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Podcast: Distinguished Professorships With Walt Wolfram

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On the Season 1 finale of the NC State Philanthropy Podcast, we’re joined by sociolinguist and William C. Friday Distinguished Professor Walt Wolfram to hear how private support has benefited his work on campus and beyond. Wolfram has taught at NC State for three decades and is still going strong, having also produced several books and films during that time on the various dialects found all across North Carolina. He was a personal friend of Mr. Friday before the latter’s passing, too, and seeks to honor his memory through the research made possible by the late UNC System president’s professorship.

Listen to “Distinguished Professorships With Walt Wolfram“ here via Spotify, or visit the Apple podcast store, the Google podcast store, Stitcher or Podbean.

Stay tuned for more stories of Wolfpack success in Season 2 of the NC State Philanthropy Podcast, tentatively scheduled to air August 23, 2022, to coincide with the first week of the fall semester. In the mean time, visit the Apple and Google podcast stores, Spotify and Stitcher to catch up on previous episodes. Be sure to also subscribe in order to receive new episodes as soon as they’re released. You can visit our podcast webpage at Podbean, too, for direct downloads. However you listen, please leave a comment and rating to let us know how we’re doing!

Theme music (00:01):

Please listen carefully.

Taylor Pardue (00:05):

Welcome to the NC State Philanthropy Podcast, telling the world how we Think and Do through the support of our friends, alumni and more. I’m your host, Taylor Pardue. On our season one finale, we’re joined by sociolinguist and William C. Friday Distinguished University Professor Walt Wolfram to talk about the important role private support plays in his work here on campus and beyond. Thank you so much for joining us today, Professor Wolfram. To kick things off, just please give us a quick overview of your background and what led you to NC State in the first place.

Walt Wolfram (00:53):

Well, actually, I got into linguistics because my parents were immigrants. And so, my first language was not English. It was German. That’s what we spoke in the home. And so, I always was very sort of sensitive to language, in particular its social context because I was born in 1941 in the midst of World War II, and I was a German. And so, that made me very sensitive. I wanted to get away from German and learn English, but I didn’t have any models in the home. And so, I looked outside, and what I saw were, you know, as I grew up in the rowhouse in Philadelphia, and, basically, what I saw was working-class white speech in Philadelphia. And so, that was my motto. But one of the things that happened in my youth is, because I wanted to get away from my German heritage, I became very sensitive to English, including English dress, English speaking, and other behaviors. So, I was a total assimilationist. But, by the same token, sort of, it made me very sensitive to language, and I was always sort of had that sensitivity. So, that’s how I got into it. And then, of course, in college, when you go to college, basically, I wasn’t that interested in academics in high school, to be honest, I was interested in sports, but, uh …

Taylor Pardue (02:27):

I feel like most people are.

Walt Wolfram (02:28):

Yeah, yeah. Most people are not like my grandkids and they’re interested in astrophysics in sixth grade. You know? But, uh, but actually, I, you gravitate to things that you tend to be good in, and what I realized was that, well, I’m adequate in most subject areas, but I’m really good with language. I know, maybe because of my background; maybe it’s because of my aptitude or whatever. And so, you pursue things, and then I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life. And so, I was going to be a missionary, a Christian missionary, who was going to go to the mission field. And so, we were going to translate the Bible. And so, that got me into learning linguistics because I would first have to describe a language ’cause it would be in an undescribed language in South America. And then I’d have to sort of know techniques of translation and know about language patterns.

Walt Wolfram (03:25):

And so, that got me into linguistics. That didn’t work out for various reasons, which turned out to be good in the long run, and so, I went through college. I had a Ph.D. Didn’t know what I was going to do. Had a friend, a mentor in college, who hired me, and I started working on African American speech in Detroit in 1966. That’s when I started there. Spent a number of years at the Center for Applied Linguistics, Georgetown University, and a historically Black school that most people have not heard of called the University of the District of Columbia, an open-admission institution that was primarily Black. So, I’d been there for 20 years because, after I did my research, I left Georgetown because I felt that, rather than just sort of give my information and my expertise to sort of middle-class, primarily white kids, I wanted to give it back to the community that had given me the data.

Walt Wolfram (04:34):

And so, I went to the H.B.C.U. Then, one night, oh, in 1992, the night before Thanksgiving, I got a cold call from NC State. My kids were just arriving home from college, and we were taken up with that. And this person said, “You’ve been recommended for a chair at NC State.” And I thought, It’s the night before Thanksgiving. Why is somebody calling me tonight? And, you know, I didn’t know a person at North Carolina State; it was total cold call. I knew no one here. Somebody, apparently, had gotten my name somewhere. And so, they said, “Would you like to come down and and see the campus?” I said, “Sure. I I’ll go down.” And I told my wife, like, “You wanna go on a lark? We’ll just sort of go to NC State and see.”

Taylor Pardue:

Had never been, I’m guessing, to Raleigh or North Carolina before?

