Book review: ‘Talkin’ Tar Heel’

CorrespondentMay 3, 2014 

  • Nonfiction

    Talkin’ Tar Heel: How Our Voices Tell the Story of North Carolina

    Walt Wolfram and Jeffrey Reaser

    University of North Carolina Press, 352 pages

I grew up in rural Catawba County, N.C. The first town I lived in was Chapel Hill. I didn’t think I had much of an accent or a distinctive manner of speaking. But when I moved to Philadelphia after college, I was informed otherwise. And to the most part, it worked to my advantage, especially when I called around to suburban Philadelphia police departments. My standard line was, “Do you have murders, rapes, suicides, (pause) crimes of passion?” It always got a laugh, and sometimes some news.

So when I saw Walt Wolfram and Jeffrey Reaser’s book “Talkin’ Tar Heel,” I thought I was in for an entertaining look at the quaint speech patterns in North Carolina. But despite the informality of the title and the gaily colored cover, this is more of a college textbook than something you would leave on the bedside table of the guest room.

Wolfram is the William C. Friday Distinguished Professor of English at N.C. State University, where Reaser is an associate professor of English, and they have attacked their subject with scholarly discipline. The research took two decades and involved more than 3,000 recorded interviews.

Along the way, they acquired some interesting facts. Despite urbanization in the Triangle, the Triad and Charlotte, North Carolina remains a predominantly rural state. “In fact, it still has more than 200 towns with populations totaling fewer than 1,000 residents and about 500 towns with fewer than 6,000 residents.”

In addition to the obvious study of the “hoi toid” accent on the Outer Banks and the Elizabethan or Shakespearean English of the mountains, the authors delve deeply into nuances of the mother tongue as it practiced throughout the state.

One of the chapters is on “Lumbee English,” a form of speech common among the Lumbee Indians, who are concentrated in and around Robeson County in the southeast section of the state. Despite being the largest Indian tribe east of Mississippi, the Lumbee are not well known. The Lumbee speech patterns have elements of several regions. “In fact, visitors hearing the dialect for the first time often think that it sounds like Mountain Talk in certain ways and Outer Banks English in others.”

The authors have attempted to leaven the professorial tone of the book with anecdotes about some of the people they interviewed, such as Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton, a well-known moonshiner in Western North Carolina who spoke what he called “hillbilly English.” Sutton was arrested in 2009 and sentenced to 18 months in prison. “Several days before he was scheduled to be imprisoned, smitten with cancer at age sixty-two, Popcorn Sutton took his own life by carbon monoxide poisoning in a Ford Fairlane painted in John Deere green with bright yellow tires.” But even these interludes have the whiff of academia about them: They are footnoted.

Casual readers are apt to trip over the more esoteric parts of the book, such as:

“Perhaps the best-known pronunciation of southern speech is the ungliding or weakening of the long-I glide of words like side and time introduced in Chapter 3. This trait permeates the South, but its distribution in North Carolina is different from that of some other southern states.”

One element of the book that is worth noting is the use of QR codes. When read by smartphones, the codes link to audio and video of different dialects, accents, speech patterns and other elements that work better in sound than in reading. Of special interest is the full-length version of Andy Griffith’s “What It Was, Was Football,” a comedy recording that sold more than 50,000 copies and put Griffith on the road to stardom.

Kenneth S. Allen, a former reporter and editor for The Charlotte Observer, is editor of Greenville Business Magazine and Columbia Business Monthly.

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