Today's Carolina Curious provides a close-up look at the way we talk.

WFDD listener Chris Campbell says: 

“I am fascinated by the range of very distinct accents within North Carolina in different specific regions, such as the twang in the western part of the state and the drawl in the eastern part of the state. I'm wondering how the different accents developed.”

Thankfully for us, one of the world's leading authorities on social and ethnic dialects is North Carolina State University professor Walt Wolfram. Since the 1960s, he's published more than 20 books, 300 papers, and in his spare time — when not traveling the country giving lectures and filming documentaries — he directs the North Carolina Language and Life Project. In May 2019, he was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. 

Wolfram spoke with WFDD's David Ford.

Interview Highlights

On how dialects evolve from one region to the next:

There are certainly shared ways in which dialects migrate. So, migration is an important thing. And first of all, let me commend the listener because as it turns out, no dialect east of the Mississippi is richer in its dialects than North Carolina, and arguably in the whole country. And part of that is because you have mountains, you have coast, you have lots of ethnicity, and so all of the ingredients for dialect diversity are there. So, the observation is completely valid. As a matter of fact, when I moved to North Carolina, I said, “Oh, I'm dying and going to dialect heaven,” and it really is rich.

Phonology studies at NC State University's North Carolina Language and Life Project. Photo courtesy of NC State University. 

But to get to your point, yes, there is migration. So, you have the Great Wagon Road which people came from the western part and settled into the mountain dialect of Appalachia and [the] Smoky Mountains. Then you have people along the coasts who came through the waterways and estuaries. And so those islands are as distinct as any dialect in the United States. As a matter of fact, the Eastern dialects of the coastal Outer Banks are actually not even thought of as dialects of American English. Most people in England don't identify them as being American at all. So, that's quite a radical thing. And then of course you have sort of the coastal plain which is over land but also brought down sort of the tide water, and then you have the middle part of state which diffuse from both the mountains and from some of the Piedmont area. So, it really is an incredibly rich dialect legacy that we have here. 

On the influence of recent transplants to North Carolina on local dialects:

It depends on the city. In a city like Raleigh and Charlotte, it has a profound levelling effect so that the older Southern features are not there. In cities like Greensboro and Winston-Salem, there's more of a moderating effect, so that there are differences say for example between Winston-Salem and Raleigh in terms of the kind of dialect features.

"When I moved to North Carolina, I said, 'Oh, I'm dying and going to dialect heaven!'" Photo courtesy of NC State University.

So, for example in Raleigh one of the features that is found in Southern speech is sometimes a “well” where you get water from, and a “whale” that is the animal in the sea are pronounced the same. So, both [are] pronounced as “whale.” And that is completely gone in a city like Raleigh. But in a city like Winston-Salem or a city like Greensboro, you'll see that's still retained by the older people. So, there are effects and those cities like Greensboro and Winston-Salem and so forth tend to be less moderated than Raleigh and Charlotte where basically the outsiders have taken over. 

On urban versus rural dialects:

I would make the claim that the urban/rural difference is probably greater than the Southern/Northern difference because cities are so different in terms of how they're developing. So, for example if you take some words like “cut the lights off.” All right, "cut the lights on,” “cut the lights off,” or “mash the button” when you push a button, or “fixin to,” items like that are still quite in use in rural areas. But in urban areas only the older people will use them as vestiges of things gone by. So, there are a lots of differences in terms of vocabulary. The Southern dialect is much more intensive. There's a whole rotation of vowels that range from sort of pronouncing a vowel like “bait” as “bite,” and a vowel like “bed” as “bad.” Those kinds of vowels are still largely retained in rural areas whereas they're leveling in the cities. 

On African-American dialects in North Carolina: 

Thanks for the opportunity to talk about African-American speech, because it's so misunderstood. I mean people don't know of its history, of how it was developed from contact situations in West Africa and then brought over to the Caribbean and then brought to the United States. So, there are regional dialects of African-American English just as there are white varieties. So, for example the variety that's spoken in Eastern North Carolina is very different from Western North Carolina. In Western North Carolina we've done studies of African-American communities in Appalachia and [the] Smoky Mountains, and they take on a distinct sort of Appalachian flavor. Whereas on the east they take on a peculiar sort of coastal accommodation. So, what you see is there is regionality everywhere in terms of white and black speech, which sometimes white people sort of prefer to view groups as homogenized — I mean, all people do — and so they don't always recognize that. But if you talk to people in the black community, they for sure will talk about the regional differences between the eastern part of the state and the western part of the state, and the cities of North Carolina as well, which is very distinct from rural areas. 

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