I’d never been called a dingbatter until I went to Ocracoke for the first time. I’ve spent a good part of my life in North Carolina, but I’m still learning how to speak the ‘Hoi Toider’ brogue. The people here just have their own way of speaking: it’s like someone took Elizabethan English, sprinkled in some Irish tones and 1700s Scottish accents, then mixed it all up with pirate slang. But the Hoi Toider dialect is more than a dialect. It’s also a culture, one that’s slowly fading away. With each generation, fewer people play meehonkey, cook the traditional foods or know what it is to be mommucked.
Located 34 miles from the North Carolina mainland, Ocracoke Island is fairly isolated. You can’t drive there as there are no bridges, and most people can’t fly either as there are no commercial flights. If you want to go there, it has to be by boat. In the early 1700s, that meant Ocracoke was a perfect spot for pirates to hide, as no soldiers were going to search 16 miles of remote beaches and forests for wanted men.
William Howard was one of those outlaws, serving as quartermaster on Blackbeard’s ship Queen Anne’s Revenge. Leaving before Blackbeard’s final battle in 1718, Howard made his way to Virginia, eventually taking the general pardon offered by King George I to all pirates. But unlike some, Howard had a plan. For several decades, he dropped out of sight, only to reappear in 1759 when he bought Ocracoke Island for £105 from a man named Richard Sanderson, a justice and later a General Assembly member in mainland North Carolina.
Howard settled down along with some other ex-pirates and started building a community with boat pilots who had been stationed on the island to help guide merchant ships around sandbars in the area. A mainland North Carolina Native American tribe also interacted with the early settlers. The Woccon tribe had set up fishing and hunting outposts on the island, which they called Woccocock. Through misspellings and mispronunciations, it became Wokokon, Oakacock and Okercock, before finally arriving at the current version of Ocracoke in the mid-1700s. So at this point, there were Native Americans, English sailors and pirates from a variety of places all in one location. And that isolated community of just under 200 started blending words and dialects, and eventually building its own way of speaking.
“It’s the only American dialect that is not identified as American,” said Dr Walt Wolfram, a North Carolina State University professor who studied the Ocracoke dialect for more than 20 years and currently works as the director of NC State’s Language and Life Project. “That’s fascinating to me. You can find pronunciation, grammar structures and vocabulary on Ocracoke that are not found anywhere else in North America.”
Read more: BBC