Meet the Americans Who Speak with Elizabethan English Accents: An Introduction to the “Hoi Toiders” from Ocracoke, North Carolina

I remember sitting in on a conversation with some old timers in the British village my parents grew up in, and one man remembered a time, very early on in the 20th century, where villages were so isolated you could tell where somebody was from in a radius of about 20 miles. That doesn’t exist so much these days, as radio, television, and now the internet exposes us more and more to accents at an early age.

So that’s why I found the above footage so fascinating. Taken from a documentary on regional accents (possibly this one) from the North Carolina coast, I could hear a bit of that East Anglia accent from my grandparents…but then a few words that sounded like Somerset or Devon in the south-west of England…and then some straight up southern American twang. And that was in one sentence! What’s going on here?

Isolation, that’s what. The island of Ocracoke has over the centuries developed its own dialect, “Hoi Toide” (as in “high tide”), that is also the name for a way of life. Even now, it takes a boat to reach the island–ferries only started arriving in 1957–and back in the 18th century it was a refuge for pirates.

One of them, William Howard, purchased the island in 1759 for £105, after King George I pardoned all pirates. Ocracoke, its name already a bastardization of a Native American word, became a fishing community, a mix of English, Scottish, and Irish settlers, natives, and pirates. The resulting mish-mash of borrowed and made-up words, along with pirate slang, make Hoi Toide one of the few American dialects not identified as American, as it also has its own peculiar grammar.

With a population of just over 900, Ocracoke has its own pace to life, which does attract tourists trying to get away from it all. As this BBC article points out:

Instead of cinemas, there are outdoor theatre groups. Local teashops, spice markets and other family-owned stores take the place of chain supermarkets. Cars are allowed on the 16 mile-long island, but most people just park them and walk everywhere. The island’s children all attend one school, while residents work as everything from fishermen to brewery owners to woodworkers.

Modern life is threatening the dialect, inevitably so, even as the community remains close-knit. By all accounts it will be gone in a few more generations, so let’s celebrate this particularly American brogue, born out of necessity, individuality, and most importantly, a lovely melting pot.

Related Content:

What Shakespeare’s English Sounded Like, and How We Know It

The Speech Accent Archive: The English Accents of People Who Speak 341 Different Languages

Why Do People Talk Funny in Old Movies?, or The Origin of the Mid-Atlantic Accent

Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at and/or watch his films here.

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  • Amy West says:

    I hope you get a more informed response than my half-informed response, but I wanted to point out some misconceptions in this article.

    The first misconception is in the headline. These are not Elizabethan accents by any means. First of all, the Elizabethan period ended well before the 18th century. Second, the community’s speech as it is now is NOT necessarily the same as it was in the 1700s: while isolation helps the community maintain its speech, it *will* change over time — elders comments about youths’ speech is pretty consistent within any language variety. Finally, this statement is just downright misleading: “one of the few American dialects not identified as American, as it also has its own peculiar grammar.” Many, many American English varieties have their own morphological and syntactical variations: it’s one of the dimensions in which any language variety can differ from another (along with phonology and lexicon). I’d like to know who it is who doesn’t identify it as “American.”

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