Linguist catalogues Person County accent

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Personians, have you ever heard fellow North Carolinians talk and thought they don’t sound anything like you?

Well, that thought may not be unfounded.

Based on research from the Language and Life Project at N.C. State, Person County is a part of a small region of northern North Carolina that is home to the Virginia Piedmont Dialect, characteristic of the Virginia Tidewater region.

Walt Wolfram, Director of the Language and Life Project and William C. Friday Distinguished University Professor of Linguistics, said that the major diagnostic or characteristic of the dialect is the “ou” in words like out and about sounding like “oot and aboot.”

“It sounds a little bit like the Canadian vowel,” Wolfram explained. “While it sounds a lot like that and phonetically it is similar to that, there’s no evidence that it came from there or is related.”

Wolfram said that the accent’s presence in northern North Carolina comes from the spread of Virginia settlers south, historically.

The Language and Life Project

The idea for the Language and Life Project came in 1992 when Wolfram joined N.C. State and decided he would focus on the dialect areas of the state.

“It’s such a rich dialect area,” Wolfram said. “I claim that there’s no state with a richer dialect area. I’m sort of like a car salesman in that. We’re the largest dealer of dialects in the South!”

Wolfram said North Carolinians are generally proud of their state, but have largely dismissed or ignored their rich language legacy, so he set out to document the dialect of the state.

“We’ve done over 3,500 interviews and worked in over 25 communities where we have done concentrated studies like the Outer Banks, Appalachia and others,” he said.

Wolfram said his philosophy is to share his findings with the communities that fuel his research and thus, has been a part of several exhibits and documentaries including”Talking Black in America” on African American language varieties and the role of language in African American culture, “The Carolina Brogue” featuring the O’Cockers of Ocracoke Island, “Mountain Talk” on the language of the North Carolina mountains, “Indian By Birth” on the Lumbee tribe’s cultural and linguistic identity and others.

The only previous study of North Carolina’s dialects was the Dictionary of American Regional English constructed by face-to-face interviews conducted in the 1960s, Wolfram said, as two residents of each county were interviewed for the nationwide project.

Based on their research, the Language and Life Project has identified five major dialects present in the state: the Southern Appalachian Highlands Dialect, North Carolina Piedmont Dialect, Virginia Piedmont Dialect, North Carolina Coastal Plains Dialect and the Pamlico Sound Dialect.

“People sometimes ask how many dialects there are in North Carolina,” Wolfram said. “Well, there could be anywhere between two and 200 depending on how you want to slice the pie. There are distinctive areas, but there are also very distinctive communities within those regions too.”

The future of North Carolina’s iconic dialects

Despite North Carolina’s rich dialect diversity, some of their futures could be in danger.

Wolfram said the inundation of outsiders in the most remote of the dialect areas will lead to the dialects’ extinction in the not so distant future.

“One dialect – the hoi toide dialect – it will be dead in a generation or two,” Wolfram said.

He explained that the residents of Ocracoke are mainly outsiders, not ancestral islanders (those who have been on the island for generations) and that means the younger generations have picked up the accents of mainland North Carolina.

Harker’s Island, also home to the hoi toide dialect doesn’t have the same outside influx and is seeing it’s dialect phase out slower, Wolfram said.

There are dialects do not see the same inundation.

Wolfram said the Lumbee Indians in Robeson county have a similarly rich history of their dialect, but aren’t seeing the influx of outsiders that will lead to the dialect’s disappearance.

“They have population density,” Wolfram explained. “There are 45,000 Lumbees in Robeson County. There’s a school that’s over 90 percent Lumbee. There are a half a dozen elementary schools that are 90 percent Lumbee. That’s a situation where a dialect can maintain itself. People can go to Robeson County, but they don’t.”

Personians shouldn’t worry about this area’s distinctive dialect fading out. Wolfram said areas like Person County are not in danger of losing their local dialects because there is not a high population of outsiders coming in.

More information on the Language and Life project can be found at www.languageandlife.org.

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