6 Expressions Say it All: Language Variation in the Tar Heel State

Map of North Carolina dialect areas

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Walt Wolfram, William C. Friday Distinguished University Professor of Linguistics at NC State. This post is part of our NC Knowledge List series, which taps into NC State’s expertise on all things North Carolina.

The Linguistic Landscape of North Carolina

As North Carolinians celebrate the many material and cultural resources of the state, we sometimes overlook one of its most noteworthy legacies: its unique dialect and language traditions. No state has a more diverse – or beguiling – dialect landscape.

Over the past quarter of a century, the Language and Life Project at North Carolina State University has attempted to capture the language tradition of the Old North State by conducting more than 3,500 interviews with residents from Murphy to Manteo (literally!). In the process, North Carolina has become the most linguistically documented state in America, and all of the recordings are preserved in an online archive.

But we have also tried to share our knowledge with North Carolinians through an array of public and educational venues: documentaries (e.g., Voices of North Carolina, Mountain Talk, The Carolina Brogue), permanent and limited-time exhibits (e.g. Ocracoke Preservation Society, Museum of the Southeast American Indian, North Carolina State Fair), popular books (e.g. Talkin’ Tar Heel, Hoi Toide on the Outer Banks, Fine in the World: Lumbee Language in Time and Place), and a curriculum on language diversity for Grade 8 Social Studies (called “Voices of North Carolina: From the Atlantic to Appalachia”) endorsed by the N.C. Department of Instruction. Through these public outlets and activities, North Carolina has now become the most linguistically celebrated state in the U.S.

To give a sense of the dialect landscape of the Tar Heel State, I have selected a half-dozen dialect expressions that tell complementary stories of our state’s unique language tradition. At the same time, they also convey a sense of how dialects dynamically transmit the rich history and culture of our state.

North Cackalacky (North Carolina):

Pin that says I Speak North CackalackyThe Old North State has endured lots of nicknames over the centuries, but one of the most revealing is the term North Cackalacky. Ironically, the term Cackalacky speaks to an unwitting conspiracy of outsiders, insiders, the sweet potato industry, and the barbecue-sauce industry to highlight the significance of native status. Intriguing etymologies – or accounts of how the word was developed – have been proposed:for example, the Cherokee term tsalaki, meaning ‘Cherokee’, pronounced “cha-lak-ee”; the German word for cockroach, kakerlake; and the Scottish soup cocklakeelie. But the most probable origin is that it developed from a kind of sound-play utterance once used to parody the rural ways of people from Carolina.

In the 1940s, “Cackalacky” was used in a somewhat derogatory way by outsiders. For example, servicemen assigned to rural bases in the state in the 1940s referred to their environs as “Cackalacky,” deriding the rural ways of native North Carolinians. Though it may have been intended as an insult, over time the term was reappropriated by natives, and it is now embraced affectionately as a positive reference to state identity. The term has even been appropriated by commercial products that wish to reflect their downhome, regional heritage – the original Cackalacky Spice Sauce, a zesty, sweet potato-based sauce, was trademarked in 2001 and is now distributed throughout the state and well beyond. The positive use of North Cackalacky is spreading, and the pin-back button that reads “I speak North Cackalacky” is one of the most popular items given away at our annual exhibit on languages and dialects at the North Carolina State Fair in Raleigh.

Dingbatter (tourist):

Pin that says DingbatterIn the early 1970s, the Outer Banks of North Carolina got access to television broadcasts. At the time, the most popular sitcom was All in the Family, a controversial program that parodied a misogynist and racist character, Archie Bunker (played by Carroll O’Connor), who referred to his wife Edith (Jean Stapleton) as a “dingbat” for her alleged lack of common sense.

At the time, outsiders on Ocracoke and other Outer Banks islands were referred to as foreigners or strangers, but the term dingbatter seemed like a perfect way to describe the lack of common sense sometimes exhibited by tourists who tangle their fishing lines with commercial fishers and think the middle of Highway 12 is a walking trail. To this day, outsiders on Ocracoke are referred to as dingbatters, though it is losing some ground to the blended term touron, a combination of tourist and moron. This kind of appropriation demonstrates two important lessons about language variation. First, it illustrates how local regions readily adopt terms that separate insiders and outsiders, whether it’s dingbatter on the Outer Banks or Jasper and peckerwood in the mountains of North Carolina. And it reveals how dynamic and creative words can be, as local communities ascribe labels to insiders and outsiders.

Boot (trunk of a car):

One of the well-known differences between British English and American English is the different terms for the primary storage area of a car. In America, it’s called a trunk and in England it’s a boot. Travelers to the Coastal Plain of North Carolina, however, may be surprised to find that rural residents in these areas also refer to it as a boot. From counties such as Bertie and Martin in the northern Coastal Plain to Brunswick and New Hanover in the south, older residents may use the term boot to refer to what most Americans call a trunk. The residents did not travel to England to pick up the term; it’s simply an older form in English that was used to refer to the luggage compartment that often sat under the seat by the boots of the driver in horse-and-buggy times. Given the history of small, isolated rural communities in North Carolina, it stands to reason that it is a state that retains is fair share of “relic” dialect terms.