Walt Wolfram (05:30):

I had been to North Carolina a couple times in my life. I had never been to NC State. I had been to North Carolina to lecture there once. And so, I came down, and I had no idea what was going on. All of a sudden, they put me in a classroom with all the faculty they could round up during finals, and that was about 25 people, and then I talked to them. Well, I had no prepared lecture. Nothing. I thought I was just going to look at this school. And so, I talked to them, and about five or four or five months afterward, I got a call, and they said, “Would you like to accept the William C. Friday award? It’s a distinguished professor chair in CHASS, and we’d like to offer it to you. So, I said, “Well, I’ll come down again and negotiate and see.” And so, I came, and that was the story.

Taylor Pardue (06:18):

And that was …

Walt Wolfram (06:19):

In 1992, 30 years ago.

Taylor Pardue (06:21):

Okay. 30 years to the day. Okay, so, now you’ve come to North Carolina kind of for the first time. You’re here. Right? What have you worked on, some of the memorable projects over that time? Those 30 years now.

Walt Wolfram (06:33):

Oh, I’ve worked on many memorable projects. Let me just start with the first; I won’t run through all of them. It’ll take forever. But the first was, when we first got here, since my wife and I, we had, all of our kids were out of the house by then. We have four kids. So, we decided that, on weekends, since we had no friends, we would just go and stay at different places in North Carolina.

Taylor Pardue (07:01):

That’s a great state for it.

Walt Wolfram (07:02):

Just to see the state, see what it is made of, you know, and get an idea. Because at that point, I said, “Well, I’ve been doing research all over the United States. I’m gonna concentrate on North Carolina ’cause it’s such a rich state.” And, actually, one of the things that I often said was, “Wow, it’s like dying and coming to dialect heaven.”

Taylor Pardue (07:20):

Especially for a sociolinguist, I’m sure.

Walt Wolfram (07:21):

Yeah. For a sociolinguist, nothing is better. So, we would go and visit various towns and so forth. And some of my English colleagues said, “Oh, you need to go to the Outer Banks. You know, they speak a distinct Shakespearean dialect.” You know, it’s not Shakespearean, but it has older forms of English in it. And so, we went there. The first time we went, we almost didn’t get out because they had this big storm. We got on the ferry, but we didn’t make it up Route 12; we had to stop, and the last time that happened, people were there for four days. And we got stuck, and my wife was saying, “We’re stuck in the middle of nowhere. I’m never coming here again.” But, but happily, we got home.

Walt Wolfram (08:07):

And so, we first started in Ocracoke and then went to Harkers Island and then to Manteo and several places in the Outer Banks. So, that’s where we started. Our most recent project, which occupied about 20 years of my life here, was a project that was just published in a recent book. So, I started this project here in the Research Triangle with the Frank Porter Graham Development Center at Chapel Hill. They had just started a long-term study with 88 kids who, 73% were below poverty level. All African American kids, and they were looking at otitis media and then at-risk kids and so forth, but they were kind of stalled after a few years. And so, I said, “Well, why don’t we make this into a language study?” And so, for 20 years, we followed these kids.

Walt Wolfram (09:06):

After 20 years, 88 of the original 67 were still in the study, which is an amazing, amazing positive retention rate for a demographic group like that. But we managed through various sort of, a great person who became friends with the families and so forth. And, of course, we paid them also. So, we did that and, after 20 years, we just published this book about early childhood development of African American language speakers, which no one will ever replicate because it’s 20 years of recording them every year, getting their school records, interviewing and recording their mothers, their caretakers also, arranging for them to be interviewed with peers so we can look at peer speech and so forth. And so, it’s the most extensive longitudinal study ever conducted by a sociolinguistic group in the United States.

Walt Wolfram (10:12):

And, for that, we won, maybe simply for perseverance, we won the Bloomfield Book Award for the best publication in linguistics in 2021. And in between, we looked at Lumbee English since it’s a unique American Indian variety of English that is neither black nor white, but it’s in between black and white, which is very interesting because there aren’t that many long-standing tri-ethnic situations. And for a couple hundred years, whites, blacks, and Indians lived together in Roberson County. So, that was really, really intriguing. And we’ve also looked at mountain speech. We’ve looked at Hispanicized English since the ’90s when North Carolina started getting … So, just about every ethnic group, every larger ethnic group and lots of regional varieties in it. North Carolina is absolutely sensational. We have an archive of more than 3,000 tapes, all of which are available.

Walt Wolfram (11:18):

We can send them to families. We can, we have them there for analysis and simply will save them forever on a website that we set up for them. So, in a sense, over the last 30 years, we made North Carolina the most studied and the most analyzed state in terms of its language variation in the United States. That’s something we’re proud of. People don’t often recognize that, but through some of our popular books, such as Talkin’ Tar Heel and Hoi Toide on the Outer Banks, we’ve tried to sort of get this word out of how cool North Carolina is in terms of its dialects.

