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Influence of climate change on accent

What are the potential effects of climate change on the linguistic accents, and what are the contributing factors to such changes?

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The so-called Shakespearean accents of Smith, Tangier, and Ocracoke Islands invoke the sounds of English and Irish forebearers on America’s last inhabited islands. Over the past decade, numerous journalists have penned articles about the influence of Shakespearean speech on American accents, which raises the question: To what extent does Shakespearean speech influence American accents today? In 2022, Preeshl and Johns researched Smith and Tangier’s “Hoi Toider” and Ocracoke “Brogue” accents. After the collapse of Holland Island’s last house due to subsidence and sea level rise due to climate change in the Chesapeake Bay, the preservation of Hoi Toider accents is urgent. Since these inhabited islands are accessible only by boat (or plane), it was expected that Ocracoke, Smith, and Tangier Islanders would retain accent elements from southwest England and Ireland.

Our Study

In 2019, seven Smith Islanders, seven Tangier Islanders, and three O’cockers were interviewed. Though few British and Irish phonemes recalled Shakespeare’s English, these unique sounds distinguished Hoi Toider accents and Ocracoke’s Brogue from the original pronunciation in Shakespeare’s day. The categorisation of these accents as “American Elizabethan” mitigates accent loss by archiving vowels and consonants and raises awareness about the human cost of climate change. A Land Acknowledgement honoured past and present indigenous peoples, including Accohannock, Nanticoke, and Pamunkey peoples (Maryland), Pocomoke (Virginia), and Algonquin-speaking, Hatterask, and Croatoan (North Carolina), on unceded islands.

Hoi Toider Speech on Ocracoke, Smith, and Tangier Islands

Sea Island accents invoke Southwest English and Irish speech. Tangier linguist David Shores suggested that “relics” in Tangier’s speech resembled “lower-class British men.” Wolfram and Schilling-Estes noted that Ocracoke Brogue’s vocabulary echoes Shakespeare’s terms: “mommuck” (“to harass and bother”) meant “to break, cut, or tear” and “qualmished” (“sick to the stomach”) meant “prone to qualms or spells of sickness” (1997). Indeed, this Yarney accent, so named for the yarns that the residents tell, is considered one of the few remnants of Elizabethan or early modern English from the Georgian colonial era. To wit, diphthongs were distinctive in American Elizabethan accents. 

On Smith Island, Georgetown linguist Natalie Shillings-Estes studied phonetic variations such as “’dane’ or ‘dine’ for ‘down’”. Shivers specified, “[P]rimary differences involve…lengthen[ing] vowel sounds”: “‘down’ becomes ‘done’ (long ‘o’)” (2021). This long “o” resembles “GOAT” diphthong in Original Pronunciation. Like Cockney, an “r” may be added in “caulk” as “cork”. Similarly, “there” may be pronounced as “thar” or “thaar,”. Pastor Edmund offered “’lanch’…[for] ‘launch a boat’ [and] “caam” [like “ram”] for “calm”.

Marine biologist Schulte described the speech of Cornwall (and Devon) descendants on Tangier as “a Colonial-era Cornwall patois wrapped inside a Virginia twang”. On Tangier, English sounds mix with Southern drawl: “‘Crabs’ …[add]s an extra syllable or two: ‘cr-aeae-uh-bs’” (Visser 2014). On Ocracoke, English and Irish descendants informed Ocracoke’s Brogue. North Carolina “Language and Life Project” Director Wolfram distinguished Ocracoke’s Brogue from mainland America: “Ocracoke’s brogue may sound like other traditional dialects found on the Outer Banks to outsiders, but it is really unique”. Wolfram asserted, “It’s the only American accent that is not identified as American.” Smith and Tangier “Hoi Toider” accents and the Ocracoke Brogue comprise the American Elizabethan accent of the habitable Eastern Sea Islands.

Natural erosion, storms, and human development affect sea level rise, which jeopardises life on these islands. Building Conowingo Dam mitigated Susquehanna River flooding that increased flooding on Smith Islands. After Superstorm Sandy devasted America’s Northeast in 2012, residents formed Smith Island United to build jetties to preserve the lifestyle and sustain Maryland’s blue crabs. In 2019, “Duke” Dwight Jr. pointed to Smith Island’s $20 million “Shorelines” project for new jetties to repair watermen’s boats. Since Maryland’s Natural Resource Department predicted a 2.3–2.9-foot rise by 2027 (Kinzig 2017). Storms, sea level rise, and human action threaten Smith Island’s speech and lifestyle, yet residents remain optimistic about the future.

