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American Speech 77.2 (2002) 216-221
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North Carolina Language and Life
University of Washington
Textbooks about American dialects can help students learn a great deal about the phonology, grammar, and lexicon of these language varieties, but the fact is that students cannot HEAR the dialects on the page. And hearing dialects is potentially what brings them alive, as the language of real speakers who often see their language as a critical part of their identities. Then a "backed /e /" or a "raised diphthong" can take on an entirely new meaning, because such features create the actual sounds of a dialect that identifies a speech community. The video and audio material that Walt Wolfram, Neil Hutcheson, and many others, as well as the North Carolina Language and Life Project have created in conjunction with various other local organizations are valuable teaching tools for exactly that reason: students can see and hear speakers of less-known American dialects talk in and about their dialects—what their language means to them and how others respond to it—and they can learn, in a highly accessible way, about [End Page 216] the origins, development, and characteristic features of these particular language varieties. The length of the videos makes it highly feasible to incorporate them into a class, and the material is presented in such a way as to be informative and interesting to an audience with all levels of linguistic knowledge.
"I definitely think there's a place for all dialects," states Ocracoke historian Alton Ballance in the video The Ocracoke Brogue. He then adds, "There could be nothing worse in this world than if we all spoke the same way." In many ways, these statements capture the premise and theme of this collection of educational materials, which serve to describe two particular American dialects and to explain their importance both for the speakers of these dialects and for the richness of American English more generally. For readers who have seen the educational video American Tongues (Kolker and Alvarez 1987), the format of the two videos will be familiar: a good amount of footage of speakers talking about their language variety and speaking in their language variety, complemented by narrative explaining some of the features of the dialects as well as their possible sources and attitudes about them. In this way, these videos continue what I consider to be an important part of American Tongues: confronting speakers' assumptions about dialects and letting dialect speakers themselves talk about issues of language and identity. Whereas American Tongues surveys a wide range of dialects, the material reviewed here focuses on two North Carolina dialects in detail, and the contrast between the two is fascinating and instructive. The Ocracoke brogue has become something of a tourist attraction, framed often as a "quaint" form of older English—as attested by one Ocracoke resident's story on the cassette/CD Ocracoke Speaks of a tourist walking up to her and commanding, "Speak!" Lumbee English speakers, however, are struggling to have their tribe and their language granted official recognition. In this contrast, students can begin to see the ways in which the values we attach to linguistic variation and dialects are tied to social and cultural factors.
The video TheOcracoke Brogue provides a useful supplement (or alternative) to Wolfram and Schilling-Estes's book Hoi Toide on the Outer Banks...