On a small island 34 miles off the coast of North Carolina, the local population speaks a unique dialect that is a linguistic relative of Elizabethan English, the language spoken at the time of William Shakespeare. Ocracoke Island’s extreme isolation has preserved3 the ‘Hoi Toider’ dialect — a mix of Elizabethan English, Scottish and Irish accents, and pirate slang, with added vocabulary from local Native Americans — to this day. ‘Hoi Toider’, says one linguistic expert, is “the only American dialect that is not identified as American.”
The 18th century was a wonderful time for pirates. Trade was growing between Europe and the Americas, and the sea was full of merchant ships with valuable cargoes. Ocracoke Island was a perfect place for pirates to hide, including the infamous Blackbeard. In 1759, an ex-member of Blackbeard’s crew, William Howard, bought the island for £105.
A New Community
Howard started to build a community with the help of the local boat pilots who guided ships around the island’s sandbars. English, Scottish and Irish settlers also joined the community, along with ex-pirates. A Native American tribe, called the Woccocock, fished and hunted on the island, which in time became known as Ocracoke.
Creating a Dialect
The isolated community started mixing words and dialects, finally creating their own vernacular and accent. The origin of the dialect’s name, ‘Hoi Toider’, is a question of pronunciation; so ‘high’ is pronounced ‘hoi’ and ‘tide’ is pronounced ‘toide’ — thus the speakers are ‘hoi toiders’. The dialect is actually a product of a mixture of languages, not surprising as the first settlers had spent much of their lives travelling. ‘Pizer’, for example, means ‘porch’, and comes from the Italian ‘piazza’. ‘Quamish’ means ‘sick’ or ‘nauseous’, and comes from the 16th century English word ‘qualm’. If you want a complete phrase: “Mommuck a buck before going up the beach”, or “Tease a good friend before leaving the island.”
Sadly, the dialect is now under serious threat. With tourism, the island is now less isolated, and more people are now moving from the mainland offshore (non-natives are ‘dingbatters’). The internet and messaging on mobile phones are resulting in language standardisation. Less than half the population of around a thousand now speak the dialect. Experts think that ‘Hoi Toider’ could be a thing of the past in just two generations. English from the time of Shakespeare will be gone forever.