North America’s Strange “Island” Dialects

One of my missions in life is to convince non-Americans that we do not, in fact, all speak alike. Sadly, the media are against me: most foreigners get their ideas of how we speak from American television, where accents are scrubbed clean of regionalisms*.

Case in point that we do not all talk alike are North America’s mysterious “island dialects.” These are types of English spoken on remote islands off the Atlantic Coast that are clearly disconnected from the rest of the speech of the continent. Below are the most prominent examples, with some links to video samples.

1.) The Newfoundland Accent. Newfoundland, a rugged island off the coast of far Eastern Canada, was a separate dominion of the British Empire until 1949. Its native dialect is a mixture of Irish and West Country influences (Although it’s been watered down somewhat over the past few years with the influx of mainland Canadians).

Example: These two guys, of “Ask a Newfie” fame. Apologies about the heavy-metal intro, for those who can’t stand heavy metal.

2.) Gullah. This is technically a creole language, not a dialect. Spoken by the descendants of slaves in isolated island and low country areas from North Carolina to Florida, the language bears some resemblance to Jamaican and other Carribean creoles.

Example: This speaker from a religious ceremony. He speaks in Gullah for the first minute or so, before singing then switching over to “Standard” English.

And perhaps the strangest of all:

3.) Ocracoke Brogue. This dialect (or variants of it) is spokent on various islands of Southern Virginia and Coastal North Carolina. “Ocracoke” refers to a specific island, but I use it to describe a number of interrelated islands in the region. Many of these communites hark back to the Elizabethan era, suggesting that the more extreme of these accents may be relatives of Shakespearean English!

Example: This snippet of a documentary about Tangier Island, Virginia. You have to wait a few moments before samples of the dialect are shown. (Thanks to Rick Aschmann, without whom I would not have found this incredible sample!)

All these samples noticeably bear some similarity to Irish or perhaps Carribean dialects. This is no coincidence. All of these regions were settled or expanded in the 17th Century (or earlier), then maintained a degree of isolation from the rest of the English speaking world. The result are certain common features held over from Early Modern English, the language spoken, roughly speaking, in 16th and 17th-Century England.

Sadly, most of these dialects are dying out. But they are testaments to the rich, and often unacknowledged, history of North American English.

*(Our entertainment industry’s centralization in Los Angeles doesn’t help. For example, I was surprised to learn that the cast of Friends grew up in such disparate areas as New York City, Canada, Boston and Alabama. But these actors lived for years in LA, and only hints of their native dialects remained by the time they were cast on the show … er, sorry about all the Friends references.)

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About Ben

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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