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Coastal Dialect Fades

The sounds of the “hoi toid” are beginning to ebb along much of the Outer Banks. The distinctive dialect of area residents is fading as younger generations adopt more mainstream grammar and pronunciation, says Dr. Walt Wolfram, William C. Friday Distinguished University Professor of English.

It’s a slow process, but language was never meant to be static. It’s always dynamic and changing.”

For almost two decades, Wolfram has studied the dialect of people in Hyde County, including Ocracoke Island, as well as residents of Roanoke Island and Harkers Island. Colleagues initially told him people along the coast had a Shakespearian manner of talking because of the words and grammatical constructions they used.

As outsiders move to North Carolina’s Outer Banks, they influence coastal dialects.

Highways and mass communication made the coastal areas less isolated in the mid-20th century, however, and new words started making their way into the local lexicon, he says. For example, the term “dingbatter” for an outsider came from 1970s television character Archie Bunker to designate someone with little sense.

During North Carolina’s population boom in recent decades, many of the dingbatters moved to the coast to live, and summer tourism became a major regional industry.

“This is a region that has gone, in a relatively short period, from a maritime tradition to an economy based on tourism,” Wolfram says. “So, the influence of outsiders has grown tremendously.”

That outside influence extends to language, where the speech patterns of Latinos, people from the Northeast, and others have taken hold and begun to replace some of the native brogue. Younger residents are usually the first to adopt the changes.

“Teens don’t talk like their parents; they talk like their peers,” Wolfram says. Some younger residents with a strong island identity do retain the brogue, he says, and the loss of the local dialect is less pronounced on Harkers Island because rural Carteret County is much less touristy than other coastal locations.

Outside influences also have affected the speech patterns of African Americans in the region, says Wolfram, who has studied several generations of families in Hyde County. His research has shown that the speech of older blacks is nearly indistinguishable from whites to most outside listeners.

“These folks have been living together in isolation for centuries, so they have many of the same regional features in their speech,” he says. But younger blacks now emulate the urban culture in how they speak, so they sound nothing like their relatives or like other teens in the area.

“There are so many changes going on with language in the region,” he says. “It’s really an intriguing area for research.”

This article originally appeared in NC State’s Results Magazine.