Native Americans, English sailors and pirates all came together on Ocracoke Island in North Carolina to create the only American dialect that is not identified as American.

I'd never been called a dingbatter until I went to Ocracoke for the first time. I've spent a good part of my life in North Carolina, but I'm still learning how to speak the ‘Hoi Toider’ brogue. The people here just have their own way of speaking: it's like someone took Elizabethan English, sprinkled in some Irish tones and 1700s Scottish accents, then mixed it all up with pirate slang. But the Hoi Toider dialect is more than a dialect. It's also a culture, one that's slowly fading away. With each generation, fewer people play meehonkey, cook the traditional foods or know what it is to be mommucked.

Located 34 miles from the North Carolina mainland, Ocracoke Island is fairly isolated. You can’t drive there as there are no bridges, and most people can’t fly either as there are no commercial flights. If you want to go there, it has to be by boat. In the early 1700s, that meant Ocracoke was a perfect spot for pirates to hide, as no soldiers were going to search 16 miles of remote beaches and forests for wanted men.

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William Howard was one of those outlaws, serving as quartermaster on Blackbeard’s ship Queen Anne’s Revenge. Leaving before Blackbeard’s final battle in 1718, Howard made his way to Virginia, eventually taking the general pardon offered by King George I to all pirates. But unlike some, Howard had a plan. For several decades, he dropped out of sight, only to reappear in 1759 when he bought Ocracoke Island for £105 from a man named Richard Sanderson, a justice and later a General Assembly member in mainland North Carolina.

Howard settled down along with some other ex-pirates and started building a community with boat pilots who had been stationed on the island to help guide merchant ships around sandbars in the area. A mainland North Carolina Native American tribe also interacted with the early settlers. The Woccon tribe had set up fishing and hunting outposts on the island, which they called Woccocock. Through misspellings and mispronunciations, it became Wokokon, Oakacock and Okercock, before finally arriving at the current version of Ocracoke in the mid-1700s. So at this point, there were Native Americans, English sailors and pirates from a variety of places all in one location. And that isolated community of just under 200 started blending words and dialects, and eventually building its own way of speaking.  

“It’s the only American dialect that is not identified as American,” said Dr Walt Wolfram, a North Carolina State University professor who studied the Ocracoke dialect for more than 20 years and currently works as the director of NC State’s Language and Life Project. “That’s fascinating to me. You can find pronunciation, grammar structures and vocabulary on Ocracoke that are not found anywhere else in North America.”

Howard’s community lived in near-isolation for almost two centuries. Electricity didn’t arrive at the island until 1938 and a ferry service didn’t start until 1957, leaving the islanders cut off except for the occasional supply trip to the mainland. Even today, things are a bit different for the island’s 948 residents than on mainland North Carolina.

“You have to be a certain type of individual to enjoy living here,” said Chip Stevens, a 56-year-old island resident who owns the local hotel Blackbeard’s Lodge and is one of Howard’s direct descendants. “There isn’t a Lowes or a Harris Teeter or any [supermarkets]. Rarely does anyone go off the island without a cooler [to bring back supplies]. You have to be almost a holistic person, capable of dealing with less of a hectic nightlife lifestyle.”

You have to be a certain type of individual to enjoy living here

Yes, mobile phones and laptops still work here, and if you want to sit down and watch some Major League Baseball in a pub, there are plenty of options. But in many other ways, the island is a throwback to a time before internet and television. Instead of cinemas, there are outdoor theatre groups. Local teashops, spice markets and other family-owned stores take the place of chain supermarkets. Cars are allowed on the 16 mile-long island, but most people just park them and walk everywhere. The island’s children all attend one school, while residents work as everything from fishermen to brewery owners to woodworkers.

“It’s amazing how coming across that ferry is almost like going to a different country,” Stevens said, sitting on the hotel’s front porch. “You feel that separation. It’s a really nice feeling, being able to give your kids some freedom. When I was a kid, we’d leave [home] after breakfast, eat lunch at somebody else’s house, walk to the beach, take a rowboat out in the water, and our parents never had to worry about us. We’ve maintained a lot of that.”

And they’ve still – just – maintained their unique way of speaking.

When older Ocracoke natives, or O’cockers as they call themselves, speak, the ‘I’ sound is an ‘oi’, so they say ‘hoi’ instead of ‘high’. That’s where the Hoi Toider name comes from: it’s based on how the O’cockers say ‘high tide’.