Sigogglin’ (crooked, not straight):

Pin that says Sigogglin'Words that describe attributes of objects or moods of people (e.g. ill for ‘angry,’ jubious for ‘afraid’ or ‘hesitant,’ mommuck for ‘harass’ or ‘bother’) are often vulnerable to dialect differentiation, so it stands to reason that an adjective that describes something that “just ain’t quite straight” or is “off from the perpendicular” would be an ideal dialect marker.

In the Smoky Mountains, sigogglin’ (pronounced ‘sigh-gog-lin) is the unique term of choice. But on the coast of North Carolina, cattywampus and whopperjawed are favored. The term wampus cat, derived from cattywampus, may be used on the coast to describe a person who might be “a little off.” Colorful descriptive terms like these characterize the dialects of North Carolina.

Weren’t (was not):

It might seem strange to include a verb form like weren’t in a list of distinctive North Carolinian dialect expressions, but it illustrates an important point about dialects – that they are not random deviations from mainstream dialects. Instead, they have highly intricate patterns or rules that govern their usage.

The use of weren’t where other dialects use wasn’t (as in “I weren’t there” or “It weren’t in the house”) is only found among American English dialects in the mid-Atlantic coastal region. In North Carolina, it is used on islands such as Ocracoke, Harkers Island, and other historically isolated coastal communities, but it is also found among the Lumbee Indians in mainland Robeson County, where the community has been culturally isolated.

This patterning of weren’t reflects a peculiar, structured reorganization where was is ONLY used in positive or affirmative sentences, and were is ONLY with negative sentences. Positive sentences would look like this: I was there, You was there or (S)he was there. All negative sentences would take the form weren’t: I weren’t there, You weren’t there or (S)he weren’t there. The alignment of was with positive sentences and were with negative sentences is quite different from the majority of English dialects, where was is used with singular forms (I was, he was, etc.) and were is used with plural forms (we were, they were, etc.). This distinctive grammatical trait is characteristic of a number of regional and social dialects in England as well (e.g. Fens, East Anglia) but in the U.S., it is peculiar to a few geographically or culturally isolated regions.

Might Could (may or might be able to):

Pin that says Might CouldThe expression might could is hardly unique to the Tar Heel State. It is as widespread and Southern as kudzu! But in North Carolina, it is so common that it is barely noticeable – unless you are a Yankee transplant.

Its use by North Carolinians is unique because it is no respecter of social class in North Carolina; in fact, the last five governors of the state routinely used the term without fear of linguistic censure. So-called “double modals” are combinations of two verbs expressing moods, such as certainty, possibility, obligation or permission. Sentences such as “I might could go there” or “You might oughta take it” serve a special intentional purpose, lessening the force of the obligation conveyed by a single modal. A sentence like “She might could do it” is less forceful than single modals such as “She may do it” or “She can do it.” So a person who responds to an invitation to come to a party with “I might could come” is not obligated to attend. They may or may not show up, but don’t be disappointed if you don’t see them. We can see how this mitigated obligation might come in handy for a politician – or any other North Carolinian. In fact, these kinds of expressions may give insight into the cultural notion of “Southern politeness,” along with Bless your heart, a superficial compliment to camouflage an underlying insult.

144 responses on “6 Expressions Say it All: Language Variation in the Tar Heel State

  1. Adam says:

    Hey, here in South Carolina, I say “might could” quite often. I feel like it drives the point home.

    1. Rhonda Fields says:

      In NC we would say “I reckon I might could”! I live in Bladen county and have a very heavy Southern drawl. Some do and some don’t. A woman from Virginia told me one time she could always tell who was from NC by the way we say water! Worter?

      1. Karla Holcombe says:

        Yep. I say worker and Diddy (Daddy). From Onslow County.

      2. Kelly says:

        And even what part of NC! I’ve heard that the folks that pronounce water as “worter” likely do so because of British settlers back in the day – mostly Eastern/Northeastern NC (like in Ocracoke now) – and it lasting for the most part, over time! Just think of how British people pronounce it and you’ll hear the resemblance. 🙂

  2. Judy says:

    Where can we hear audio of these words?

    1. Ann Wagner says:

      Very interesting!

    2. ash says:

      i don’t know where to find audio, but as a n NC native, I can tell you that “weren’t” rhymes with “burnt”.

    3. Brooks T Pearce says:

      In North Carolina , Come on down, up or over what ever might be the correct direction . Yo might could hear it in person 🙂

    4. Jake says:

      The link where it says “all of these recordings are archived in an online archive.”

    5. ERIC says:

      Look for any old store/barber shop/hardware store (not a box home improvement megaplex) that has rocking chairs and or benches. Pull in, sit a spell and rest your bones while listening to the auditory symphony. If you stay long enough to get hungry go in and buy a pack of Nabs and a Cheerwine or Pepsi or have a Moon Pie and a RC Cola.

    6. Bolt Thunder says:

      I would think youtube?

