Ocracoke Island, NC

About the Site

Beginning with their first explorations of the Outer Banks, British sea captains recognized that Ocracoke Inlet was a strategic passageway through the hazardous chain of barrier islands to mainland ports. Large ships could not pass through without assistance, however, so it was necessary to station pilots at the inlet to help guide the vessels. As more and more Europeans began inhabiting coastal Virginia and mainland North Carolina, ship traffic through Ocracoke Inlet increased to such a great extent that in 1715 the North Carolina Assembly passed what the old record books termed An Act for Settling and Maintaining Pilots at Roanoke and Ocracoke Inlet. Thus Pilot Town, later renamed Ocracoke Village, was born.

Although Ocracoke English is based on Early Modern English, we need to remember that there were many dialects of that early language, just as there are of its equivalent today. There is some question as to exactly which forms of Early Modern English played a role in shaping the early Ocracoke brogue. Much of the American South was settled by people from the south and west of England. But early settlers along the coastal areas of the South, including some Outer Banks families, may have come from England's eastern counties as well. We have found that today's Ocracoke brogue displays many features from southern and western England, along with a number from eastern England.

It is also likely that early Ocracoke speech was influenced by the Irish and Scots-Irish varieties of English. Many of the first Europeans to settle in southeastern North America were of Irish rather than English descent. In fact, by 1790 the Irish constituted fully one-eighth of the white population of the South. The Scots-Irish, who came from the province of Ulster in what is now Northern Ireland were even more numerous. Ocracoke English, then, has its roots not in a single form of older English but in a number of Early Modern English dialects--dialects from Ireland, eastern England, and southwestern English.

Research Questions

Our primary research goals in the area have been:

  1. to document the endangered dialects on Ocracoke;

  2. to compare Ocracoke English with other island dialects, such as Harkers Island English;

  3. to compare Ocracoke English with mainland dialects such as Appalachian English

In compiling our picture of the Ocracoke brogue, we have combined our first-hand observation of dialect patterning with research literature on language, dialect, history, and culture. Today the Ocracoke project is continuing to grow.