Taylor Pardue (12:02):

I always love to hear that. It just makes me proud of the land-grant university that we’re part of. You know, that really is the staple of what we’re supposed to be doing. Our mission is giving back to the people and really helping all the citizens of the community. And that’s exactly what your work does.

Walt Wolfram (12:16):

Well, actually, we have a mantra that we say, which is, “If we have knowledge, then it’s worth sharing.” Not only with academicians, the six people who read our books and the three who understand it and the one who agrees with you, but we have an obligation to give back to the communities. And that’s really our staple at this point, where we do lots of rigorous research based on National Science Foundation grants. We also have the most robust Extension program, which is totally in line with what North Carolina State is as a university. And one of the things that I’m very proud of is when I go to lots of outposts, you know, rural areas that people don’t travel to that much, one of the reactions that I always get is North Carolina State …

Walt Wolfram (13:16):

… has been so good to us because of all the Extension people really who help us with our crops. You know, give us lots of advice, give us lots of benefits. And so, in that sense, we really have a great reputation as a land-grant university. And what we do in terms of celebrating language is, actually, embrace that and enhance it and say, “OK, so, if you’re going to embrace other aspects of North Carolina ….” Now, here’s the thing about North Carolina that people may not know, or may not recognize or not take advantage of. North Carolina’s a state that loves itself. So, people love its musicians. They love its storytellers. They love its novelists. They love the topography from the mountains to the ocean and so forth. And so, in that sense, trying to turn the language story from a negative — “Oh, you talk funny, you’re a Southerner …

Walt Wolfram (14:18):

“… and, therefore, you’re not as smart as Northerners,” to one where you have this great language legacy, you have all these unique dialects that tell the story of North Carolina, because North Carolina was originally set up as a state that was going to be largely rural, you know, with small towns and so forth. That’s why we have so many different dialects and small towns and so forth. But to change that to, this is part of your, this is as much a part of your cultural heritage as your musicians, as your storytellers, as the fact that you live in an enclave in the mountains or on the islands and so forth. So, take this, embrace it and be proud of your dialect heritage. So, that’s one of the things that we’re trying to do, you know, and we have various ways of doing this.

Taylor Pardue (15:12):

You mentioned your books; also, giving back to the community. I know you’ve done a lot, especially on Ocracoke, going and visiting in person. Tell about some of the things that you do outside of the classroom.

Walt Wolfram (15:23):

Okay. Here’s what we do on Ocracoke. First of all, I just made arrangements to go give a talk at the Preservation Society. Every year, in the summer, we go and present at the porch lectures at the Preservation Society. We sell our books there. We have a small museum where we have a documentary that was produced by two students in 1993 that has been running on a loop all day long since then, so thousands, you know, oh, maybe a half a million people, I don’t know how many have seen this. And it’s run there for 25 years now. We also developed a dialect curriculum, which has been adopted by the department of public instruction, in which we teach eighth graders in Ocracoke. Every year during our spring break, my students and I go to Ocracoke and teach them about their dialect and the dialects of North Carolina. We haven’t missed the class, although we missed a year, we missed the last year.

Taylor Pardue (16:38):

COVID, I’m assuming?

Walt Wolfram (16:39):

Yeah, last year. But the kids were so intent on getting this unit that the ninth graders said, “We want the unit, we missed it last year.” So, in March of this year, when we had spring break, we taught both the ninth graders and the eighth graders, so that no one would be without this program. And now, there are, you know, people in their 40s and 50s who say, “Oh, I remember your dialect curriculum.” And we’re now documenting the effect that it’s had on the island. And it’s basically changed the whole language ideology. They used to be unsure of their dialect; kind of proud, but not sure if it was just bad speech, and now they sort of embrace it, love it. And it’s part of their iconic culture.

Taylor Pardue (17:26):

And I know as more tourists come, you know, that changes dialects, too. It influences and all, but like you said, running on a continuous loop like that, all those tourists that you have educated about this dialect and help celebrate it and, to a degree, preserve it as much as, you know, dialects, I know are always changing to a degree, but preserve it.

Walt Wolfram (17:45):

There are such interesting things about every dialect in terms of sort of accidents of history. So, I’ll just tell you one. On Ocracoke, the term for “outsiders.” Before 1972, the term was actually “stranger” or “fer-eigner,” or a person was “off” — the off island, you know? But, in 1972, Ocracoke got television for the first time. You don’t remember this because you were too young, but anybody over 60 remembers this, that Archie Bunker and All In the Family was the dominant TV show. Everybody watched it; it was controversial because Archie was this sort of misogynistic guy who was a sexist, a racist and everything else. But, so, he used to call his wife, Edith, who was the actress Gene Stapleton …

Walt Wolfram (18:49):

He used to call her a “dingbat” because she lacked, in his opinion, common sense. Well, people on Ocracoke saw this television program and said, “Oh, that term is like how outsiders act. You know, they don’t know where to fish, they walk in the middle of the road, they walk across people’s yards. They really do sort of stupid things — sometimes unintentional, but still silly and inappropriate.” And so, they simply appropriated the term and called people from off island “dingbatters.” And it stuck to this day. So, now some of the younger kids who don’t have history of it, the show is come and gone and they still may use it, but they have no idea where they got it from.