Then there are the phrases and vocabulary, many of which are also kept over from the original settlers. For example, when you’re on Ocracoke, someone might ‘mommuck a buck before going up the beach’, which means ‘to tease a friend before going off the island’.

“We have a lot of words that have been morphed to make our own,” said Amy Howard, another of William Howard’s descendants, who runs the Village Craftsmen, a local arts and crafts store. “[Hoi Toider] is a combination from a whole blend of cultures. A lot of the early settlers were well travelled, so they ran into lots of different types of people. For example, the word ‘pizer’ we use comes from the Italian word ‘piazza’, which means porch. So if you’re going to be sitting on your pizer, you’re sitting on your porch.”

Within one to two generations, it’ll be gone

There’s a long list of words in Ocracoke vocabulary that are taken from countries across the globe. ‘Quamish’, for example, means sick or nauseated. It comes from the 16th-Century English word ‘qualm’. Then there’s ‘buck’, which means a male friend. You can trace that back to 13th-Century Germany, where it originally meant a male deer, as it does in most English-speaking places today.

Locals even made up words in some cases. For example, early settler children played a game of hide and seek called meehonkey. Everyone would hide and call out ‘meehonkey’ while one person tried to find them. According to island tradition, Amy told me, the kids believed meehonkey was the sound a goose made as it flew by. Then there's ‘dingbatter’, which is used for anyone who isn’t a native.

But with each generation, the dialect is starting to disappear. The world is coming to the island through television and the internet, as well as with the long line of tourists who show up every summer. There’s also more people from the mainland moving in.

“What’s happening is that some of these small dialects that thrive on isolation are dying because isolation is a thing of the past,” said Dr Wolfram. “They still pick up terms and vocabulary, but when a kid from the island retains a strong dialect, that was the norm and now it’s an exception.”

In the past, kids adopted the dialect because that was the only version they heard. Now there are hundreds of dialects and languages that most will encounter before they graduate high school. In fact, as of 2019, on that island of 948 people, fewer than half actually speak with the full ‘Hoi Toider’ brogue.

“Within one to two generations, it’ll be gone,” said Dr Wolfram. “It’s dying out and we can’t stop that.”

Yet while the dialect may be in danger, the islanders are managing to hold onto their unique culture in other ways. In the beginning, settlers often had to come up with alternatives when they didn’t have the right ingredients for a recipe. That same concept holds true today: with limited stores on the island, if you run out of supplies, you can either head to the mainland for what you need or just find a replacement.

“Ocracoke is really good at adapting,” said Amy Howard. “I joke that we need to make a cookbook for Ocracoke that says what the recipe is and then what you can actually get, because almost inevitably, you get a quirky recipe and you won’t have everything you need.”

That’s actually how the fig cake, which is now Ocracoke’s signature dish, came to be. The story goes that in 1964, island resident Margaret Garrish was making a date cake and she had all the ingredients mixed in, except one.

“She found she didn’t have any [dates], so she did what we all do and looked in her cupboard and found a jar of fig preserves,” Amy said, explaining that figs are a holdover from the original settlers, and you can find fig trees in almost every yard. “She threw them in the cake, mixed them up and now we have fig cakes.”

Now every year in August, the island holds a Fig Festival, complete with a fig cake bake-off, fig tastings, a square dance and traditional games like meehonkey.

But while some traditions stand strong, residents do see the island changing.

New York native Daphne Bennink, owner of Back Porch Restaurant, came to the island 30 years ago and never left. For her, the change, in some ways, reflects the same wealth of experience those original settlers brought.

“I see more and more people coming here,” Bennink said. “On Ocracoke, you have this kind of patchwork quilt of all people from all walks. It’s a little bit of a melting pot.”

Ocracoke is really good at adapting

As for what type of culture that melting pot will create? Everyone I talked to pretty much said the same thing: no matter what changes, some things will stay the same on Ocracoke. If someone is sick, the community will pitch in. If one business owner needs help, 14 others will show up to solve the problem. The dialect may change, but the intent behind those words will remain the same.

Our Unique World is a BBC Travel series that celebrates what makes us different and distinctive by exploring offbeat subcultures and obscure communities around the globe.

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