  3. Carolyn Dale says:

    Interesting article. But there just isn’t a New Brunswick in North Carolina. You might could find one in Canada.

    1. Blakeney Adams says:

      It is actually Brunswick County formed in 1764.

    2. Greg Yeager says:

      I noticed that too. I wonder if the author meant New Hanover which borders Brunswick county.

    3. Larry Newsome says:

      No sorry Carolyn Dale but you are wrong, there is a New Brunswick in N.C. It is a small town located on the southeastern outskirts of Whiteville N.C. in Columbus County on SR 130 going towards the coast. My grandmother always called it New Brunswick though many now just refer to it as Brunswick. Incorrectly, I might add.

  4. Chris says:

    There’s always ‘mashing a button’ to turn on a light.

    1. Rita says:

      I always say mash the button!

      1. Rocky says:

        Of course you mash the button on an elevator, how else you going to git to the next floor! Lol

    2. Julie says:

      I grew up with “cut on the lights” or “cut off the lights”. As a NC transplant to upstate NY I recently saw this sign on a trip near Boone, NC “motorcyclis must burn their headlights”!

  5. Gary Harris says:

    Wake County is more coastal dialect than Piedmont. The change is just west of Durham. Also the Virgina Piedmont sound runs through almost all of Franklin County. Think your Piedmont brogue is a bit too far east.

    1. Catherine Lane Diehl says:

      You are absolutely correct. I was born in Kinston and grew up in Wilson and we played Raleigh in sports and Winston Salem was foreign as was Greensboro.

  6. Pat says:

    “Bless your heart” didn’t used to be a veiled insult, and I know folks who still use it in the literal fashion. Just so you know, don’t always take it negatively. E.g., “John’s in the hospital.” “Oh, bless his heart, I hope he’s okay,” that’s positive, but “Jack ate his daddy’s tobacco and got sick.” “Bet he won’t do that again, bless his heart! (chuckle)” Just like “y’all” doesn’t mean “you,” singular, like northerners think, but “you and all your folk” (we’d never say it to a man w/ no family) or, to one person, “y’all done?” = “Are you completely done?” (answer: “Yep, all done.”) No southerner I know would ever say “what y’all doin'” to ask a man what he’s got in his hand. I wish Hollywood folks would read up on this stuff, so’s they get it right!

    1. Rw says:

      That’s definitely regional. I was born in Texas, moved to NC recently. We say y’all singularly, all y’all for multiple.

    2. Beran says:

      Actually along the coast we have a two different “ya’lls”
      a) “Ya’ll” by itself is one or two people max..
      b) “All ya’ll” is definitely three or more.

      @Julia I’ve never heard “mutha” from southerners.. only southern Jersey.. here it’s “momma” But “rurnt”? Definitely!

      And don’t forget “buggy” (what you yankees call a “shopping cart”) 😉

    3. Vivian says:

      I use “bless your heart” to mean exactly that, no veiled insult. And I’m from Pender County.

  7. Ricky Ziblay says:

    I use were’nt and hear it used quite a bit . I live in Chatham County.

    1. Suzi says:

      I ain’t heard that, narry a bit, Ricky Zibley

  8. Randy Rose says:

    How about the Johnston county use of the word “won’t” (used in place of wasn’t or was not), as in “I was going to fix it, but it won’t broke.” This is so unique to Johnston County, that I’ve heard other people in the Air Force mention the unusual use.

    1. Teresa says:

      I absolutely love this article! I was raised in Johnston County and now live in South Carolina, but I can still hear Grandmamma say most all of what is included here. What a wonderful treasure to have found. Thank you.

      1. Joyce Joines Newman says:

        The term “won’t” is used all over Eastern North Carolina. Never heard it in the west.

        1. Bill Lennartz says:

          I agree. I hear “won’t” everywhere I’ve lived in eastern NC…..Edgecombe, Nash, Pitt, and Beaufort counties. I assumed long ago that it’s a variation of “weren’t”, used like the article mentions.

    2. Much says:

      You could write a book on language from Joco. Who would want to, I have no clue, but there you go.

    3. J. Scott says:

      Also used by people in and around Danville, Virginia, which is on the Virginia- North Carolina border.

      1. Stuart says:

        I grew up using “won’t” in Danville Va. I still do.

    4. Margaret says:

      I say that too – it won’t stuck too bad, so we just pushed it out. I grew up in Harnett County.

    5. Helen W Hinshaw says:

      I’m so glad you brought up the use of the word “won’t” because I was a fixin’ to! I’m not sure where Johnston county is but I’ve heard it used by people in the Coastal Plains area. “Who ate that last piece of pie”? “It won’t me!”

    6. barbara boney campbell says:

      I grew up in Tarboro (Edgecombe County, of course) and always said “won’t” in place of was not: I called her up but she won’t home.

    7. Sheila says:

      Im from J County and you are soooo right..i have 4 college degrees and still use these words..i am sooo happy to have read this about my state…I NC!

  9. Caroline Berry says:

    The Scottish soup referred to above is “cockaleekie,” not as spelled in the article.