Walt Wolfram (19:40):

And sometimes they’re now starting to use “tour-on,” which is a blend of “tourist” and “moron,” to refer to outsiders, but notice it’s the same sort of semantic intention: somebody who does sort of nonsensical kinds of things to an islander. So, a tourist and a moron is sort of like a “dingbatter.” But there are these sorts of interesting tidbits that really define each dialect, you know? Each of the dialects that we look at, these little enclaves have words for insiders and outsiders. So, in the mountains, an outsider might be called a “Jasper.” That’s an outsider who is not that offensive. And there are terms for other outsiders as well. Yeah. I’m sure. Yeah. Yes. But, that’s sort of indicative. And so, looking at these sorts of things, and people don’t always recognize, but North Carolina is full of regional place names that are only pronounced correctly by the insiders.

Taylor Pardue (21:01):

Sure. Yeah. I know.

Walt Wolfram (21:02):

So, “Bow-dy” or “Body,” Bodie Lighthouse. You know, people look at it and spell it one way and then, or outsiders come and Corolla, they call it “Co-rolla” because they’re thinking of the Toyota Corolla. Things like that. So, I mean, in a sense, every word has a unique history based on sort of how is it [pronounced].

Taylor Pardue (21:23):

The one I always think of, and I have a friend who, grew up there, and he’s told me several times: “Rutherfordton.” I can never say that one. There’s no question of whether I’m an outsider or not when it comes to that one.

Walt Wolfram (21:35):

Well, actually, it’s kind of interesting because, a few years ago at the state fair, where we always have a booth every year, we didn’t last year because of COVID, but we will again, this year, we asked 200 people, we gave them a list of names that range from sort of a Duraleigh, which some people pronounce to “Doo-Raleigh.”

Taylor Pardue (22:00):


Walt Wolfram (22:01):

Yeah, yeah. And Fuquay-Varina, which people sort of start to pronounce, and then they hesitate because they think they’re gonna say a bad word. But we ask people to read them and, interestingly enough, if they’re not near the area, they tend to mispronounce them, and then we have people from the area who pronounce it. For example, if you look at Bertie County, B-E-R-T-I-E, you’d say “Bertie.” But that’s not how they pronounce it. It’s “Ber-tee,” with the stretch. So, there are terms like that that are quite distinct. And so, we had a fun time. We even did an analysis, which showed the obvious thing was the farther you are from it, the more difficulty you have, but there’s a mitigating factor. And that is, if you’re closer to one of the interstates, that enhances your knowledge because people travel the interstates. And so, if you’re far away and in a rural area, as opposed to far away and on an interstate, you tend to pronounce terms. So that’s terms. So, so there are, so there are lots of interesting …

Taylor Pardue (23:18):

Just hearing people at restaurants and gas stations, I guess, you know, hearing it spoken in a different way?

Walt Wolfram (23:21):

Yeah, yeah. Spoken in a different way. So, a person, you know, and also sort of, there are terms for insiders. So, for example, a “Lum” is a Lumbee Indian who has acculturated the norms of being a Lumbee Indian. So, it’s not just, not all Lumbees are “Lums.” You know? And there terms like that, you know? A person from, who’s born and raised in Ocracoke, those are called an “O-Cocker,” which is a term that they use for. So, if we go in and say, “Well, is he an ‘O-Cocker?” They’ll say, “No.” I say, “Why not?” “Well, because he was born here, but in order to be an ‘O-Cocker,’ you have to have heritage, you know, at least three or four generations.”

Walt Wolfram (24:17):

And most “O-Cockers” go back to the 1700s. So, there are all these sort of nuanced terms that people use to distinguish “us” from “them” that exist. There are lots of names from American Indian languages and from the British and so forth that are interesting and have pronunciations that wouldn’t necessarily follow from just seeing the letters. And, of course, they’re also intriguing terms that we have to sort of speculate about. So, for example, in North Carolina, if you’re a native North Carolinian, you may refer to yourself as someone from “North Cackalacky.” So, the question is, where does the term “Cackalacky” come from? So, we’ve looked into it as to, when did it appear, how did it appear and so forth? And this is interesting.

