Walt Wolfram and Jeffrey Reaser know something about the way you talk. In fact, these two linguistic professors from North Carolina State University know a whole lot about the way you talk.
They recently published “Talkin’ Tar Heel: Our Voices Tell the Story of North Carolina,” and they’ll be at Page After Page Bookstore in Elizabeth City Saturday to discuss this and a number of topics that relate to the North Carolina dialect.
“We do have a sort of motive (for writing the book) in the sense that we’re trying to convince North Carolina to embrace language diversity as a part of its cultural heritage, as opposed to incorrect speech because a lot of Southerners grow up with an inferiority complex,” explained Wolfram.
Wait a minute. Incorrect speech? Inferiority complex?
Wolfram grew up in Philadelphia, the son of German immigrants. His first language was German.
He says he began to develop an interest in language, or sensitivity to language, in part because he didn’t want to be different.
That’s something that some Southern speakers might sense these days, sounding different. However, Wolfram and Reaser say their work on the diverse dialects of North Carolina — there are five diverse dialects found in the state — point to a need to not only embrace the speech patterns of your home state, but also recognize that it is an integral part of Old North State history.
“You can’t necessarily understand the whole cultural heritage of the state without thinking about how language reflects the history and the culture, and also how it shapes it,” says Reaser.
In fact, it’s also fair to say that northeast North Carolina and southeast Virginia have a unique place in the history of Southern dialect. It is from these regions that the culmination of dialects gathered to create the diversity in all of Southern speech, and culture, that we know today.
From the Scots-Irish, to the British speakers from various
parts of England, to French and Native Americans, the speech patterns of these native residents and early immigrants came together to form a variety of dialects and phrases that have worked to create a unique and often times reviled way of talking below the Mason-Dixon Line.
Reviled because, say Wolfram and Reaser, there have been plenty of outsiders who have come down South and made the incorrect assumption that a Southern accent – especially a rural accent – equates stupidity or ignorance.
In their book, Wolfram and Reaser use famous North Carolinian Andy Griffith’s “What it Was, Was Football,” to illustrate the use of technically incorrect grammar in speech — incorrect but rooted with the arrival of early immigrants. Griffith, a native of Mt. Airy, adeptly constructed his stand-up comedy routine to illustrate the language and culture, using humor. However, it would be a mistake to assume that Griffith, who grew up rural and poor, is anything other than astute and intelligent.
Language conventions and phrases in speech not only betray a Southern speaker, but also from what region a Southerner might hail.
One of the most famous Southern idioms is, “Bless you heart.” In their book, Wolfram and Reaser point out that the phrase, “mitigates judgment” about someone “with an expression of superficial sympathy.” They point out that The Daily Reflector in Greenville has a section in the newspaper called “Bless Your Heart.” It’s a place where readers are encouraged to “pick a bone,” or “share thanks.”
Other uses of language are not as widespread throughout the South. They are more specific to a region like the Outer Banks.
On the Outer Banks there is a speech and sound that has traditionally been known as the Outer Banks Brogue. The sound of the speech has been mistaken for British or Australian.
Wolfram says that a recording of traditional Ocracoke speakers was played for native Brits in eastern England. They could not identify the Ocracoke speakers as Americans, and believed them to be British.
This is an influence of the early English colonists, and years of isolation. The sound of the Outer Banks brogue, like much of the Southern accent, is however giving way to a more generalized Southern sound. However, phrases, while also evolving, are more specific to the region.
Wolfram points out that once upon a time on Ocracoke Island, outsiders were known as “foreigners.” However with the introduction of the 1970s TV show “All in the Family,” and character Archie Bunker’s penchant for referring to his wife as “dingbat,” the term “dingbatter” became a common reference for tourists. The more modern phrase for outsiders, says Wolfram, is “tour-on,” a meshing of the word tourist and moron.
The stories of the speech patterns and the history behind them is fascinating; it is also a source of pride for native North Carolinians, say Wolfram and Reaser.
As a part of their work – this is their life’s work – they have formed the North Carolina Language Life Project. Over the years they have produced a number of programs and documentaries about language in North Carolina. One well-known documentary debuted on PBS, “Voices of North Carolina,” highlighting the five distinct dialects of the state.
They have also developed museum exhibits, an annual state fair exhibit and an education program that is taken into the public schools.
Reaser points out that more rural dialects are stigmatized and can cause difficulty for students. He says many times teachers will unwittingly single out students with rural dialects and make assumptions based upon their speech.
The idea of bringing programs about speech and heritage to students, he says, is to not only help these kids embrace their history, but also, “To get people to think twice before they make those assumptions.”
Overall, Wolfram and Reaser say their work is paying dividends in North Carolina, and even throughout the South as a whole.
“I’m most excited that people are starting to understand that it (dialect) is a part of their heritage,” says Wolfram.
As for the Southern accent, he says it’s not going anywhere any time soon.
“You won’t lose it,” says Wolfram, “but it will be redefined. The most extreme features will be leveled out, removing the rural connotations. A lot of change but Southern speech will remain.”
Aside from a fascinating read, the book also provides a multi-media approach. On pages Wolfram and Reaser have provided QR codes that, with the use of your smartphone will take you directly to a website page. That page will provide you with examples of what they described on the printed page. The QR code also comes with the actual website address if you’re not using a smartphone.
Wolfram and Reaser will be doing a presentation about their work and their book at Page After Page Saturday from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. They will be talking about their work, and answering questions.