Virginia Landmarks Registry designated Tangier’s historic district as a landmark in 2014. Nevertheless, erosion reveals treasures of Tangier in the marshy, now-uninhabited Uppards, where Moore has found “arrowheads… pipes…inkwells…fossils, tinted glass bottles and…graves”; In 1990, the Army Corps of Engineers built a seawall to shore up the airstrip. However, Worrall detailed the impact of climate change on Tangier:

simple erosion…by wind-driven waves, has…cause[d] the island’s shrinkage, which has lost an average of 8 acres per year since 1850… ponding, drowning of marsh, widening of internal waterways—are standard by-products of climate change-induced sea level rise.

Since 1850, maps show that Tangier Island lost two-thirds of its landmass. Further, its western Uppards continue to lose 3 yards of land annually. Korman reported Schulte’s opinion from Nature’s Scientific Report:

They are literally one storm away from being wiped out…glacial rebound…caused the island to sink a millimetre or two each year…storm-driven erosion and sea-level rise…cause] scientists…to estimate that sea-level rise is tripling or…quadrupling the rate of land loss.

In partial commitment to promises made by Virginian politicians, Norfolk’s Army Corps of Engineers constructed a stone jetty to aid navigation in Tangier harbour. However, evacuation may begin as early as the mid-2030s before Tangier submerges by 2050. Government funding, construction, and tourist dollars may extend Tangiers’ viability, but inevitable inundation adds urgency to preserving the island’s accent and way of life. 

On Ocracoke, Annabelle’s Florist and Antiques proprietor Chester Lynn asserted: “I’ve been here long enough to catch fish in the front yard with a garden rake”. Two weeks after these interviews, Steven Harris reported that In Hurricane Dorian inundated Ocracoke with 4-6 feet of water. The storm surge destroyed roads and structures, closing the island to tourists for months. O’cockers recovered, but climate change adds urgency to preserve accents and mitigate language loss.

Conclusions

Analysis of Smith, Tangier, and Ocracoke accents found historic, linguistic links. Yet, media, tourism, climate change, and second homes affect Ocracoke’s Brogue and the Hoi Toider accent. Radio, TV, and the internet further adapted mainland American speech. Categorising Ocracoke’s Brogue and Hoi Toider as American Elizabethan addresses accent preservation because  

  1. These accents are disappearing due to outside linguistic influences through tourism and media, and 
  2. Sea level rise potentially increases the rate of Islanders moving to the mainland. 

The American Elizabethan accent provides an accent family for Eastern Sea Coast islands. Future research could address the impact of languages of indigenous and African peoples on Sea Island accents and how Hoi Toider and the Brogue synchronously developed sounds akin to Australian accents. An in-depth exploration of origins and pronunciation among the decreasing number of speakers on Smith, Tangier, and Ocracoke contributes to understanding these unique accents. 

The researchers hope to deepen understanding of linguistic origins and contemporary realisations of accents, raise awareness of the impact of the accents of immigrants from different countries and regions on indigenous peoples, freed African peoples, and current residents, and examine the impact of climate change on speech.

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Journal reference

Preeshl, A., & Johns, F. (2022). The American Elizabethan Accent: Sea Island Residents Talk. Voice and Speech Review, 16(3), 330-340. https://doi.org/10.1080/23268263.2022.2043579

Artemis Preeshl is a Fulbright Senior Theatre Specialist who coaches dialects, directs and acts for stage and film, choreographs intimacy, and teaches performance. She has expertise in "Virtual Voice" (VSR) and accents including "Yat," "Uptown," and Cajun. Her work has been published by Routledge in books such as Shakespeare and Commedia, Acting in the Digital Age, and Consent in Shakespeare. She is also a Fitzmaurice Voicework Associate Teacher and holds an MFA in Drama and an Ed.D.

Foster Johns is a Lecturer in Voice and Speech at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre, and Dance. He is a Certified Teacher of Knight-Thompson Speechwork and holds an MFA in Voice Studies from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, as well as a B.A. in Theater and English from Boston College.