High Tider

High Tider or Hoi Toider is a dialect of American English spoken in very limited communities of the South Atlantic United States[1]—particularly, several small island and coastal townships in the rural North Carolina "Down East" that encompasses the Outer Banks and Pamlico Sound (specifically including Atlantic, Sea Level, and Harkers Island in eastern Carteret County, the village of Wanchese and also Ocracoke) as well as in the Chesapeake Bay (such as Tangier and Smith Island). The term is also a local nickname for any native resident of these regions.

This dialect does not have one name uniformly used in the academic literature, but is referenced by a variety of names, including Hoi Toider (or, more restrictively based on region, Down East, Chesapeake Bay, or Outer Banks) English, dialect, brogue, or accent.[2] The Atlas of North American English does not consider "Hoi Toider" English to be a subset of Southern U.S. English (due to not participating in the first stage of the Southern Vowel Shift), but it shares commonalities as a full member of the larger Southeastern super-dialect region (in fronting the // and // vowels, exhibiting the pinpen merger, resisting the cotcaught merger, and being strongly rhotic).


The term appears in a local colloquial rhyme, "It's high tide on the sound side," often phonetically spelled "hoi toide on the saind soide,"[3] as a marker of pronunciation (or shibboleth) to sharply differentiate speakers of this dialect from speakers of the mainland Southern dialects.

With a long history of geographical and economic isolation from mainland North Carolina, residents of Harkers Island and other Outer Banks islands, such as Ocracoke, and also extending to the town of Atlantic have developed a distinct dialect of English, commonly referred to as High Tider, that can be traced back to influences directly of the Elizabethan period.[citation needed] The dialect of these island communities developed in almost complete isolation for over 250 years. High Tider English shares features with other regional dialects of the US Atlantic coast. Pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammatical constructions can be traced to eastern and southwestern England; see Westcountry dialect. The dialect has survived because the community continues to depend on traditional trades, like fishing, boat building, and decoy carving, and the coastal tourism trade developed much later on High Tider English islands like Ocracoke.[4][5]

As many as 500 islanders on Harkers Island are directly descended from the Harkers Island and Outer Banks settlers that developed this distinct dialect. Linguists from North Carolina State University, East Carolina University, and other academic institutions continue to conduct research on the island dialect.[4] It has been in slow decline in the 21st century.[6]

Phonological features

The chart below lists the vowel sounds in two High Tider accents: one of Smith Island (Maryland) in the Chesapeake Bay and the other of Ocracoke (North Carolina) in the Outer Banks. The symbol "~" is used here to indicate that pronunciations on either side of it form a spectrum of possibilities. The symbol ">" indicates that the pronunciations to its left are more widespread and pronunciations to its right are more marginal. Phonologically, these two example accents are united under the High Tider dialect primarily by their similar // and // vowels; both also show a greater or lesser degree of "vowel breaking" (or drawling) of the front vowels especially when positioned before the ⟨sh⟩ consonant /ʃ/.

Pure vowels (Monophthongs)
English diaphoneme Smith Island Ocracoke Example words
/æ/ [æ~a][7] [æ][8] grab, lack, trap
/æ/ before /d,l,m,n,s,t,z/ [æə~ɛə][8] bad, dance, half
/æ/ before /ɡ,ŋ,ʃ/ [æɪ][8] ash, bag, tank
/ɑː/[note 1] [äː~aː][7] [äː][7]~[ɑː] > [ɒ][8] blah, calm, father
/ɒ/ lot, fox, sock
/ɒ/ before /ʃ/ [ɒɪ][8] wash
/ɔː/ [ɑo] > [ɑː~äː][7] [ɔː~oː][7][8] > [ɑo][7] dog, hawk, saw
/ɔː/ before /d,f,l,s,t,v,z/ [oə] all, cross, flawed
/ɛ/ [ɜ~ʌ][7] [ɛ][7][8] kept, method, wreck
/ɛ/ before /d,ð,f,l,m,n,s,t,v,z/ & esp. /ʃ/ [ɜ~ʌ] > [eɪ][7] [eɪ][7]~[ɛə][8] dress, fresh, mesh
/ɪ/ [ɪ][8] blip, dig, tick
/ɪ/ before /d,ð,f,l,m,n,s,t,v,z/ & esp. /ʃ,/ [ɪ~ɛ] > [iɪ] [iɪ][7]~[ɪə][8] ditch, fish, kit
// [əɪ~ɜɪ][7] [ɪ̈ɨ] > [ɪɨ][8] beam, chic, fleet
/iː/ before /l/ (& occasionally /n,z/) [iə] eel, real
/i/ [ɪ][7] [i] > [ɪ][7] money
/ʌ/ [ɜ~ɛ][7] [ɜ~ɛ][7][8] bus, flood, what
/ʌ/ before /ʃ/ [ɜɪ][8] gush, hush, Russia
/ʊ/ before /ʃ/ [ʊ] [ʊɪ][8] cushion, push
// [ɪ̈ː][7] [ʊu~ɪ̈ː] > [uː][7][8] food, glue, lute
// [ɒɪ~ɑɪ~ʌɪ][7][8] ride, shine, try
// [ɜɪ] > [aʊ~äɪ][7] [aʊ~äɪ][8] now, loud, sow
// before /s,θ,t,/ [aʊ] > [ɐʊ][8] house, ouch, scout
// before /l,r/ [aʊ] howl, power, tower
// [æɪ~aɪ][7] [ɜɪ~ɛɪ][8] lame, rein, plate
// before /l/ [eə][8] nail, sail, pale
/ɔɪ/ ɔɪ boy, choice, moist
// [œʊ] > [oʊ][8] goat, oh, show
// unstressed word-finally [ɚ][7] fellow, mosquito, tomorrow
R-colored vowels
/ɑːr/ [ɑɚ~ɑːɻ][8] barn, car, park
/aɪər/ [ɑɚ~ɑːɻ][8] fire, lyre, tired
/ɛər/ [ɛɚ] > [æɚ] bare, bear, there
/ɜːr/ [əɻ~ɚ] [ɝ~ʌɻ] burn, first, learn
/ər/ [əɻ~ɚ] doctor, letter, martyr
/ɔːr/ [oʊɚ~oʊɻ] course, shore, tour