Walt Wolfram (25:16):

And people have said, “Well, there’s an Iroquois term that is something like that.” Or it may feed from the German “cockroach,” which is a little like … But, actually, as it turns out, our best speculation is that it was first cited around some of the early military areas, which are in rural North Carolina. People from the outside came there and couldn’t understand the people, and so, they were just sort of <inaudible>. And so, that’s because it used to be a negative thing and was used by outsiders. Now, natives of North Carolina have appropriated that and made it something positive. “I’m from North Carolina Cackalacky, and I’m proud of it.” And so, it’s interesting to sort of try to figure out where these might have come from. Of course, ours is a hypothesis, but it’s also based on listening to its use in songs, seeing where it was first used. You can tell, we have documents of various types. And so, while it’s a hypothesis, we would say it’s a hypothesis sort of based on reasonable kinds of data. So …

Taylor Pardue (26:33):

It’s interesting to see through your research, how it’s changed, not just in your longevity here at NC State, those 30 years, you’re already seeing, like, “tour-on” versus “dingbatter,” things like that. You’re seeing it change even in your career span.

Walt Wolfram (26:46):

Sure. Yeah. And, actually, it’s interesting. So, here, we live in Raleigh. Thirty years ago, more like 50, prestigious, upper-class Raleighites did not pronounce their R’s. So, they say “cah” for “car.” That was the prestige norm. That’s gone, and what’s interesting is that was prestigious upper-class people; now, it’s associated with rural, uneducated people. So, it’s also sort of whoever uses it and is dominant sort of gets the prestige. And so, here’s something that used to be prestigious, is used by the aristocracy, and now they don’t use it anymore, but people still do in the rural areas. And so, they get stigmatized for using it. So, there are all these sort of nuances of things that change from prestigious to stigmatized. You know, it’s the same with New York City. Before the second World War, the pronunciation in New York without the R’s was the prestigious norm. That’s what Roosevelt used, and that was prestigious. After the war, it changed around, and the R’s became stigmatized. That’s how sort of cool, evasive and nuanced language can be.

Taylor Pardue (28:10):

It’s not even that it changes; it’s that it can change that quickly, too, and just pivot 180 degree, uh, 180 degrees.

Walt Wolfram (28:15):

Yeah. And it’s sort of, you wonder, like, so what was it about World War II? You know? But one of the things that was important about World War II is, say, for even rural areas. So, lots of people for the first time got out of their areas and went to the service. So, the Lumbee Indians were pretty much contained, but they had a large contingent of Indians who served in World War II. They brought it back.

Taylor Pardue (28:42):

Oh. And picked it up as they went along. Okay.

Walt Wolfram (28:45):

Yeah. So, historical events, or things like. So, the Research Triangle started 50 years ago, you know? That brought all kinds of outsiders into it. That helped level the dialect of Raleigh out.

Taylor Pardue (29:00):

Okay, so it’s not really spiked it any which way, it’s just …

Walt Wolfram (29:02):

Yeah. It’s just, all of the outsiders, they leveled their dialect out. Whereas we’re currently studying Chatham County, which was immune from the early onset of Northerners, Yankees and others, just because it’s so far outside. But now people from Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill are moving to Chatham County because they want a couple of acres and a goat or whatever. And so, what happens is, they’re now seeing the same changes that took place in Raleigh 25, 50 years ago, starting to take place, and it’s migrating out.

Taylor Pardue (29:38):

I’m sure it is an interesting time for a sociolinguist, too, to be in Raleigh in particular, just because of all the influx of these more Western companies coming out here: Apple, Google, these different things. I’m sure it’s changing that dialect to a degree already, too.

Walt Wolfram (29:53):

Oh yeah, it is. And, actually, I had one of my students who did a study of SAS employees because there are a lot of Southerners. And so, he studied the Southern people who were born in the area, and he looked at their speech in official capacities and then when they were just talking to a friend. And then they were interviewing them, and he saw these shifts based on sort of dialect solidarity based on people from within and outsiders who sort of had a different register for them.

Taylor Pardue (30:31):

You mentioned Chatham County. What is this current project? What all is involved with that?

Walt Wolfram (30:35):

Well, it’s a couple of things. We’re looking at different generations of speakers, white and black. So, we have speakers as old as 100 and down to 16 years of age. And if you look at older speakers, they generally will retain a lot of things from when they were born, because, after puberty, you don’t really learn new dialects that much. So, I’m from Philadelphia. I left there when I was 18. I’ve never lived in Philadelphia since then. I’m 81 now, and I still have Philadelphia vowels that I use. So, I ask for “caw-fee.”

Taylor Pardue (31:12):


Walt Wolfram (31:14):

And people say, “You want ‘caw-fee?” So, based on that, these assumptions, we can look at how the language was earlier and then sort of middle-aged people and then younger people with what it’s becoming. So, we’re doing that, but an important part of every project that we have is sort of working with communities. So, one of the things we’re doing, Chatham has a physical museum in the courthouse there. So, we’re working with them. We’re developing a website oral history with interesting stories that range from rabbits to the devil’s tramping ground to sort of things that were uniquely Chatham County. So, we’re topical that with all of these people, so that will be readily accessible. And then we’re gonna do a little documentary on language in Chatham County that will be shown at the museum. And then we’re gonna write a little book on the history of language in Chatham County.

Taylor Pardue (32:21):

So, this is not a 20-year project, I’m assuming?

