Mystery solved: why Hoi-Toiders mommuck


Bill Bryson
Monday 03 May 1999 00:02 BST

WE HAVE a man named Walt who does a bit of carpentry around the house from time to time. He looks to be about 112 years old, but goodness me the man can saw and hammer. He has been doing handiwork around town for at least 50 years.

Walt lives in Vermont, just across the Connecticut river from our little town, and is a proper New Englander - honest, hardworking, congenitally disinclined to waste time, money or words. (He converses as if he has heard that some day he will be billed for it.) Above all, like all New Englanders, he is an early riser. Boy, do New Englanders like to get up early. We have some English friends who moved here from Surrey. Soon after arriving, the woman called the dentist for an appointment and was told to come at six-thirty the next day. She showed up the following evening to find the dentist's office in darkness. They had meant 6.30am. If Walt were told to come for a dental appointment at that hour I am positive he would ask whether they had anything a little earlier.

Anyway, the other day he arrived at our house a few minutes before seven and apologised for being late because the traffic through Norwich had been "fierce". What was interesting about this was not the notion that traffic in Norwich could ever be fierce, but that he pronounced it "Norritch", like the English city. This surprised me because everyone in Norwich and for miles around pronounces it "Nor-wich", as in "sandwich".

I asked him about that.

"Ayuh," he said, which is an all-purpose New England term, spoken in a slow drawl and usually accompanied by the removal of a cap and a thoughtful scratching of the head. It means "I may be about to say something, but then again I may not." He explained to me that the village was pronounced "Norritch" until the Fifties, when outsiders from places such as New York and Boston began to move in and started to modify the pronunciation. Now virtually everyone younger than Walt, which is virtually everyone, pronounces it "Nor-wich." That seemed to me quite sad, the idea that a traditional local pronunciation could be lost simply because outsiders were too lazy or inattentive to preserve it, but it's only symptomatic of a wider trend.

Thirty years ago, three-quarters of the people in Vermont were born there. Today the proportion has fallen to barely half; in some places it is much lower. So these days you are far less likely than you once were to hear locals pronouncing cow as "kyow", saying "so don't I" for "so do I" or employing the colourful, if cryptic, expressions for which the state was once noted - " heavier than a dead minister" and "jeezum-jee-hassafrats" are two that spring to mind, if not, alas, to many Vermont tongues any longer.

If you go to the remoter corners of the state and hang out at a general store you may just overhear a couple of old farmers (pronounced "fahmuhs") asking for "a frog skin more" of coffee, or saying "well, wouldn't that just jar your mother's preserves", but more probably it will be urban refugees in Ralph Lauren attire asking the storekeeper whether he has any guavas.

The same thing has been happening all over the country. I have just been reading an academic study on the dialect of Ocracoke Island, off the coast of North Carolina. (The things I do for you, honestly.) Ocracoke is part of the Outer Banks, a chain of barrier islands where the inhabitants once spoke a patois so rich and mysterious that visitors supposed they had stumbled on some half-lost outpost of Elizabethan England.

The locals - sometimes called "Hoi-Toiders" for the way they pronounced "high tide" - had an odd, lilting accent and used many archaic terms, such as "quammish" (meaning to feel sick or uneasy), "fladget" (for a piece of something), and "mommuck" (meaning to bother) that hadn't been heard since Shakespeare put away his quill. Being a maritime people, they also used nautical terms in distinctive ways. For instance, "scud", meaning to run before a gale with a small amount of sail, was employed for land- based movements, so that an Ocracoker might invite you to go for a scud in his car. Finally, just to make the bewilderment of outsiders complete, they absorbed a number of non-English words, such as "pizer" (apparently from the Italian piazza) for a porch, and pronounced the lot in a way that brought to mind George Formby doing a West Country accent. It was, in short, an interesting dialect.

All this scudded along, as you might say, in a dependable fashion until 1957, when the federal government built Ocracoke a bridge to the mainland. Almost at once tourists came in and the Ocracoke dialect began to go out.

This was scientifically monitored and recorded by linguists from North Carolina State University, who made periodic field trips to the island over half a century. Then, to everyone's surprise, the Ocracoke dialect began to undergo a revival. The researchers found that middle-aged people - those who had grown up in the Fifties and Sixties when tourism first became a dominant feature of island life - had more pronounced accents than even their parents had. The explanation, the researchers surmise, is that the islanders "exaggerate their island dialect features, whether consciously or not, because they want there to be no mistake that they are `real' Ocracokers and not tourists or new residents recently relocated from the mainland".

Much the same sort of phenomenon was found elsewhere. A study of the dialect on Martha's Vineyard, off the coast of Massachusetts, found that certain traditional pronunciations there, such as the flattening of the "ou" sound in words like "house" and "mouse", making them something more like "hawse" and "mawse", staged an unexpected rally after nearly going extinct. The driving force, it turned out, was natives who returned to the island after living away and embraced the old speech forms as a way of distinguishing themselves from the mass of non-natives.

So does this mean that the rich and chewy Vermont accent will likewise recover and that once again we can expect to hear people say that something "would give you a pain where you never had an ache", or that they "felt rougher than a boar's rear end"? Sadly, it seems not.

From the evidence, it appears that these dialectal revivals happen only on islands or in communities that are in some way still comparatively isolated.

So it seems likely that, when old Walt finally hangs up his saw and hammer, whoever takes his place won't sound like an old-time Vermonter even if he was born and reared there. I only hope he's not such an early riser.

`Notes from a Big Country' is published by Doubleday at pounds 16.99

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in