  10. Carrie says:

    I just had a conversation yesterday with a good friend from out of state about the not so nice meaning of “bless your heart” here in my home state. We discussed the phrase at best can mean the person does not understand you or what you are doing/did, and at worst is maliciously deriding you as a person. This depends on context and tone of the speaker. My ancestors moved from England to Virginia when it was a colony and then migrated to North Carolina in the 1700s, so many of the phrases above are familiar to me.

  11. Angela says:

    It’s not “weren’t”. It’s “won’t”.
    Me: “Somebody ate the pie I baked for supper.” Anyone in my family: “Well it won’t me.”

  12. Kate Baird says:

    the Scottish soup is “cockaleekie”…..

  13. Priscilla S Hunter says:

    I spent my childhood summers way up in the NC mountains sort of close to Grandfather Mountain (the 60s). Most of the folks up there used the word “weren’t” as you discribed They were certainly geographically isolated, but you don’t mention western NC as a place that manifests “weren’t” in its dialect. They also pronounced “it” as “hit” sometime. I know it was always used at the beginning of a sentence, but I’m not sure if the word was still “hit” when used in the center of a sentence. For example, “Hit weren’t in the kitchen.” Also, “Hit’s’ a gonna rain.”

    1. Sally says:

      I was raised near that mountain area of NC. Many older folks used the word hit rather than it.
      I never heard anyone use the word won’t until I moved to the Raleigh area. I notice people from Johnston County, Henderson and other areas around here use won’t. (That was a good game won’t it?)

    2. Lacey says:

      Yes, I grew up near Grandfather Mountain as well, “weren’t” us widely used in the Mountain region. Also “hit” for it, younse, lunchbucket, git for get. Lots of southern things happening in the mountains. I feel it’s a little of a mish mash of all Carolinian dialects.

  14. Kim Ireland says:

    How about “usedta could?” He used to could run for miles until he tore his knee up.

    1. Kristi says:

      Being a NC native I have always been utterly fascinated by the unusually high number of different dialects in this state. My husband calls me an amateur linguist. Strangely I have an ear for it and can pretty much pin what part of the state you’re from in a couple of sentences. Sometimes which county. Mountain dialects are completely different from the coastal “high tiders”. ( which btw is north eastern coast only. )You do not hear it in southern coastal ares such as New Hanover or Brunswick counties. Eastern Noth Carolina is so different from neighbors just up road in Wake County it’s astounding. I could go on and on. Very interesting!

      1. Cindy Marie says:

        Varnamtown has that ‘hoitoider’ dialect, and it’s on the southeastern coast.

    2. Sha says:

      Hear that pretty often in SE NC- especially from long term residents

    3. Meghan C says:

      That’s another version of a double modal too 🙂 I’m sure I’ve said “I might used to woulda done that”

  15. Ellen says:

    Fascinating and familiar.

  16. Mark says:

    Has anyone else heard the use of the word “won’t” in place of the word “wasn’t” around the Raleigh area?

    1. Lisa H says:

      “Wont” for wasn’t or weren’t is certainly standard around Wilson, where I grew up.

  17. Phil Shepard says:

    The headline should be changed from Tar Heel State to Wolfpack State

  18. Kay W says:

    Hi, Judy, you can hear the audio at nearly any church gathering, grocery store, or courthouse in NC.

  19. Kelly says:

    What about the phrase “I reckon”?

    1. Felicia says:

      I was just thinking about this one. My family is from Hertford/Northampton County and we would say reckon but it sounded more like rehgn with very little g. Almost an entirely different word.

    2. Helen W Hinshaw says:

      I’m from southwest Virginia and when I was in college, people would laugh at me for saying “I reckon.”

  20. Carol says:

    I am from NC and have never heard of half of these terms. ?????

    1. Melissa says:

      You must be a “youngin” (young person)

    2. Christopher Cunningham says:

      Lord have mercy Jesus…where from you!!

    3. Meghan says:

      If you’re from the Raleigh or Charlotte areas or anywhere else with more transplants than natives, that’s not too surprising

  21. Willis Truesdale says:

    I always heard “leaning toward schronces” as crooked or not straight. I much more prefer that than “sigogglin”. However either will work.

    1. Rzack says:

      My family always said “leaning toward the schronces” too. I thought it was just us!

    2. Sally says:

      Is this a very local Catawba County/Lincoln County thing? I’ve heard that it referenced a leaning barn in Lincoln County from a haughty Catawba County resident, or vice versa:)

    3. Kathy says:

      Love all the words and phrases popping up in the replies. I am from a family of Schronces. “leaning towards the Schronces” makes me laugh every time I hear it. I’ve always heard the same definition…not straight, cockeyed, maybe even a little shady like a “horse trader”.

  22. Conni says:

    We live on the Coast near a military base where dialects meld with military jargon and your hometown accent becomes more mellow. I could always tell when Mom went to visit her kin in Winston-Salem. She come back home with a more drawn out, nasally accent – a nice sing songy voice.