Walt Wolfram (32:24):

Not a 20-year project at a 81.

Taylor Pardue (32:30):

Okay. Uh, you mentioned it earlier, your William C. Friday Distinguished University Professorship. Talk a little bit about that and how that’s helped all of your work over the years. Uh, and just private support in general really.

Walt Wolfram (32:40):

Yeah. Actually, a lot of people don’t understand what the benefits of a distinguished chair are. So, it does enhance your salary some, and so, I tend to make a little more than the regular full professor by the same token. One of the critical things is that there’s a pocket of money that I can use in discretionary ways. So, if I’m interested in Ocracoke and I don’t have a grant to go there, where am I going to get money? So, I go to this pot of money that I have, and I say, “I’m gonna invest it.” And, eventually, I did get funding from the National Science Foundation for these grants, but I needed “seed money,” as they say. And I’ll tell you a little story that underscores the value of this money.

Walt Wolfram (33:36):

Back in 1993, I had a couple of students in my class who came to me and said they’re really interested in what I do, but they’re not that interested in language. I said, “Well, what are you interested in?” They said, “Well, we’re interested in film. Documentaries.” I said, “Okay, we’ll set up an independent study. I’ll send you to Ocracoke, I’ll pay for you to go up in a plane so you can take shots, aerial shots, you know? At that point, we only had planes to take real shots. So, the whole project, I borrowed cameras, I took midnight time in the analog, uh, film-editing room, and these two students developed this film on Ocracoke, which was 18 minutes.

Walt Wolfram (34:34):

And it’s now the film that has run for 25 years. So, that cost me, oh, $1,000 to $1,500 that I got from the Friday endowment. And so, that sort of discretionary money, we produced a whole film on the Cherokee without a grant, which won an Emmy and was totally adopted by the Cherokee. They loved the film. They sell it in their bookstore out there, they play it on their TV station and so forth that was done with funds from the Friday endowment. So, what it does is it gives me the flexibility to say, “That’s an interesting project, but I have to write a grant to get money because the grant’s gonna take me a year by the time I write it, and then submit it, and then wait six months to find the funding. Let’s do it right now and start it.” And so, in that sense, it provides the seed money. And if you sort of have an entrepreneurial spirit, you can take that money and turn it into great stuff.

Taylor Pardue (35:40):

So, that’s what I was thinking, you know, $1,000. $1,000 is always important, but $1,000 can be gone quickly in the academic world. But for three, you know, almost 30, what is that?

Walt Wolfram (35:52):

30 years.

Taylor Pardue (35:53):

Almost 30 years, to still be running and all, that’s far beyond the traditional thought value of $1,000.

Walt Wolfram (36:00):

Yeah. Well, we get plenty of grants, you know, but what people don’t realize is that most of these grants were started with discretionary funds from the Friday account that I invested in something, because when you go to NSF, you have to have done enough work to sort of demonstrate that you can do this kind of work. And so, in that sense, you know, our last grant to develop a series on talking Black in America was funded by over a half a million dollars by NSF, but by the same token, if it weren’t for sort of the other kinds of activities that we had done in African American communities about North Carolina, we wouldn’t have been able to do that. So, seed money for an entrepreneur is absolutely critical to going where you want to go. If I’m anything, I’m an entrepreneur, and I love to sort of do things that haven’t been done before. So, for example, we have 14 television documentaries, couple of which have won Emmys. We have two full-time videographers, thanks to the university. And we are the only linguistics department in the world that has two videographers.

Taylor Pardue (37:27):

Really? Wow.

Walt Wolfram (37:29):

Yeah, and all they do is produce five documentaries. So, you can take a little …

Taylor Pardue (37:35):

Again, that added value of, you know, it’s helping you in the classroom, but through the writing, through the television, the film, I mean, just so much outreach.

Walt Wolfram (37:44):

And it allows you other sorts of things. So, when we published Talkin’ Tar Heel, the book, I thought, Well, if we’re gonna write a popular book, it would be, it was around 2015 or so forth, it’d be nice to sort of “show” people. We have all of these tapes. We have over 3,000 audio tapes and we have all of this footage from our films. It would be nice to incorporate that in the book. So, I went to North Carolina Press, which I had never done this. I said, “We’d like to put QR codes into it and then have people use their cell phones and go immediately and see these sorts of things.” So, I can define “bless your heart” in writing, but it’s much better to see someone talking about “bless your heart.”

Walt Wolfram (38:36):

And so, we put 130 QR codes. Well, North Carolina Press said, “We’ve never done this. And I don’t think we have enough webspace.” Because, you know, films take a lot of memory. So, I said, “Okay, we’ll pay for the website and do the website for you.” So, every year, we pay $60 to retain our membership and so forth. And rather than that come out of my pocket, it comes out of the pocket of the Friday endowment. They help in collaborations; they help in sort of getting us started, the seed aspect of our research and so forth.

