Why North Carolina Is the Most Linguistically Diverse U.S. State

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From the Atlas Obscura:

Walt Wolfram grew up in a city so linguistically fascinating that the first time he met Bill Labov, the godfather of American sociolinguistics, Labov simply cornered him and made him say different words. Yet he left his native Philadelphia for a teaching job elsewhere—a place of even greater linguistic intrigue. “I got an offer I couldn’t refuse, Wolfram says, “to die and come to dialect heaven.”

Wolfram is coauthor of Talkin’ Tar Heel: How Our Voices Tell the Story of North Carolina, an examination of his adopted home, where he works at North Carolina State University (alongside his coauthor Jeffrey Reaser). He also happens to be one of the great American linguists of the past 50 years, with a specialty in ethnic and regional American English dialects. He has been a central figure in getting stigmatized dialects, such as African-American English and Appalachian English, recognized as legitimate language systems.

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Wolfram has called North Carolina the most linguistically diverse state in the country, but that diversity is waning. The Tar Heel State is the intertidal zone of the linguistic South: Overwhelming forces wash in and out, but weird, fascinating little tide pools remain.

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Language in the American South has gone through several sweeping changes in a relatively short period of time. But first, a little housekeeping—distinguishing an “accent” from a “dialect.” An accent is composed purely of pronunciation changes, almost always vowel sounds. Dialects, on the other hand, incorporate all kinds of other stuff, including vocabulary, structure, syntax, idioms, and tenses. The South has various species of both.

Before the Civil War, white Southeasterners did not seem to have spoken in what would be a recognizably Southern accent by modern standards.

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There were differences in the way people talked, but it wasn’t split as evenly along North/South lines as one would think. Southerners then, for example, seem to have had what’s called the “coil-curl merger,” which makes the “oy” and “er” sounds very similar. Think of calling a toilet a “terlet.” But that merger is also associated with an extremely non-Southern place: New York City and its old “Thoity-Thoid Street” accent.

Distinctly Southern dialects among the white population of the American South seem only to have taken hold starting around the time of the Civil War. (African-American and other minority dialects have their own histories, which will be addressed later.) “The things that we think are Southern today were embryonic in the South before the Civil War, but only took off afterwards,” says Wolfram. The period from the end of the Civil War until World War I—which seems like a long time, but is very condensed linguistically, less than three generations—saw an explosion of diversity in what are sometimes referred to as Older Southern American Accents.

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In Southern states bordering the Atlantic Ocean, regional dialects sprung up seemingly overnight, influenced by a combination of factors including the destruction of infrastructure, the panic of Reconstruction, lesser-known stuff like the boll weevil crisis, and the general fact that regional accents tend to be strongest among the poorest people. In the post–Civil War period, Southerners left the South en masse; the ones who stayed were often the ones who couldn’t afford to leave, and often the keepers of the strongest regional accents. A lack of migration into the South, either from the North or internationally, allowed its regional accents to bloom in relative isolation.

This period of the South’s history spawned dozens of distinct dialects and accents, especially in the Atlantic states. World War II then began a series of events that pushed against these regional accents. Oil drilling, manufacturing, retirement communities, and military bases brought Northerners and wealth down to the South. “There’s been a lot of dialect leveling, that’s what linguists call it,” says Erik Thomas, a linguist at North Carolina State who often works on regional and minority speech.

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North Carolina stands out among Southern states for its tremendous geographic diversity. East of the Mississippi, there aren’t that many states with a substantial mountain range, a large plateau, and a long, island-pocked coastline. The ones that do, like New York, tend to exhibit an awful lot of different regional linguistic differences. And west of the Mississippi, there aren’t nearly as many of these differences among geographic regions within states.

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There were many distinct regional accents or dialects in the pre–Civil War South, but some were more widespread (and better-known to modern linguists) than others. These include the Lowcountry accent near Charleston, South Carolina; the Appalachian accent, which ranges from Pennsylvania down to Georgia; the Plantation or Black Belt region, home to the richest soil and the highest numbers of slaves; the Cajun and Creole dialects of Louisiana; and the aristocratic Tidewater accent of Eastern Virginia.

North Carolina, smack in the middle of the Atlantic South, found more of those dialects within its borders than any other state. On top of that, North Carolina is home to a dialect found nowhere else in the world: the English spoken by those in the Pamlico Sound region, the coastal area that includes the Outer Banks.

Only a few generations ago, you could find an Appalachian speaker in the mountains of the west, a Tidewater speaker in the counties bordering Virginia, a Black Belt speaker in the eastern lowlands, and a Pamlico Sound speaker out on Ocracoke and Harkers Island, all without leaving the state.

Link to the rest at Atlas Obscura

PG found a couple of videos with regional North Carolina accents and added one from New Orleans which also has a variety of accents, including Cajun and Creole (not the same thing).

1 thought on “Why North Carolina Is the Most Linguistically Diverse U.S. State”

  1. Dialects are fascinating. I’m from the Pacific Northwest which is fairly bland linguistically. I don’t think of myself as having an accent, but when listening to recordings of myself, I do sound more countrified than I imagine.

    However, the Northwest has something that might even qualify as a dialect: Chinook Jargon, a language used for trade in the late 18th and 19th centuries in the region.

    There are words that you hear when old farmers, construction workers, fishermen, and old-timers in general get together that you don’t hear much elsewhere: skookum, meaning strong; chuck, meaning water (frequently in combinations like skookumchuck, meaning rough water; or saltchuck, whose meaning should be obvious.) Indigenous people are siwash (originally neutral, now pejorative.) Americans are Bostons. Tyee, boss or chief. The jargon now appears mostly in place names. There’s been some attempts at reviving the jargon recently.

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