The phonology, or pronunciation system, of High Tider English is highly different from the English spoken in the rest of the United States. The High Tider dialect is marked with numerous unique phonological features and sound changes:

  • The // diphthong is [ɑe~ɑɪ], starting very far back in the mouth and retaining its glide, unlike its neighboring Southern dialects. It may also begin with a round-lipped quality, thus [ɒe], or may even have a triphthongal quality as [ɐɑe]. Thus, a word like high may sound like something between HAW-ee and HUH-ee, similar to its sound in Cockney or Australian accents.[9] (This is sometimes mischaracterized by outsiders as sounding very close, like [ɔɪ] (the CHOICE vowel, leading to the spelling "Hoi Toider" for "High Tider.")[10]
    • Realization of /aɪəɹ/ as [äːɻ], so that fire may begin to merge with the sound of far, as well as tire with tar.[11]
  • The // diphthong ends with a more fronted quality, commonly realized as a shorter off-glide with little or no rounding [æɵ~æø~æɛ~æː~ɐ̟ɤ].[9] The sound has also been described as [ɛɪ~ɜɪ], with a very raised beginning (or on-glide) to the diphthong; for example, making town sound like teh-een.[12]
  • Front vowel raising in certain environments, though most noticeably before /ʃ/ and //:
    • Merger of /ɪ/ and /i/, as in the characteristic pronunciation of fish as feesh /fiːʃ/ or kitchen as keetchen /ˈkiːtʃən/.[13] This may be represented as [iː(ə)] or [ɪ̝(ː)].
    • Raising of /ɛ/ in this environment, causing mesh to sound almost like maysh.[14]
  • The r-colored vowel /ɛər/ may have an opener vowel sound: [æɚ~aɚ], making the sound of fair almost merge with fire and far.[9][13][15]
  • There is no cotcaught merger.
  • The // vowel is largely fronted, as in much of the rest of the modern-day South: [ɜʉ~ɜy~œʊ].[16]
    • Unstressed, word-final // may be pronounced [ɚ], causing yellow to sound like yeller, fellow like feller, potato like (po)tater, and mosquito like (mo)skeeter.
  • Elision of some medial or final stops, as in cape sounding more like cay.[citation needed]
  • Strong, bunched-tongue rhoticity.
  • Pinpen merger.[14]

Lexical features

The island dialect has also retained archaic vocabulary in regular usage. Some examples include mommick, meaning "to frustrate" or "bother", yethy, describing stale or unpleasant odor, and nicket, meaning a pinch of something used as in cooking. The islanders have also developed unique local words used in regular conversation, including dingbatter to refer to a visitor or recent arrival to the island, and dit-dot, a term developed from a joke about Morse code, and used to describe any visitor to the island who has difficulty understanding the local dialect.[17]

In popular culture

In the 1991 Paramount film The Butcher's Wife, the main character Marina is from Ocracoke, North Carolina, and exhibits features of Hoi Toider dialect.


  1. ^ Older High Tider speakers may pronounce this sound as [æ~æə].


  1. ^ Wolfram & Schilling-Estes 1997, pp. 1, 69
  2. ^ Subtitles of articles by Walt Wolfram et al. commonly include such a range of terms, for example in "The Story of the Ocracoke Brogue" (1995), "The Invisible Outer Banks Dialect" (1996), "The Distinct Sounds of the 'Hoi Toide' Brogue" (2001), etc.
  3. ^ Wolfram & Schilling-Estes (1997:123)
  4. ^ a b North Carolina Life and Language Project (2006). Linguistics at North Carolina State: Harkers Island. Retrieved July 28, 2006.
  5. ^ Linguistic Diversity in the South (2004). Linguistic Diversity in the South: Changing Codes, Practices and Ideology. (University of Georgia Press: Bender, et al.)
  6. ^ Carlton, Brian (June 24, 2019). "The US island that speaks Elizabethan English". BBC. Retrieved June 24, 2019.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v Schilling-Estes, Natalie (1997). "Accommodation versus Concentration: Dialect Death in Two Post-Insular Island Communities." American Speech, Vol. 72, No. 1 (Spring, 1997). Duke University Press. pp. 16-17.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w Howren, Robert (1962). "The Speech of Ocracoke, North Carolina." American Speech, Vol. 37, No. 3 (Oct., 1962). Duke University Press. pp. 163-175.
  9. ^ a b c Thomas (2006:12)
  10. ^ Wolfram & Schilling-Estes (1997:53–4)
  11. ^ Wolfram & Schilling-Estes (1997:58)
  12. ^ Wolfram & Schilling-Estes (1997:59)
  13. ^ a b Wolfram & Schilling-Estes (1997:60)
  14. ^ a b Wolfram & Schilling-Estes (1997:61)
  15. ^ Wolfram & Schilling-Estes (1997:62)
  16. ^ Thomas (2006:10)
  17. ^ Prioli, Carmine and Martin, Edwin (1998). Hope for a Good Season: The Ca'e Bankers of Harkers Island. John F. Blair Publisher, July, 1998.

Further reading

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