Chesapeake Bay is a long body of water in the states of Maryland and Virginia. It connects directly to the Atlantic Ocean.

 

Tangier Island is a piece of land in the middle of Chesapeake Bay. It is only five kilometers (three miles) long, and just 19 kilometers (12 miles) off the shore of Virginia. The island's inhabitants chose not to fight when the United States Civil War broke out in 1861. The rest of the state joined the Confederacy.

 

Today, more than 500 people live on the island. They have managed to keep much of their culture. The most obvious example is their special way of speaking.

 

Tangier inhabitants pronounce many common English words in an unusual way. They use words and expressions that only other islanders can understand. Islanders also have an odd way of communicating that they call "talking backwards." 

 

Common Words Sound Different


David L. Shores is a linguist, or expert on languages. He was born on Tangier Island and has carefully studied the islanders' unusual way of speaking. According to Shores, the islanders pronounce their vowels louder and longer than other Americans do. This causes common words to sound different. For example, take the words "pull" and "Paul." Islanders would pronounce those the same way, Shores said.

 

Before European colonists arrived, Native Americans lived on Tangier for centuries. Captain John Smith, the English soldier and explorer, landed there in 1608. European settlers may have lived there since 1686. Some scholars believe islanders speak an old form of English that goes back to the time of Queen Elizabeth I. Elizabeth ruled England from 1558 to 1603. Shores doesn't agree. "It's not Elizabethan English," he said.

 

Bruce Gordy is a Tangier native and was a teacher at the island's only school. He has put together a list of 350 expressions and words that are used and understood only by islanders. One example is the word "wudget," which means a "big wad of money." Another is the expression "in the sweet peas," to mean that someone is asleep. 

 

"On the mainland, if somebody has a bicycle and they get a flat tire, then they have a flat tire," Gordy said. On Tangier Island, "if somebody has a flat tire, they don't say that. They say 'my bike's bust.' It's just an expression we use here amongst ourselves."

 

What's Really Confusing


A few unusual words are rooted in older forms of English. For example, Tangier people call asparagus "spar grass." Gordy said the name comes from the Colonial English "sparrow grass." This was a term that English colonists used in North America a few hundred years ago.

 

Gordy doesn't think it's these strange words that puzzle outsiders the most. "I think what confuses them," he said, is "the fact that we are 'talking backwards' a lot."

 

He offers an example. "If somebody's stupid, you know what I say?" Gordy said. "He's smart. I'm saying he's smart, but the way I say it and the emphasis makes everyone know I'm emphasizing he's stupid."

 

Island Off by Itself

 

Both Gordy and Shores have the same explanation for the islanders' special way of speaking. They believe it came out of the island's isolation, or separation, from the mainland. In many ways, the island has been its own separate world. It has developed in its own way, and has also kept some older forms of speech that disappeared from the rest of Virginia, Shores said.

 

For generations, many islanders have supported themselves through crabbing and fishing. In recent years the bay's crab and oyster populations have dropped steeply, though. As a result, more and more islanders are working on tugboats or on the mainland. 

 

Gordy fears this could lead to the end of the islanders' traditional way of life. That could cause their unusual speech to die out. 

 

Tangier's special culture is "all tied to the water" and to the island, Gordy said. "That was what our whole life was. Of course the sons and daughters went with their dad out crabbing. You don't go with your dad on the tugboat. That's not going to preserve Tangier culture."

 

Unique Speak
Marshes dominate the landscape of Tangier Island.
asparagus
Noun

plant with long shoots eaten as a vegetable.

Chesapeake Bay
Noun

large, shallow estuary of the Susquehanna and other rivers that flow through the U.S. states of Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New York and the capital of Washington, D.C., before emptying in the Atlantic Ocean.

Civil War
Noun

(1860-1865) American conflict between the Union (north) and Confederacy (south).

compile
Verb

to put together.

Confederacy
Noun

Confederate States of America, states which broke from the United States to form a new government during the Civil War.

consumption
Noun

process of using goods and services.

Cornish
Noun

people and culture native to Cornwall, England.

crab
Noun

type of marine animal (crustacean) with a flat body, hard shell, and pincers.

culture
Noun

learned behavior of people, including their languages, belief systems, social structures, institutions, and material goods.

derive
Verb

to come from a specific source or origin.

economy
Noun

system of production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services.

Elizabethan
Adjective

having to do with the reign or time period of Elizabeth I of England (1558-1603).

Elizabeth I
Noun

(1533-1603) queen of England. Also called the Virgin Queen and Good Queen Bess.

fish
Verb

to catch or harvest fish.

heritage
Noun

cultural or family background.

idiomatic
Adjective

specific to a particular language or dialect.

isolation
Noun

state of being alone or separated from a community.

linguist
Noun

person who studies language.

Methodist
Noun

member of a Protestant religion.

obscure
Verb

to darken or partially block.

plummet
Verb

to fall sharply.

sarcasm
Noun

mocking language.

shore
Noun

coast.

tendency
Noun

habit or predictable way of behaving.

transportation
Noun

movement of people or goods from one place to another.

tugboat
Noun

small boat with a strong engine used to push or pull much larger ships.

Ulster Scot
Noun

people and culture descended from colonists from southern Scotland and northern England who settled in Ireland in the 17th century.

utter
Verb

to say.

vowel
Noun

letter that can be pronounced in long (the letter's name) or short form. There are five vowels in English: A, E, I, O, U

Welsh
Noun

people and culture native to Wales.