners.

[Younger male speakers] They're the ones you see riding around the road- in the middle of the road on a bicycle, and it's the two of them, you'll see [unintelligible] and a whole string of cars behind them. They're right in the middle of the road- right down in the middle of the road. They're dingbatters.

[Male speaker] Dingbat about sums it up, but that's what it is, somebody who uh ignorant, don't know any better. Well, they're just ignorant. I don't mean they're dumb, they just don't know any damn better.


[Male speaker] A real, true-blood dingbatter is somebody who would see the car tracks- two car tracks going across the beach, and would go across there in a car, and think that he could go where a four-wheel drive could go. That is a real dyed-in-the-wool dingbatter.