  23. Frances Langley says:

    I am 70 years old, born & raised in rural part of NC. Now I understand why they told me in mid-1960’s at UNC that I would never make it in business if I didn’t take some speech courses. I didn’t take speech courses, graduated, stayed in NC & had a business career & did ok, so guess NC people understood me after all. Of course, I went to New Jersey for job interview one time & they just wanted me to sit in chair in middle of room & talk.

  24. Chris says:

    I thought I was a true blue, back woods raised North Carolinian who knew all the lingo until I went to college and moved to Boone. Up there, I heard locals use the word “y’all” which I completely understood and used myself, but I also learned another word which carries the same meaning: “you’uns.”

    1. Deedee says:

      I was raised in N.C. and only time I heard you’uns was when we visited family in Eastern TN. Where I’m from its always been ya’ll

      1. Amie says:

        I’m from Haywood County in NC and you-in’s is used quite frequently here.

    2. Gary says:

      Here in Cherokee County(Murphy/Andrews area) it’s not even You’uns it pronounced Yuns. Cherokee County is as far inland in the state you can go, and borders Tennessee and Georgia.

    3. Julia says:

      I first heard it in Boone, too, and again when I was a reporter in the mountain counties west of Asheville. Often pronounced “yins.”

      1. Brenda Aliff says:

        I’m from Mingo County, WV. I am familiar with and used most of the terms I’ve read here. You’uns and young’uns translates for outsiders to you ones and young ones. Is anyone familiar with “nuss”? How about “play purties”?
        I love our Appalachian language. It sorrows me that I don’t hear it much anymore. It’s beautiful, colorful, and unique.

  25. Brenda says:

    I live in NC and have used might could , cattywampus , Bless your heart

  26. MrGuy says:

    I’ve heard “cattywampus” used like other areas of the US use “cattycorner” as in, opposite corners.

  27. Jo-Anne says:

    A dear friend Lucille would say “Gollee!” when something astonished her. I find myself doing the same now since I miss her saying it.

    1. Catherine Lane Diehl says:

      As Gomer Pyle said!

  28. Bobby L Padgett II says:

    Magaret Maron used “weren’t” in the language of octagenarian bootlegger Kezzie Knott in the Bootleggers Daughter series that took place in fictional Dobson County, NC (a disguised Johnston County)>

  29. Tim says:

    Judy, all you have to do is imagine Sheriff Taylor saying these words and you can hear them perfectly. 🙂

  30. John Delmar Ward says:

    One saying I was halfway expecting to appear is the use of “are they.”
    It is used like this. “Are they any more hot rolls left? I want one.”
    I’m pretty sure it has a Lumbee Indian origin, but I’m not certain. This one always cracks me up.

    1. Joyce Joines Newman says:

      Why does it “crack you up”? Don’t you understand the meaning perfectly well?

      1. John Delmar Ward says:

        LOL!

    2. Rhonda Fields says:

      The southern way of saying ” I set it over there”is said by the Lumbees as “I sot it over der”! Some will use the word kelvinator instead of refridgerator. Usually depends on the age of the person. The older ones sometimes say it that way.

      1. John Delmar Ward says:

        That sounds kind of Cajun!

  31. Will Adams says:

    “The use of weren’t where other dialects use wasn’t (as in “I weren’t there” or “It weren’t in the house”) is only found among American English dialects in the mid-Atlantic coastal region.” Actually, this usage is *very* common here in northern Vermont.

  32. Dave Davis says:

    There’s a good video of the coastal “hightider’s” dialect on you tube and it includes several of the Down east coastal terms mentioned here. Being from New Bern, I hear a lot of these words spoken in Craven, Pamlico and Carteret Counties. As a separate note, my great grandmother in rural Wayne County used to use a word when she was washing clothes to describe them turned inside-out or “wrong side outwards” . I’ll spell it like it sounded, ” ronsidowdards”.

  33. Annie says:

    So glad you included the paragraph about “boot.” I grew up in western Carteret County, and we said “boot” instead of “trunk” most of the time. I had no idea it was a colloquialism until my husband from PA questioned it.

    1. Leigh says:

      My Daddy, raised in Pender Co., said “boot” a lot. For a long time I didn’t know it was the trunk!

  34. ALLYNNA T. STONE says:

    I was raised to call the trunk, the “Boot” and when I moved from New Bern to Arkansas in the late 1960’s, my classmates thought I was form England!

  35. Bob says:

    You could have written more about “bless your heart”. Sure, it can be an insult (substitute “you fool”) but it can also be a sincere expression of sympathy or sorrow. It can also be a simple exclamation. Context defines it.

    1. Suzanne says:

      Bless your heart for pointing that out!

  36. Sue says:

    My mother was raised in a small eastern NC town in the 1920’s. When I was a teenager if a boy called to ask for a date, my mom would tell me that I “might could” go. Which more often than not meant “no”. Both she and my grandmother used “weren’t” quite a bit. I had a teacher who used “t’wern’t” frequently, as in “it t’wern’t going to happen”.

  37. Rhonda Breed says:

    I reckon I’m Pamlico Sound with a touch of Coastal Plains.

