Excerpt: Talkin’ Tar Heel, by Walt Wolfram and Jeffrey Reaser

Talkin' Tar Heel: How Our Voices Tell the Story of North CarolinaDrawing on over two decades of research and 3,000 recorded interviews from every corner of the state, Talkin’ Tar Heel: How Our Voices Tell the Story of North Carolina introduces readers to the unique regional, social, and ethnic dialects of North Carolina, as well as its major languages, including American Indian languages and Spanish. Considering how we speak as a reflection of our past and present, Walt Wolfram and Jeffrey Reaser show how languages and dialects are a fascinating way to understand our state’s rich and diverse cultural heritage. The book is enhanced by maps and illustrations and augmented by more than 100 audio and video recordings, which can be found online at talkintarheel.com.

In the following excerpt from the book (pp. 74-76), Wolfram and Reaser explore how urbanization affects dialect and cultural identity among North Carolinians. (Note: The print edition of the book contains QR codes that link to related media at talkintarheel.com. We’ve embedded hyperlinks in the body of the text below.)

Some of the regional differences in North Carolina can be quite striking, but we don’t have to travel very far to hear distinctive dialects. Lots of differences can be explained by appealing to a couple of distinctions: rural and urban and young and old. To hear the contrast, residents of metropolitan centers like Charlotte, Raleigh, or Greensboro only need to go to a farmers market where an older farmer is selling fresh produce from his family farm, putting your snaps, taters, and butter beans in a poke for you to carry home. Or go to a local country barbecue pit and learn about the intricacies of eastern and western style ‘cue. Rural folks are known for maintaining more traditional ways of southern speaking to complement a range of other lifestyle differences, and city folks may shift their ways of speaking and acting to sound more cosmopolitan.

A worker in the Bank of America Corporate Center in Charlotte who asks you to “mash the button” for the elevator or to “he’p him tote the computer right yonder” would get a quizzical look or a patronizing chuckle for “talking country” in the towering edifice representing the second-largest financial center in the United States. But those who react in condescension may not realize that this way of speaking was the dialect norm in the city just a couple of generations ago—and probably in the residential home that once stood on this site. As one elderly Charlotte resident, born in 1919, recalled: “I remember when Discovery Place was just a little neighborhood store.”[1] Discovery Place, of course, is the modern science and technology museum built in the uptown area of Charlotte in the 1980s.

The label country in “they speak country” is more than a synonym for rural. It embeds a set of personal and social traits that index assumptions about a lack of cultural sophistication, a limited education, and a rustic lifestyle. A recent study of students from the North Carolina mountains attending a southern urban university found that they had diverse reactions to “country speech” ranging from mild amusement to anger about the linguistic profile of an imagined country persona and nonstandard southern speech.[2] When combined with the noun bumpkin, as in “We don’t want to sound like country bumpkins,” it takes on a highly pejorative connotation.

The term bumpkin has a long history in the English language, and some derivatives such pumpkin bumpkin, or even bumpkin lumpkin pumpkin, have been used as terms of endearment. But more traditionally, country bumpkin suggests an inability to adjust to the pace of the modern world associated with city life. Bumpkin has been used in English far longer than English has been spoken in what is now North Carolina.[3] The term comes up quite regularly in interviews with residents in Charlotte when they talk about the transformation of the city. As one business and political leader, sitting in his Charlotte office on the top floor of a skyscraper, put it: “Communication today is so important, not only in the words you say but in the way you say them. The image that we project is in large measure determined by the way we say it. If we aren’t very careful, we might be characterized as a country bumpkin.”[4]

The label country reflects underlying ideologies about American lifestyle and values and is open to varying interpretations. The popular country song by George Jones, “I was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool,” points to the value conflict resulting from the mixing of “urban” and “rural”:

They call us country bumpkins
For stickin’ to our roots.
I’m just glad we’re in a country
Where we’re all free to choose
I was Country, when Country wasn’t cool.[5]

Language change takes place everywhere, but the speed and direction of change in remote areas is different from urban environments. Wherever these changes take place, they carry social meaning. In the South, the cities have been the focal point of some rapid and socially significant changes in dialect, making them highly intriguing research sites. One of our linguistic colleagues, Dr. Robin Dodsworth, has spent over a half dozen years interviewing more than 250 native-born Raleighites of all ages to study the intricate and changing dialect patterns in the shifting social milieu of the metropolitan South.[6] In Raleigh, as in most other big cities of the South, the population now mixes longtime southern urban residents, rural residents who moved to the city from outlying regions, and, of course, the Yankee transplants who have helped change the face—and the voices—of southern cities over the past couple of generations. Also contributing to the linguistic mix are voices from other countries, as the southeastern United States experienced the largest proportional increase of immigrants of any region of the United States over the last few decades.

The cities mix people from different places, but they don’t always match them well, and a natural tension can exist between those whose kinfolk have lived there for generations and newer residents. As one transplant sees it, “So many of us are coming to the South now, and the whole nature of the South will change because of it.” But then she alludes to the potential clash: “So we will be North Carolinians—whether the locals like it or not.”[7]

Some southerners see urbanization as a positive, progressive change, while others think it is the worst thing that ever happened to the South. Most have mixed emotions. As Sallie Griffin puts it, “I don’t want us to lose all of our southern charm, but it’s okay to lose some of it.”[8] How much is enough—in language and in custom? How much linguistic accommodation can happen before compromising identity in language and lifestyle? There are no quotas for Yankee transplants and no regulations governing interregional unions, though we’ve met people who would prefer that there were some.

From Talkin’ Tar Heel: How Our Voices Tell the Story of North Carolina by Walt Wolfram and Jeffrey Reaser. Copyright © 2014 by the University of North Carolina Press.

  1. [1]Quote from Neal Hutcheson, producer, Voices of North Carolina (Raleigh: North Carolina Language and Life Project, 2005).
  2. [2]See Stephany B. Dunstan, “The Influence of Speaking a Dialect of Appalachian English on the College Experience” (Ph.D. diss., North Carolina State University, 2013). Also see Lauren Hall-Lew and Nola Stephens, “County Talk,” Journal of English Linguistics 40, no. 1 (2012): 1–25.
  3. [3]The earliest usages (1570) cataloged in the Oxford English Dictionary (online edition) suggest the term (alternatively spelled “bunkin”) was a humorous designation for a Dutchman. How the term came into English is not certain, but it may have been a borrowing of the Dutch term bommekijn, which meant “little barrel.” It is easy to see how it evolved into the description of a “short, stumpy” person. In the eighteenth century, it shifted again, this time into its modern American usage to mean “rustic” or “clownish.”
  4. [4]Quoted from Hutcheson, Voices of North Carolina.
  5. [5]Song written by Kyle Fleming and Dennis Morgan. Lyrics from http://www.metrolyrics.com/i-was-country-when-country-wasnt-cool-lyrics-george-jones.html.
  6. [6]For technical details, see Robin Dodsworth and Mary Kohn, “Urban Rejection of the Vernacular: The SVS Undone,” Language Variation and Change 24, no. 2 (2012): 221–45.
  7. [7]Quoted from Hutcheson, Voices of North Carolina.
  8. [8]Ibid.