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.

53 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.

  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.”

  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.

  4. Chris says:

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

  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.

  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!

  7. Ricky Ziblay says:

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

  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.

  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.”

  14. Kim Ireland says:

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

  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?

  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”?

  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)

  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.

  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

  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.

  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.

  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.

  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.

  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.

  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?

  44. 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! 😉

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