The United States Of Accents: High Tider

In this edition, we talk about High Tider, which is considered the last existing British accent in the United States.
The high tider accent represented by a dock on an Outer Banks beach on a sunny day.

Almost all of the accents in the United States sound American. That may seem pretty self-evident, but it’s not. After all, none of our ancestors who immigrated here spoke with these accents. They sounded German, or Dutch, or British, and so on. Over time, these morphed and changed to become the Boston accent, the Southern accent, or any of the other accents you can hear spoken in the United States. There is one accent here, however, that sounds different: High Tider, or the Ocracoke brogue.

The High Tider accent — sometimes written “Hoi Toider” to reflect the way it’s pronounced by those with the accent — sounds kind of Australian, kind of Irish and kind of British. It can be pretty jarring to hear it and find out the people who speak with the accent were actually born in the United States. Chances are, though, you haven’t heard it, because it’s only spoken in one small part of the country. This accent sticks out, however, because it provides a case study in how languages change. Or, more specifically, how they can avoid change.

Who Has A High Tider Accent?

High Tider is not spoken by many people. One estimate puts it at about 150 speakers. So yes, it’s a small population. Fortunately, the community is going pretty strong, and it seems for now that the accent isn’t in danger of disappearing.

The High Tider accent is highly localized to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and it’s uncommon to hear it anywhere else. The accent’s other name, the Ocracoke brogue, gets its name from one specific island in the region where it’s spoken. It’s not only spoken on Ocracoke Island, but it is confined very much to the small area around it in the Pamlico Sound.

What Does High Tider Sound Like?

As mentioned, High Tider sounds like it would fit right in among the United Kingdom’s many accents. The vowels especially give it a distinctive sound. As you can guess from the spelling of Hoi Toider, the ai sound is different, though really High Tiders pronounce “high” more like “haw-ee” than “hoh-ee.” Other vowel changes include “fresh” sounding like “fraysh” and “wish” sounding like “weesh.” Unlike many modern British accents, High Tider has very strong “r”s after vowels, so the accent doesn’t sound anything like Received Pronunciation. In some places “r”s are even added in, with “potato” pronounced like “potater.” All of these factors can come together for a very thick accent that can be hard to comprehend.

High Tider also has its share of slang. The most famous for outsiders is “dingbatters,” which is a somewhat affectionate term for anyone not from the area. Because the people of the islands are seafaring folk, the slang is also filled with boating terms, like “scud,” which literally means to sail fast, but can also mean to drive in a car for High Tiders. There’s also “mommuck” which means “to bother,” and “fladget,” meaning “a piece of something.” These last words are the most interesting because they’re slang that dates back hundreds of years, providing more evidence of how little the dialect has changed over time.

Why Didn’t High Tider Change?

High Tiders are almost all descendants of the English, Scottish, Irish and Scotch-Irish who originally settled the area centuries ago. There were also some settlers who came from other parts of the United States, but for the most part, the primary contributors to the accent came from the United Kingdom. Southeastern English regional dialects, in particular, were the biggest factor in forming the way High Tiders speak.

There are other areas of the United States that were settled primarily by the English, but no other place sounds English today. That’s because High Tider was uniquely isolated for about 240 years. From the time the area was settled by Europeans in 1715 to the mid-1900s, the High Tiders were left to their own devices. Without outside influence, the accent just didn’t change. If anything, this proves that language change is almost always caused by different accents and dialects running into each other.

In the 1950s, a bridge was built between Ocracoke and the mainland of North Carolina. Linguists documented that as tourists invaded the area, the accent started to fade. The High Tiders started sounding more like the average North Carolinian, and for a brief time, it seemed the accent was going to disappear. Then, all of a sudden, High Tider came roaring back.

Why? For once, you can thank tourists for something. The people who visited the island loved hearing the High Tider accent. When the locals realized this, they started exaggerating their accent to show it off.. The High Tider accent, like many accents in the United States, became a marker of pride and identity. Thanks to that, it has survived its exposure to the rest of the world so far.

People like to say that the High Tider accent is the United States’ connection back to Shakespearean English, as though the people on these islands have been frozen in time for centuries. And while it may sound old, that ignores the reality of the accent. It is still very much a living thing, and the people who speak it are proud of the way they talk not because it’s a link to the past, but because the accent represents who they are today. High Tider is fascinating to us because its isolation has preserved a piece of American history, yes. But it’s also exciting because it adds to the patchwork of accents that make up the United States of today.

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