N.C. State Researchers Document Endangered Ocracoke Dialect

Contact: Dr. Walt Wolfram, 919/515-4151

Pam Smith, 919/515-3470 (print media)

Bob Cairns, 919/515-7432 (radio/tv)

Feb. 14, 1995

RALEIGH, N.C. -- Sociolinguists at North Carolina State University have placed Ocracoke Island English on the "endangered dialect" list -- its fate predestined by social and economic pressures on the once isolated community.

The researchers say the inevitable disappearance of the quaint brogue -- spoken for 200 years by islanders on the Outer Banks of North Carolina -- will be a tragic cultural loss.

Dr. Walt Wolfram, renowned linguist and NCSU William C. Friday Distinguished Professor of English, will discuss the importance of the scientific and humanistic study of endangered dialects on Saturday, Feb. 18, at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Atlanta.

Most linguists focus on entire language systems, but Wolfram believes the study of an endangered dialect can be as enlightening as understanding the development and structure of a core language.

In field studies, Wolfram and a team of graduate students led by Natalie Schilling-Estes have documented the unique pronunciation, vocabulary and grammatical structure of the Ocracoke Island dialect. Their research also demonstrated that the death of a dialect follows the same stages as that of the demise of a language, such as Latin.

Wolfram's team collaborated with Ocracoke residents and the Ocracoke Historical Preservation Society to develop preservation programs that will benefit both the community and linguistic science.

They developed a dictionary; an archival audio tape of speech samples; a dialect-awareness curriculum for local schools; and a half-hour video documentary "starring" story-telling Ocracoke residents. In addition, Wolfram and Schilling-Estes have written a book on the Ocracoke dialect for popular audiences.

Realistically, they know that their efforts can't stir the revitalization of the disappearing brogue, Wolfram said. Rather, they hope they can help the community celebrate and preserve its dialect heritage.

Changing social forces associated with continued development of the Outer Banks is likely to propel the dialect on an evolutionary path toward disappearance, the researchers say. The isolation of the island, founded in the 1700s by ship pilots and their families of British descent, was disrupted after World War II. Since then, a coastal highway and a state-run ferry service have allowed greater access to and from Ocracoke. Tourism is now the biggest industry in this once maritime-based economy, and the population has increased with the influx of mainlanders.

"Today, Ocracoke is home to about 200 ancestral islanders -- a clear minority on the island. Only a core of islanders possess even a quasi-mastery of the dialect," Wolfram said. "These are chiefly middle-aged men who grew up during the first wave of increased outside influence on the island. They are great performers and love to lay on the brogue for tourists, who they good naturedly call dingbatters," he said.

The level of support and cooperation that has existed in this research effort is unprecedented, Wolfram said. "In the process, we have become partners with the community in raising awareness and pride in their unique cultural heritage."

Wolfram's linguistic research at Ocracoke Island is part of his "North Carolina Language and Life Project," for which he and his team are conducting in-depth language studies from the North Carolina coast to the mountains. Findings from his team's field studies at Harkers Island and among the Lumbee Indians of Robeson County are expected to be published soon.

-- smith --