Taylor Pardue (39:24):

All professorships are important — vitally important — to people here at the university, but I think what’s so unique about yours is you actually knew Mr. Friday.

Walt Wolfram (39:33):

Oh yeah.

Taylor Pardue (39:34):

Before, or right after you got the professorship, I’m not sure of the timing, but yeah. That you actually knew him personally.

Walt Wolfram (39:39):

Oh yeah. I knew Bill Friday personally. As a matter of fact, I used his power to get our first documentary on television. So, the first one we produced was in 2001, and it’s called Indian By Birth, and it’s about the Lumbee Indians. And Bill Friday’s wife grew up in Lumberton, right in Robinson County, and so, she was very fond of the Lumbees. And so, I thought, How do I get to UNC TV? So, I just sort of cold-called him and said, “We have this film.” So, I decided I would go to Bill Friday, and I took the film to Bill Friday and he and his assistant, the three of us sat there and watched it. And when it was done, Bill said, “Walter,” he is the only person besides my mother who called me Walter — he said, “Walter, I’m gonna give you a note, and I want you to take it to the president of UNC TV and give it to him.” And he took out his note paper, because he was not a technical person; he didn’t email or anything like that, and he wrote this note that said, “This film is great. Show it.”

Taylor Pardue (40:53):

Just like that.

Walt Wolfram (40:54):

So, I made an appointment with the president of UNC TV and said, “I have a note from Bill Friday that says, ‘Show this film.’” And, of course, we reviewed it together and went over it, but the point is, I got my footage …

Taylor Pardue (41:07):

A huge stamp of approval.

Walt Wolfram (41:09):

… coming into that meeting. And I have another story. The first time I met Bill Friday, in 1992, I went up to meet him when I got his chair. And I said, “Well, I’ll take a book up to him. You know, we have a book on American English. I’ll just so show him what we do.” And so, I took that up to him, and I said, “Here’s a book that we’ve done.” And as I handed it to him, the flap opened, and I saw it was inscribed. And I said to myself, “Wait a second. I didn’t inscribe this.” And then I said, “Can I just see that book a second?” And it started out, “Dear Sweetie, thanks for being a part of every project I’ve ever done.” It was the book I had given my wife, and I was addressing Bill Friday like I would address my wife, as Sweetie. But we had a good laugh about that, and Bill Friday has a, had a great sense to humor.

Taylor Pardue (42:06):

Just in case listeners don’t realize who we’re talking about, this distinguished professorship is named in memory of the longtime educator and first president of the UNC school system. So, William Friday was critical to everything that NC State, UNC, UNC-Wilmington, all these different colleges that we have across the state, we’ve been able to accomplish, but also clearly in yours, in your work personally.

Walt Wolfram (42:28):

Yeah. And I would visit with him every year and tell him what I was doing, and he would get a kick out of it. He liked my enthusiasm because he loved the state. You know, he was the first president of our UNC system, and for over 25 years, he headed the system. So, he was a wonderful mentor and leader during difficult times — during the integration of colleges and lots of disobedience, civil disobedience, and so forth. And he was the perfect person for that. He was, there’s no one who I respect more, you know? And if he ever met you, if he got your name once, he would remember.

Taylor Pardue (43:14):

That’s an incredible skill. I see that the older I get. That’s an incredible skill to be able to remember people’s names and recall them. And not just remember them, but to actually recall them in the moment.

Walt Wolfram (43:23):

Tell me about it. Yeah. I can’t remember my students from four years ago. And Bill Friday, if he ever met you, he’d remember your name. I’ve often thought, How does one work on that? You know? Do you just … I get a name as a formal introduction, and I turn around, I forget the name I got.

Taylor Pardue (43:43):


Walt Wolfram (43:45):

So, it’s a unique talent, but …

Taylor Pardue (43:47):

Um, talking to people before coming into this interview and asking them kind of, “What would you like to hear from Professor Wolfram? What would you like to hear him answer on the podcast?” And they said, “Ask him where you’re from.” And I understand that you have sort of a 20-question game that can help.

Walt Wolfram (44:00):

Yeah. So, the first question we would ask is, “Pronounce these words: T-I-M-E, ‘time,’ and T-I-G-H-T, ‘type.’” Now, if you say ‘tie-me’ but you say ‘tight,’ then you’re from the Piedmont or other places, because the mountains say ‘tie-me’ and ‘tie-t.’ And the Coastal Plain does that as well. Immediately put you in the Piedmont somewhere. And then we have specific words. So, for example, one of the unique words that we would use for sort of the eastern Coastal Plain area, there are about five or six counties down there where the trunk of a car is referred to by older people as the “boot.” So, that’s a term that might sort of locate you sort of closer … so that’s a particular area of Boutique County, Enlo County and and some of the counties in the Coastal Plain.

