The Different Dialects in North Carolina
Would you know how to respond if someone called you a dingbatter? Or asked you to play a game of meehonkey? How about if someone told you to stop mommucking them?
If you lived in the Pamlico Sound area of Eastern North Carolina, you would.
Though English is the predominant language of North Carolina, each geographic region has a unique dialect that retains and reflects the influence of the area’s settlers.
The Pamlico Sound region has one of the most distinct dialects in the state, according to Erik Thomas, associate professor of linguistics at N.C. State University.
Settlers of the Pamlico Sound region came from either Southeastern or Southwestern England, and many migrated from the Chesapeake Bay area of Virginia. Until the 1950s, Eastern North Carolina was isolated from the rest of the state. Large swamps made passage difficult and the few roads that ran to the towns were impassable half the year.
The geographic isolation prevented any other dialects from influencing the British English, Thomas said.
“The only way you could get in or out was by boat, so most of the population didn’t go anywhere,” Thomas says. “The accent sounds a little more exaggerated, a little more Cockney.”
Natives to the region use words such as “pizer” for porch, “screech owl” for shivering owl and “mommuck,” which has a variety of meanings that include annoy or beat someone up. The word “meehonkey” is often used to mean a game of hide and seek, he said.
Walt Wolfram, William C. Friday distinguished professor of English at N.C. State, calls it “one of the few distinct dialects in the United States.”
Wolfram, who directs the North Carolina Language and Life Project, says natives of Ocracoke sometimes convey descriptors in opposite terms. For example, they will say “it’s a right nice day out” to mean “it’s raining really hard.”
Wolfram attributes the dialect’s origins to the area’s founders as well as its geography. “Words like ‘dingbatter’ (outsider) developed in part because of their unique environment to the outside world,” he says. “Their situation is unique—island people versus people who are off,” (someplace other than the island). There is no dialect like it.”
Farther inland, the Lumbee Indians of Robeson County are another group that has retained the influence of English settlers.
Wolfram said the Lumbees have embraced the English dialect in absence of their ancestral language, and formed a hybrid dialect that is distinct to Lumbee Indians living in that region.
Common words include “youngins” for children and frequent use of the word “baby” as a term of endearment. Also, the “ere” sound is often pronounced “ar.”
Wolfram says he ran a study that found that Robeson County natives can determine a person’s ethnicity by hearing only their voice.
“People from inside Robeson County can identify speakers as black, Indian or white,” he says.
Even in the Piedmont region of North Carolina, where metropolitan centers like Charlotte and Raleigh are located, there are still areas where the dialects are strong, though they have been watered down by the massive influx of residents in the past 50 years.
The sound of the Piedmont dialect is more similar to classic Southern speech, Thomas said. For example, the long “i” sounds in the words “time” and “five” are drawn out to something that sounds like “ah,” and the “r” after vowels is unpronounced—“Chalotte” instead of “Charlotte.”
“The old-fashioned Piedmont is similar to accents you hear in Atlanta and over a good stretch of the South,” Thomas says.
Currently, the region is experiencing what is known as dialect leveling, he says. Local traditional dialects are disappearing because many non-Southerners are moving to the area.
“So many older Southern features are disappearing, so you don’t get the long ‘i’ among the younger speakers of the area anymore,” Wolfram says. “You get a speech that is typical in a widespread area.”
Still, older residents more frequently use terms such as “mash” instead of “push,” and phrases such as “cut off the lights” to mean “turn off the lights.”
“You can see some fairly dramatic changes in older and younger speakers,” he said.
Similar to Eastern North Carolina, Western North Carolina has a unique accent that is heavily influenced by its Scotch-Irish settlers. Some of their unique terms include whistle pig (groundhog), lay out of school (play hooky), poke (bag) and heidi (hello).
Thomas says the state used to be split in half by the pronunciation of the word for the sound a horse makes, Thomas said. In the eastern part of North Carolina, a horse “wickered” and in the western part, a horse would “nicker.”
Another characteristic of the Western North Carolina accent is that westerners draw out vowel sounds in almost all words, whereas easterners only exaggerate the sound in certain words.
“The ‘i’ being (drawn out) was considered a working-class feature, and people who were socially aspiring wouldn’t say it,” Wolfram says.
The next time someone tells you “it’s right nice out” when it’s raining, or they are headed to “Chalotte” or they spotted a whistle pig in their garden, you’ll know exactly what part of North Carolina they call home.