More on the Ocracoke Brogue

Outer Banks of SC

Outer Banks of SC (Courtesy NOAA)

Some months back I mentioned an unusual dialect of English known colloquially as the “Ocracoke Brogue.” Spoken in the remote islands off the coast of North Carolina, the brogue is sometimes mentioned as one of the “last living relatives” of Elizabethan or Early Modern English, a result of being isolated from the mainland United States for centuries.

In reality, studies have shown that the dialect of Ocracoke has evolved considerably over the past 300 years.  The notion that people on the island speak just like the groundlings at the Globe, therefore, is pretty silly.  But it’s a notion worth exploring:  just how close to Elizabethan English is the dialect on Ocracoke?

For an idea of what the Ocracoke Brogue sounds like, I’d direct you to the first speaker in this clip:

This woman, who I’m assuming is quite elderly, has features that are typically associated with Irish or other “brogue”-like accents: She exhibits strongly monophthongal vowels in words like goat (“goht”) and face (“fehs”), and a raised pronounciation of words like house. I have less to say about the other three people in the clip, who seem to have much more typical Southern features.*

This also seems true of this clip of several men from Ocracoke:

There are some slightly brogue-like markers in their accent.  For example, they occasionally exhibit raised pronunciations of the vowel in PRICE and MOUTH (as in Irish or some West Country English). But it’s clear that many features of mainstream American Southern English have made their way onto the island. When contrasting these men to the older speaker from the first clip, it appears the accent has softened tremendously over the past hundred years.

Back to the original question, though: is the Ocracoke Brogue really a cousin of “Shakespeare’s English?” I would say no (although the question itself is rather meaningless). Given, the accent seems to exhibit several features which are common to accents labelled “brogues” or hypothesized to be “Shakespearean:”

*Monopthongal GOAT vowel: goat = “goht” (go:t), road = “rohd” (ro:d), etc.
*Monopthongal FACE vowel: face = “fehs” (fe:s), day = “deh” (de:), etc.
*Raised KITE vowel: five = “fuh-eev” (fʌɪv, among other realizations)
*Raised MOUTH vowel: round = “ruh-oond” (rʌʊnd, among other realizations)

It is true that these pronunciations were (probably) common in Shakespeare’s time. But from what I’ve read, they also would have been common in varieties of American English well into the 18th-Century**. In my mind, Ocracokers don’t preserve features of English from 400 years ago, but rather ones that died out a long time after the colonization of America.

The Shakespearean association is also perplexing in light of the actual history of the island.  It’s true that Ocracoke was visited by the very Elizabethan Sir Walter Raleigh, but this bit of trivia doesn’t make up for the fact that the island doesn’t seem to have been fully settled until 1715.  Is the accent conservative?  Yes.  But Shakespearean?  Not particularly.

I’ll conclude with a brief recommendation.  Both of the clips I used in this post were put up by The North Carolina Language and Life Project, a fantastic sociolinguistics research organization that makes short documentaries about the accents and dialects of North Carolina. These mini-docs are handsomely filmed, contain great interviews, and really let the language speak for itself. It’s a great resource.

*Two points about this for the more phonetically-inclined: (1.) this clip only identifies speakers as being from Hyde County, which also includes a large chunk of mainland North Carolina, so I’m sure there are parts of the county without any trace of a Ocracoke Brogue. (2.) The notable exception is that speaker number 2 in the clip (who sounds younger) has a rather interesting pronunciation of the GOAT vowel within the first sentence: it sounds monopthongal (with maybe a slight off-glide), and centralized–I’d need to listen to the clip more times to make an accurate judgement.

**Probably less true of the raised HOUSE vowel.

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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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15 Responses to More on the Ocracoke Brogue

  1. Dw says:

    All dialects of English spoken today are “relatives” of Early Modern English.

    • trawicks says:

      True! I revised the post and added quotes around that phrase. “Last living cousins,” maybe? It’s not a position I agree with, so I’m not sure how to phrase it!

      • dw says:

        If I understand your post correctly, you’re evaluating the claim that Ocracoke is more conservative, relative to Early Modern English, than any other living dialect. I don’t think there’s any way to phrase that in terms of relatives or cousins.

        • trawicks says:

          I don’t know that I’ve heard anyone claim it’s THE most conservative. I’ve usually heard eager-but-off-base phrases like “there’s a dialect off the coast of South Carolina where they talk just like Shakespeare!” or, as I mentioned, “it’s one of the last living relatives” of Shakespearean/Elizabethan/colonial/17-Century English. The whole “Shakespearean dialect” myth isn’t confined to Ocracoke, btw. I recall a few mentions of an apochryphal “Elizabethan” dialect spoken in the remotest mountains of Appalachia (presumably the dialect equivalent of Bigfoot).

  2. Joan ONeal says:

    The article is good, however; Sir Walter Raleigh NEVER visited Ocracoke.

  3. Joan ONeal says:

    Another point, it wasn’t until the 1700s when Ocracoke was annexed into Hyde County…it was before that part of Carteret County; oh, and just because Ocracoke wasn’t officially settled until the 1700s doesn’t mean that people weren’t living on the island…that’s just when it was technically broken off into private land ownership

    • trawicks says:

      Thanks for the info, Joan! I am VERY unversed in the history of the island, but most of what I’ve read suggests Raleigh at least landed there briefly. Although the details I’ve read online are sketchy at best. Please let me know if that’s inaccurate!

      As far as the exact date of settlement, I don’t think Ocracoke was entirely unsettled by 1715. But North Carolina General Assembly’s 1715 act to create Ocracoke village is often mentioned as what got the ball rolling for much of Ocracoke culture. I’ve read very little about the island in the 1600’s, though, so feel free to fill in the gaps!

  4. Joan ONeal says:

    I would also like to add that having grown up on Ocracoke … I would never suggest that anyone from the Hyde County mainland was a speaker of the “Ocracoke Brogue” the same way I would not say that someone from Hatteras island or any of the surrounding islands have the brogue that we do. We are and have been very distinct villages and it is only since the 1980s with massive tourism that this has changed culturally. There are very few people on the island today that speak the way my ancestors did. What you see in the clip with the men of the island are men that are now in their 50s and 60s… the younger generations have adapted, and the older generations speak more distinctly than those in that particular clip.

  5. Joan ONeal says:

    Raleigh’s expedition came offshore of the island in the late 1580s when the ship Tiger or Tyger ran aground…

  6. AL says:

    Is Ocracoke brogue like the dialect of Smith Island, MD?

    • trawicks says:

      Possibly. I’m not sure about Smith Island specifically, but I do know that nearby Tangiers Island, VA has a similar “brogue.”

    • Austin says:

      The accent of Smith Island is like this. You can compare that with the videos of the Ocracoke accent.

  7. Lu says:

    Thanks for featuring the NCLLP here. I love their videos and spent a lot of time with them for some research a while back. My family is originally from Ocracoke, and when I was little I never understood why my uncle sounded the way he did until I was a linguistics student in college. I spent a lot of time on the island later, but it’s gotten so crowded that you don’t often hear the Ocracoke brogue, because it’s mostly tourists who have stayed or who are there for the summer.

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