  38. Albert says:

    Born 7 decades ago and raised in N.C. in the latter half of the 20th century, I have only heard “cackalacky” used in a pejorative sense or for marketing purposes. I have not observed it to be embraced affectionately or otherwise (or even used at all) by natives.

  39. Lib says:

    Lenora Co natives use the term “boot” and also “pocket” for the glove compartment.

  40. Anne says:

    Is “I swanee” limited to eastern NC? I read it’s a contraction of “I shall warrant ye.” Fascinating, fun article.

    1. Nan says:

      ‘I swanee’ or ‘I swan’ as an exclamation like ‘I do declare’ is definitely common in Virginia west of the Blue Ridge.

    2. David Bottoms says:

      All my family is East Texan, and I grew up there and in Shreveport. My one grandma would say either “I’ll Swan” or “I’ll swanee.” Interesting hearing where it might have come from. Also, yes, to put something “up”…only way I’ve ever said it. The whole “bless your heart” routine (as a veiled slam) is a little old: I think it’s one of those things the Internet has given rise to. Sort of like “RC Cola and a Moon Pie.” Sheeeeeesh…never heard that growing up….pretty sure that’s like a more Eastern-South thing.

    3. Martha Glass says:

      I grew up in Martinsville VA, 50 miles north of Greensboro. My mother said “Swannee River” as an exclamation, so I always thought “I Swannee” was similar, and use it to this day.

    4. Michele says:

      I’ve always said I Swanee instead of I swear. I lived in South Carolina until I was 12 and moved to coastal North Carolina. I have lived here 31 years. I have used and heard almost all of these words/ sayings. My co workers laugh at me all the time. But I laugh at one of my co workers because she says Elt, meaning “Ain’t that precious”

      1. Meghan C says:

        I’ve never seen anyone else mention this, by my mom does that too! Like expressing “well isn’t that something!” I always assumed it was just “well!” without the “w”since I’ve never seen it spelled (to me the last sound is a glottal stop, like the sound in front of and in between “uh-oh”, but we do say a lot of “t”s that way like in “mountain”)

    5. Sherry says:

      I would think it is closer to ‘well, I’ll be!’, meaning you can’t believe something that person said.

    6. April says:

      My father, who grew up in Charlotte and whose family was from Sampson County, used “I swanee” all the time during my childhood. I always figured it took the place of “I swear” as in “I swanee, you’re going to timeout as soon as we get home.” 🙂

  41. michael salter says:

    Something my greatgrandmother (born 1905, died 1988, lived and died in Carteret County, eastern nc) used to say:
    Them’s the eatinest yougins I ever seen. They been mommickin me to death.
    Eatinest – they eat a lot.
    Mommick – to tear to shreds. In this case, pestering.

  42. Irene Mitchell says:

    Here in Buncombe county people say “Oh she’s going to the bed.: instead of “to bed”. I was shopping with someone who wanted to buy a bedroom set. She kept saying bedroom suite, but pronounced it suit. Didn’t know if she wanted a new bed or fancy pajamas!

  43. Karen says:

    I moved to the Raleigh area from western New York State 13 years ago. There are two phrases that I commonly hear that were new to me. First of all, saying “put it up” instead of “put it away.” Secondly, asking “Where’s the _ at?” instead of “Where’s the _?” Are these phrases considered part of one the North Carolina dialects?

    1. Karine says:

      I grew up in Lenoir County, and we said bedroom suit too.

    2. Sha says:

      I’ve lived in North Carolina most of my life, but having parents that hail from New Jersey I have a decidedly northern accent, but my husband pointed out that I occasionally use southern phrases like ‘put it up’ (he’s from upstate New York)

  44. Anonymous says:

    I still say “roll it down” when wanting the volume turned down on something.

  45. David says:

    I’m 53 and have lived in various parts of NC all my life. One idiom I picked up on and have retained is to refer to a garden hose as a “hose pipe”. I think I got that from my piedmont (Cabarrus county) roots. I spent the summers of my childhood there even as I grew up on the coastal plains.

  46. Greg H. says:

    A lot of these phrases I heard and used myself when growing up in southside Virginia in the ’50’s and early ’60’s. I still use them on occasion for comic relief. I remember that old-timers pronounced the little cans of “Vienna Sausages” as “Vi-eena Sausages”. The first time my wife heard me call them that. she looked at me like I was from another planet.

    1. Joni Barnhardt says:

      Hahaha! My parents did the same re Vienna sausages! I didn’t even realize what I was saying until I said that to my son once. The son who has been to Germany and Austria. LOL He, too, looked at me like I had lost my mind! Then I realized what I had actually SAID and what it really was, and I was kind of astonished! Something else that our family pronounces differently than many people is the word “on.” Most in our family pronounce it like “own.” How common is this? We grew up in central North Carolina.

  47. Juanita Barnett says:

    I’m from Person County and we say many of these. Once at work I said I was ‘fixin’ to do something and someone asked me what was I trying to repair. Haha!

  48. Cleve Callison says:

    I grew up in the Piedmont area of South Carolina (Gaffney) and did graduate llinguistics under the superb dialectician Fred Cassidy at Wisconsin. I’m now in Wilmington, NC. This is a fine article, and the comments are great. The only thing I would add is that it focuses on white speech characteristics (with a few references to native tribes). Would love to see an article about African American patterns, and the influence of the growing Latino population.

