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Dialect heaven

Meet Walt Wolfram, the Jerry Bruckheimer of the social sciences

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Walt Wolfram on the campus of NCSU - PHOTO BY DEREK ANDERSON

The term "executive producer" is most often associated with the likes of Michael Mann and Jerry Bruckheimer, men who package scripts with actors and directors. Most importantly, executive producers locate the money that makes the projects possible. While N.C. State linguistics professor Walt Wolfram has little in common with the men who brought us Miami Vice and Top Gun, he is responsible for a rapidly widening array of documentaries that popularize his research.

The latest of them is The Queen Family, directed by Neal Hutcheson and produced by Wolfram, which will air Wednesday, Oct. 4 at 8:30 p.m. on UNC-TV, after a national broadcast last weekend.

The Queen Family is a continuation of Wolfram's project of turning fieldwork into documentaries that are accessible not only to popular audiences, but to the subjects themselves. He is the executive producer of Mountain Talk, a documentary about language and life in the Southern Appalachian Mountains told through interviews and performances, and This Side of the River, about the efforts by residents of the historic African-American community of Princeville to salvage their town after the destruction wrought by Hurricane Floyd in 1999.

Wolfram's latest project, The Queen Family, is a look at one of the last surviving clans of back-porch musicians in the remote mountains of Jackson County. It is being distributed nationally by PBS.

Wolfram studies the rich array of dialects in North Carolina. His sideline interest in producing documentaries grew out of the North Carolina Language and Life Project (NCLLP), an umbrella organization dedicated to preserving the linguistic heritage of the state, understanding its significance and educating the general public about its value.

The professor makes no claim to expertise in the nuts and bolts of filmmaking. He leaves those duties to others--in the case of the new film, to Hutcheson, whom he describes as the "creative spirit" of the partnership.

Hutcheson says of his collaborator, "Walt demonstrates confidence in people and gives them creative freedom. It's a mark of his style of leadership."

Wolfram hails from a blue-collar background in Philadelphia. "I try to keep touch, lose the academic jargon, and don't snow people with my erudition. I was basically a jock, a high school athlete. I got into linguistics as an outgrowth of my missionary fervor--I used to want to be a missionary, which I won't go into for various reasons," he says with a laugh.

After years spent in Washington, D.C., and at other institutions, Wolfram came to North Carolina, and N.C. State University, in 1992. He says North Carolina is an exceptionally rich region of the country, dialectically speaking. There are four or five identified dialects, and the cultural influences are remarkably diverse, owing to the varied landscape and history of the region, with Lumbees, Cherokees, blacks, Anglo-Americans and now Latinos contributing to the mix. "Working in N.C. is like dying and going to dialect heaven," says Wolfram.

As the William Friday Distinguished Professor of linguistics, he found that he could satisfy his altruistic impulses within the context of an academic career. "I had a missionary fervor to get the word out. I didn't just want to invest my academic career with the need to accumulate academic capital, but to give back, to be a good citizen."

And Wolfram admits that there are limits to how many people even a top linguist can reach through the normal channels. "You write a sophisticated article, and half a dozen people read it. You've spent two years doing the research."

Documentaries offered a way not only to reach a wider audience, but to give back to the people who share their lives and stories with researchers. "We have a principle of linguistic gratuity," Wolfram said in a recent telephone interview. "That is, how can we use our data to celebrate our community? It gives an extra dimension to our work. Most researchers take research, write books, get academic credentials, but their subjects never knew them. The people in Princeville, on the other hand, will say, 'Hey, I know that guy,'" says Wolfram, whose own speech is ebullient and disarmingly up-to-date for a 65-year-old man. "They get something from us. We're not just pimping on them."

Wolfram and Hutcheson have two more films in the works. One of them reflects the old North Carolina while the other helps point the way to the state's future. The first, tentatively titled Vanishing Voices of the Outer Banks, captures the dying indigenous sounds of Ocracoke Island, as development, modernity and an influx of newcomers swallow them up.

Then there's Spanish Voices in the New American South, which charts the linguistic development of the South in the face of the Latino population explosion. Siler City, for instance, has seen its Latino population go from 5 percent of the general population 15 years ago, to a majority Latino community today. "Latino kids may end up speaking African-American English, and may end up sounding more black than white," Wolfram says. He cites one fascinating instance in which he asked two Latino siblings each to count to 10. The girl spoke in Spanish-tinged English, while the boy spoke with the unmistakable inflections of African-American English. "What he was doing was using what he considered macho dialect in order to build up a macho self-image."

It's important to Wolfram that dying variants of folk language be treated as artifacts worthy of respect. "Language is the last door of tolerated discrimination, and the door's wide open."

By exploring the use of music by rural people, Wolfram hopes to eradicate an unnecessary distinction between music and language. "Why is the music OK but not the language? Our message is that it is a positive part of people's heritage, so let's celebrate it, dude!"

Documentaries are only one aspect of Wolfram's extracurricular work, Hutcheson points out. "I'm constantly surprised by what he's got going on," noting that he only recently found out about a large, Wolfram-led museum installation that went up on the coast called Freedom's Voice.

One of the exhibit's creators, Charlotte Vaughn of NCLLP, says that the Freedom's Voice exhibit in Manteo is a survey of the black experience on the Outer Banks. "The community likes it so much that they are talking about making it permanent," Vaughn says of the show, which opened in June and is scheduled to run at the Outer Banks History Center in Manteo through Dec. 31.

Wolfram and Hutcheson's upcoming Outer Banks film will be an extension of that educational project. "The most amazing thing about Walt is that all the research is fine and good, but he's really about giving back to the community," Vaughn says. "He's the spearheader of all these big projects."

"Walt makes all these things happen," says Hutcheson. "It's a great thing for North Carolina."

The Queen Family airs Wednesday, Oct. 4 on UNC-TV (Channel 4) at 8:30 p.m. For more information on the North Carolina Life and Language Project, go online to www.talkingnc.com.

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