North Carolina’s Rich Dialect Diversity

talkin tarheel

My father used to tell me, “I swanny Will if you don’t stop scaring your sister with that Admiral Akbar mask, I am going to tear it half in two!”   Well the mask (I had won it in a Return of the Jedi coloring contest at the mall) was eventually torn half in two.  And according to the book I just finished reading , Talking Tarheel (2014) by Walt Wolfram and Jeffrey Reaser, the word swanny is a word found in the rural Piedmont dialect of North Carolina (it doesn’t say anything about half in two though).

The book concerns North Carolina’s regional dialects and I found it to be informative and engaging but also quite innovative in its addition of QR codes that allows you to access video and audio examples of dialects all over North Carolina (check out the audio-visual links here).  The authors, professors of English at NC State, separated the state into 6 major dialect areas: Appalachian, NC Piedmont, Coastal Plain, Tidewater and Outer Banks.  But there are also other dialects and languages within those areas, including: African American, Lumbee, Cherokee and Latino.

Their detailed research has revealed some new revelations in the mosaic of dialects that we are fortunate to have in our state.  One interesting finding is how varied African American Dialects are in NC, which are sometimes viewed as a monolith in “white” America.  But there are some surprising speechways from the rural to the urban and from the Outer Banks to the Appalachians, and many are far removed from the urban dialect portrayed in popular culture.

The authors also try to dispel the myth that the Appalachian and Outer Banks vernacular is some sort of Elizabethan English time bubble.  It turns out that their English is as living and mutable as any dialect, their isolation has just allowed a few words and grammatical structures to survive where in other, more connected, areas it has died out.  If you read my review of John McWhorter’s book  Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, you will have already read about some antediluvian grammar that still lives on in NC, ie. “Mary is a singing.”  Also, one of my favorite examples of how the Outer Banks vernacular has been evolving is their use of the word “dingbatters” for tourists.  They picked up that word from watching Archie Bunker on the TV sitcom All in the Family. However, I do have a beef, I have read a hantle (a lot) of literature about the Scots Irish dialect of the Carolinas (esp. From Ulster to America by Michael Montgomery, who is probably the leading expert in Scots Irish speech ways and Albion’s Seed by David Hackett Fisher),  and as an armchair linguist who took one undergraduate linguistics class, I don’t think the authors emphasized the impact Scots Irish had on the Piedmont and Appalachian dialect regions enough.  There are hundreds of words that came out of their distinct dialect that has examples in writings from Ulster (also lowland Scotland and the English border) and their diaspora in America. Examples of Scots Irish words that have occurred in Ulster and America:  jouk- dodge, fornest-next to,  lowp-jump,  hantle- a lot.  But in their defense the researchers for the most part adhered to the results of their own research.

But the part I found most interesting is the chapter on the legacy of American Indian Languages.  Unfortunately, the only language remaining out of the six American Indian Language families that were historically found in NC is Cherokee, and presently there are only 200 to 300 fluent speakers of the language left in North Carolina.  But there is another American Indian tribe living in NC that is the ninth largest tribe in the United States and is the largest non-reservation tribe in the US and they are the Lumbee tribe of Robeson County.  This enigmatic tribe lost their language (or languages) sometime in the 1700’s but they speak a dialect of English that is as singular as the one found in the Appalachians or the Outer Banks and I am going to cover them in depth in another blog post.

The authors end the book covering the great Latino migration into North Carolina and the cultural and language ways that they are adding to our mostly monolingual state.  Drawn to our manufacturing and agricultural job opportunities, North Carolina is now third in it the nation for numbers of rural Latinos and number one in monolingual Spanish speakers.  Also, ten percent of Mexican immigrants speak an indigenous language and some of them do not speak Spanish as their first language but Otomi, Mixtec, Nahuas, Purhepechas,  or Triques.  However,  only half of the Latinos in NC are from Mexico, the other half are from El Salvador, Panama, Guatemala or any other Central or even South American nation (my sister-in-law is Peruvian and lives in NC).  The term most commonly used for Spanish speakers by Anglos in NC is Hispanic which is also the most used term on the East coast, but in the West they use the term Latino.  Hispanic was found to be the most disliked phrase among Latinos because it was wholly created by the US Census and is considered a “white person’s” word.  Lastly, the researchers have found that many bilingual children of Latino immigrants speak with a rural southern accent but with a distinctly Latino rhythm adding a beautiful new dialect to the already diverse speechways of our state.

Wolfram and Reaser view North Carolina’s richly diverse language quilt as one our most important resources.  Although dialects change and die-out, the authors believe that there will not come a time when all Americans or North Carolinians speak alike.  They seek to document the language and history of North Carolinians from the ones who were here at the founding to the more recent arrivals.

Also investigate this article: What linguists say about Kevin Spacey’s bizarre Southern accent on House of Cards

In the show House of Cards, Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) is from Gaffney, SC, a town that has a very similar culture and accent to my hometown of Gastonia, NC by virtue of them both sitting on the I-85 textile corridor about 30 miles apart.  I can tell you that I never met anybody that dropped their “r’s” there like the Frank Underwood character does, if anything they added more “r’s”. Well that is not exactly true my best friend’s mother and father dropped their “r’s” but they were from the Lowcountry of South Carolina and they stood out.  One of our favorite pastimes was to imitate his mother, “Da-vid, don’t you duhty up my kitchin.”