  49. Kenneth Darland says:

    I found this article to be both interesting and entertaining. I’m from Ottumwa, Iowa. It’s southern Iowa, and yes, that does make a difference. I grew up in western Illinois, just across the Mississippi from Iowa. Moved back to Des Moines (deh MOYN), Iowa in the late 1980s and back to Illinois in the mid-90’s. I’ve never been to North Carolina, although one of my favorite authors lived there.
    I use dingbat, weren’t, might could, y’all, boot, usedta could, reckon, you’uns, and cattywampus. Some of these were learned during childhood and some are affectations picked up from books and TV. I don’t recall for sure, but I suspect that much of it came from Manly Wade Wellman’s body of work which I started reading in my teens. It was after reading Mr Wellman that I read much of The Frank C Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore, at least the volumes on folk-tales and songs, I reckon that played a part as well.
    Another thing is that my mother has a southern Iowa dialect, it isn’t too noticeable now, but when I was a kid and even later when I was a young adult we’d have family reunions. When my mom and her seven siblings got together and had been chatting for a spell, they sounded like they were from the back hills. None of them sounded that way alone, but it seems that each of them had retained different parts of their childhood accent and then they got together it all just sorta came out.

    1. Jim says:

      Did you know Walter O’Reily.

  50. Darlene says:

    I live on Hatteras Island, where the phrase used by the locals was/is :She came home sobbing wet”. Meaning soaking wet.Or used by the older locals she wha whaed,meaning hardy laughter.

    1. Julia says:

      We say “sopping wet” in Catawba County.

  51. LoPop says:

    I have heard all of these expressions and many more. North Carolina needs to publish it’s own dictionary, then all who visit NC will know how to communicate properly. Don’t you’uns reckon hit would be a good ide to do dat!

  52. John Cahill says:

    When my boss of years gone by wanted me to change something he’d say, “John, maybe you might should . . . .” I used to refer to it as the imperative subjunctive. “Maybe” and “might” were there because he was a southern gentleman. But he was also the boss: but we knew the operative word was “should”.

  53. Karine says:

    As an English teacher, I think one should make a distinction between colloquialisms and substandard English. While you cite many interesting colloquial words, the mistakes of subject-verb agreement are primarily substandard English. These kinds of mistakes should be corrected in school. For example, if a student writes “I were” on a paper, I would point out the mistake in subject-verb agreement. Similarly, if a student ends a sentence with a preposition (“Where is he at?”), I will point out that sentences must not end with a preposition. Many educated citizens improve their grammar in school while continuing to use regional expressions. Another point: Travel and education often decreases the use of colloquialisms. For example, as a child I used to say “I might could” until I went to summer camp and a friend from Virginia made fun of me. I also stopped using the word “boot” when I went to a college where other students used “trunk”. I dropped other colloquialisms when I lived in other states to the north and in the midwest. Finally, I dropped even more colloquialisms when I became fluent in other languages and lived abroad. The more one studies languages, the more aware one becomes aware of the difference between regional speech and standard English.

    1. Dana says:

      It feels like you are missing the point. These dialects and colloquialisms are precious and disappearing. I grew up in North Carolina and Virginia. Reading these comments put a smile on my face and made me homesick. I currently live in Hawaii and hearing Hawaiian pidgin is an increasingly rare delight. I doesn’t mean the speakers aren’t educated – they are. They just talk the way they talk and they caint hep it.

      1. Gail says:

        I am a Speech Pathologist living in Richmond Virginia, and have always been interested in hearing and deciphering regional dialects. My father and aunts from Caroline County, always used the terms ‘boot’ and ‘bonnet’ of the car, and pronounced house and about, as “haoose” and “abaoot” . Their pronunciations and speech manner displayed an elegance of speech. Some of my elderly patients also speak this way, but it is a dying thing. It’s so sad to be losing this sweet gentility of speech. We are all being homogenized into one from exposure to television and radio.

  54. John Teague says:

    Instead of “sigogglin,” we always said, “yankeegoddlin.” Same meaning. Hickory, NC

  55. Julia says:

    I am proud of my NC accent! A dying art. I love using prepositions at the end of my sentences! I love using extra an syllable in a word – bear =be-ah, chair=cha-ah, etc. Slower is better. Softer is better than harsh and aggressive.
    How is your Mother? (Muth-a). Makes no never mind to me how y’all say it, and it don’t bother me tal. Cause I’m rurnt! 😉

  56. Pat says:

    I was born and raised in Apex, NC. My mother used to tell me to put the pot or pan on the “eye.” She was referring to the burner of the stove. My college roommate was from Gates County. Mama said they were “high-tiders.” They had a very distinct accent. Words like “out & about” they pronounced “ite & abite.”

    1. Bill says:

      I used to hear that accent around Ahoskie. “About the house” was “abite the hise”.