Walt Wolfram (45:18):

So, now we would put you there. Lots of places aren’t that specific. And so, we then would go after things like, do people pronounce “pin,” P-I-N and P-E-N, the same? So, that would indicate that they’re basically a Southerner, but you may not have any of these other things, but you have that. And that indicates, sort of, that’s one of the last things to go, and even younger kids and like younger kids in Chatham County still have that. Some younger kids and Raleigh still have that, you know, in other cities around that. There are other things. So, for example, the pronunciation of “whale”; does it rhyme with “well?” So, so

Taylor Pardue (46:05):

The animal versus …

Walt Wolfram (46:06):

The animal versus the … As a matter of fact, I was doing an interview down East somewhere, and somebody said, “Well, we used to have a ‘whale’ in our front yard,” and I thought …

Taylor Pardue (46:24):

That could go either way.

Walt Wolfram (46:24):

… the animal from the sea came up? But, of course, they were talking about where they got their water, not the animal from the sea. So, that’s typical of older people who are simply Southerners. So, things like that, you know, things like that sort of help us identify people. So, it’s just sort of what we know about the state in terms of its age, in terms of the regional things, and, sometimes, it’s words, sometimes, it’s pronunciations, you know?

Taylor Pardue (47:01):

Yeah. That’s, what’s interesting is, not just the pronunciations, but sometimes different words like “boot” and things like that.

Walt Wolfram (47:06):

Yeah. I once threatened, at the state fair, they have these people that would guess your weight.

Taylor Pardue (47:18):

Oh, okay.

Walt Wolfram (47:19):

You get a similar guess your weight or your age within a couple of years, and if they don’t guess it, you get a prize and so forth. I thought, Well, maybe we should do that for dialect. “Come on up here, and I’ll guess where you’re from. If I get it wrong, you get a stuffed animal or you get a button.” A button with the dialect portal.

Taylor Pardue (47:41):

I’m looking forward to the fair again this year, back in person, back on track with schedule and everything this fall, and being able to come out and see. Yeah. And see …

Walt Wolfram (47:49):

We give out about 7,000 buttons.

Taylor Pardue (47:52):


Walt Wolfram (47:52):

Dialect words, you know, like “dingbatter,” “bless your heart.” Yeah. Things like “buddy row.” Do you know what a “buddy row” is?

Taylor Pardue (48:00):

I’ve heard that, but I couldn’t …

Walt Wolfram (48:03):

It’s a good friend.

Taylor Pardue (48:03):

Good friend. Okay. Yeah.

Walt Wolfram (48:04):

So, it’s used in Southeast North Carolina, you know? “She’s my buddy rowe,” or, “He’s my buddy rowe.”

Taylor Pardue (48:12):

That does sound familiar.

Walt Wolfram (48:13):

Yeah. Now, on Ocracoke, the term for a good friend is “buck.” So, “He’s my buck.” So, there’s one guy down there, every time he sees, “Hey, Bucky.” And that makes me feel good because he’s referring to me by this term of endearment that they use. Now, for women, a good friend is a “puck.” Okay. So, “buck” and a “puck.”

Taylor Pardue (48:34):

Okay. I was thinking “buck” and “doe.” Like deer, something like that.

Walt Wolfram (48:37):

But …

Taylor Pardue (48:37):

Not …

Walt Wolfram (48:38):

Okay. Yeah. And every place has sort of terms like that.

Taylor Pardue (48:44):

Well, thank you so much professor for coming out and talking to us today, but also just for all that you’ve done over the last 30 years here at NC State and beyond campus, really. Like you said, I’m one of these North Carolinians who’s really proud of their state, love to be here and everything. And I really appreciate all that you’ve done to help celebrate our dialects, ’cause Lord knows I have a thick enough one, as you can tell from this interview. But yeah, I really appreciate all your work.

Walt Wolfram (49:08):

Well, thank you. It’s a joy, you know? I do it because it’s a hobby and it makes people feel good about where they’re from, and that’s what we want. And I’m thankful to the state of North Carolina that it is so in love with itself that it’s willing to include language in that love. Not many states are …

Taylor Pardue (49:33):

So, I think that’s great for your students, too. Like, really helping them find their path in, “What do you love to do?” “What do you,” you know, “What is your strength,” which is always important, “But what do you love to do?” Because, maybe it’s not your top strength, but if that’s what you’re passionate about, that’s what you really, that’s where you’ll go the farthest.

Walt Wolfram (49:51):

And, basically, you know, the fact of the matter is, in the long run, superior intelligence is overrated. You know, what do you need to do is have adequate intelligence and a spirit of enthusiasm and entrepreneurship, and you’re off.

Taylor Pardue (50:13):

Thank you so much, professor.

Walt Wolfram (50:14):

Thanks for having me.

Taylor Pardue (50:20):

For more information on Professor Wolfram’s work, please visit If you’d like to hear even more stories of Wolfpack success, please subscribe to the NC State Philanthropy Podcast today in the Apple or Google podcast stores, on Spotify or through Stitcher. Be sure to leave us a comment and rating as well to let us know how we’re doing. Thanks for listening, and as always, “Go Pack.”