Walt Wolfram and Tar Heel English.

Dan Nosowitz has a typically compendious post at Atlas Obscura, Why North Carolina Is the Most Linguistically Diverse U.S. State:

Walt Wolfram grew up in a city so linguistically fascinating that the first time he met Bill Labov, the godfather of American sociolinguistics, Labov simply cornered him and made him say different words. Yet he left his native Philadelphia for a teaching job elsewhere—a place of even greater linguistic intrigue. “I got an offer I couldn’t refuse, Wolfram says, “to die and come to dialect heaven.”

Wolfram is coauthor of Talkin’ Tar Heel: How Our Voices Tell the Story of North Carolina, an examination of his adopted home, where he works at North Carolina State University (alongside his coauthor Jeffrey Reaser). He also happens to be one of the great American linguists of the past 50 years, with a specialty in ethnic and regional American English dialects. He has been a central figure in getting stigmatized dialects, such as African-American English and Appalachian English, recognized as legitimate language systems.

Wolfram has called North Carolina the most linguistically diverse state in the country, but that diversity is waning. The Tar Heel State is the intertidal zone of the linguistic South: Overwhelming forces wash in and out, but weird, fascinating little tide pools remain.

There’s interesting history, e.g.:

Distinctly Southern dialects among the white population of the American South seem only to have taken hold starting around the time of the Civil War. (African-American and other minority dialects have their own histories, which will be addressed later.) “The things that we think are Southern today were embryonic in the South before the Civil War, but only took off afterwards,” says Wolfram. The period from the end of the Civil War until World War I—which seems like a long time, but is very condensed linguistically, less than three generations—saw an explosion of diversity in what are sometimes referred to as Older Southern American Accents.

And there are descriptions of dialect diversity:

North Carolina, smack in the middle of the Atlantic South, found more of those dialects within its borders than any other state. On top of that, North Carolina is home to a dialect found nowhere else in the world: the English spoken by those in the Pamlico Sound region, the coastal area that includes the Outer Banks.

Only a few generations ago, you could find an Appalachian speaker in the mountains of the west, a Tidewater speaker in the counties bordering Virginia, a Black Belt speaker in the eastern lowlands, and a Pamlico Sound speaker out on Ocracoke and Harkers Island, all without leaving the state.

These are dramatically different ways of speaking. Frankly, it would take too long to get into what makes them unique, but it’s easy enough to hash out a few of the best-known distinguishing features.

The whole thing is well worth your while. Thanks, jack!


  1. I watched the movie “Knives Out” the other evening (and I enjoyed it very much). It’s set in New England but Daniel Craig plays a private detective with a very theatrical accent, like Fritz Hollings in the clip that the story links to, only more so.

    I think of that accent as bearing the same relationship to other southern accents as Edinburgh does to Scottish accents — like Maggie Smith as Miss Jean Brodie.

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