  57. Mary says:

    My aunt who grew up in Bladen County was very short (4’11” or so). She called that being “low”, as in she weren’t up tall and high she was low — as in “all her folks were low”, meaning the whole family was short. Another Southernism, not sure how NC-specific it is, is the word “carry” used to mean to take a person somewhere. “Do you want me to carry you to store? I’m going to the Piggly-Wiggly.” My dad used to say that one all the time. I definitely grew up hearing and using “whopper-jawed”.

  58. Peggy Masden says:

    This brought back wonderful memories of the late 60s when we lived in Onslow County for three years, moving from KY. I was told the accent there was Elizabethan. I loved it and the people, I remember the “boot” and many more words different from KY talk. I was also introduced to collards and love them to this day. In KY we ate kale greens which I thought collards tasted similar to, .Sure do miss that place.

  59. Anna Dussler says:

    I was born and raised in Washington, N.C., but somehow found myself living in the North Georgia mountains over a decade after leaving home. One day, while speaking with the clerk at the post office, a woman stopped me and put her hand on my shoulder, and said, “I haven’t heard that Eastern N.C. accent in over 20 years, but I’ll never forget it.” She had spent summers in Oriental with her aunt as a child, and the accent lived in her memory as much as the delicious food. Of course my response was, “I don’t have an accent, haha!”

  60. Henry turner says:

    My grandparents used the term gram missed as in I’ve got a notion. As in ” I’m grammised to go fishing a spell” I’m from Caswell county and always got a hard time about it from my friends.

  61. David says:

    Isn’t “weren’t” used as subjunctive, typically the verb of an “if-clause”? At least that’s what I learned in my Surry County high school.

  62. Marla R says:

    I lived with my Nanny (grandmother) in Haywood Co. and we’d go over yonder to Mawmaw’s house (great grandmother). Mawmaw used his’n and her’n for his and hers. You’d also go over to momma n’ems house for supper, usually beans n taters from the garden. H’aint narry a one meant not any. A haint was a ghost. Cut them lights off or cut off the eye when your done fixin’ yer supper. My Mawmaw also used ye instead of you: whatch ye doin’ in yonder? or how ye gittin’ on lately? When she wanted you to hurry she said “don’t tary”. I was ridiculed in college & my professor told a future employer I had a speech impediment. Nope, I’ve got an Appalachian accent that I’m proud of it. The first thing people always ask me is where’s that great accent from? When I go home to Waynesville it just comes back like I never left. If people want to assume I’m uneducated the joke is on them!

  63. Kyle Chavis says:

    Having been “raised up” in Robeson County, I can tell you there are several dialects that vary depending on which community you’re in. One subset of the Lumbee dialect is that of the Prospect community, which has it’s own unique sound. Very interesting and entertaining.

  64. Larry says:

    This article and the accompanying comment thread is fascinating! Shows you the sheer variety of language in NC

  65. Sus says:

    I remember moving to NC from NJ as a child and having to navigate the everyday sayings such as wondering why someone would “carry” me home, cut my lights off (yikes), put my books up (up where?), wan to “hold a dollar” (for how long?) or put my bag “in” the floor (was there a trap door?). My first day at school I was totally confused when asked, ” where do you stay at?” I’m pretty sure most of my classmates pegged me as a non-english speaker for a few months.

  66. Charles says:

    In southeastern NC I grew up hearing people use the word “right” as an adjective, meaning about the same as “very.” For example, “It’s right hot out there today.”

  67. Jim says:

    I loved this article, and particularly the comments. While I was in the Navy I became very good friends with a young man from Brooklyn. Shortly after we met he said, “You don’t speak as if you are from North Carolina.” I said, “Bob, I don’t know if I should consider that a compliment or an insult.” I picked up my nickname in the Navy primarily due to my North Carolina accent.

  68. Big Al says:

    I tell everybody where I’m from there are no single sylabel words spoken.

  69. Bill says:

    My Edgecombe County friends would very nasally say “Hee-a” as in “Come hee-a”, or when calling a pet….”Hee-a, hee-a!”

  70. John Mouser says:

    Whatever. I hope you didn’t spend too much time on this (ever so popular) bashing of the south.
    Listen up everybody, just because people say or write something doesn’t make it true.

  71. Jennifer Paige Hansen says:

    What about “used to could?” When I first moved to NC, no other phrase flummoxed me more!

  72. Dan Schustack says:

    Excellent article and excellent responses. But I think two items were overlooked (bless your hearts). One was the influence of the Scots. If you understand what ‘Aboot the huse’ means then you know aboot all you need to know about highlander accents.
    The other is the phrase “Neo-Elizabethan Syntax”. It’s not what King George collected when people smoked or drank. It means that my Chapel Hill roomie’s phrase “Are you not going to stop?” is the modern equivalent of “Art thou not”. At first, a little difficult to follow for a transplanted Yankee. But it was priceless when it made the reading of classic English literature a breeze. Also, I guess the Moravians who established the town of Wachovia (now called Winston-Salem) and the Germans who settled Mecklenburg County (Charlotte was named for a Queen) didn’t contribute anything linguistically. Which is hard to believe.

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