Talkin' Tarheel

Rob Temple
Walt and Jeffrey
Walt and Jeffrey
Another fascinating evening at Deepwater Theater

Walt Wolfram was the guest speaker (read: main event) at the annual spring membership meeting of the Ocracoke Preservation Society at Deepwater Theater Tuesday evening.

Accompanied by his former student, now colleague and coauthor, Dr. Jeffrey Reaser, the NCSU sociolinguistics professor made a slide presentation of his latest book, Talkin’ Tarheel: How our Voices Tell the Story of North Carolina (UNC Press, 2014). 

It was a fascinating introduction to the first linguistics book of its kind – a multi-media production that makes use of over a hundred audio and video clips accessed through QR codes. If your reaction to that last sentence was, “Say whaaaaat?” – join the club.

Talkin' Tarheel

Before attending last night’s presentation, I wouldn’t have known a QR if it had bitten me in… well, you get my drift.  Cut me some slack, I’m an old guy!  But actually not as old as Walt and so, after my younger and more tech-savvy wife explained the embedded codes that make it possible to bring up an audio-visual clip on your smart phone, I understood what a perfect tool for communicating the message of such a book this is. You can also access the audio-visual clips on an e-reader, or by visiting

For instance, when one Tar Heel woman says of another, “Bless her heart!” it’s impossible to pick up all the shades of what is meant simply by reading the written word.  Voice inflection, timing, and even facial expression all add to the intended message. 

One audio clip featured a variety of readers from all over the state attempting to pronounce the names of places with which they are unfamiliar including Bertie County, Tyrrell County, Fuquay-Varina, Ocracoke, and (one of my favorites) Chicamacomico.  The same place names were then pronounced by locals from each area, with, needless to say, striking differences.

A familiar presence on Ocracoke since he first began studying the “hoi toide” Ocracoke brogue in 1992, Walt is clearly at home on the island with the many friends of all generations he’s made here over the years. My son Emmet, home from college on spring break, was delighted to attend the event.  

“So,” we said to him, “you want to come with us to hear Walt Wolfram?”

“Darn right I’m coming!” he said, “And he’s going to give me some money!” 

Remembering that Emmet’s eighth grade class at Ocracoke School had spent some time with Walt, we were curious as to what sort of debt the boy was calling in.

“You’ll see,” he said. 

At the end of the program, Walt asked who in the audience had worked with him as a school student. Emmet’s hand shot up and when recognized he said, “Not only that, but I still remember what an isogloss is!”

“Okay,” Walt said, “What is it?”

“An imaginary line on a map that marks the difference between regional dialects,” he said.

Walt took out his wallet and handed Emmet a dollar explaining that this is a standing deal he has with all his former eighth graders.

“If I ever see one of them again and they can tell me what an isogloss is, I’ll give them a dollar.”

Walt and his colleagues at the North Carolina Language and Life Project at NCSU developed a curriculum about NC dialects (featuring, among others, the Ocracoke brogue) that’s been approved for all North Carolina 4th and 8th graders. Those are the years that students take NC history, and Walt thinks any study of the state’s history and culture should include the way people talk.

The Brogue book
The Brogue book

Accompanying Walt and Jeffrey on this visit were a number of their graduate students as well as a camera crew from WUNC-TV there to film an “Our State” segment about Walt’s work.

As I listened to Jeffrey Reaser explain how he had come to be involved in the world of sociolinguistics, I couldn’t help but wonder how my own life might have turned out differently if I’d only had a prof. like Walt Wolfram back in my undergrad days at UNC where I switched majors with every change of the seasons.

It’s always inspiring to hear from folks who really love what they do.


You can find Walt Wolfram's books at the OPS Museum gift shop and other island bookshelves. The OPS Museum will open for the season on Thursday, March 26th.

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