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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