A five-kilometer (three-mile)-long fishhook-shaped piece of land in the middle of Chesapeake Bay, Tangier Island has always been a community set apart from the mainland.
Though just 19 kilometers (12 miles) off the shore of Virginia, the island’s mostly Methodist residents chose not to join the rest of the state as members of the Confederacy when the United States Civil War broke out in 1861. More recently, Tangier’s town council voted against allowing the 1999 movie Message in a Bottle to be filmed on the island because of the presence of swearing, sex, and drinking in the script. (The romance was ultimately filmed in Bath, Maine.)
These days, the island’s 500-plus residents, who mostly use golf carts as transportation on the village’s narrow roads and who don’t allow the public consumption of alcohol, have managed to retain a great deal of their traditional culture.
Probably the most striking example of their heritage is the islanders’ unique way of speaking.
What stands out most about Tangier residents’ speech is their unusual pronunciation of common English words and their use of words and expressions that are only understood by islanders. In addition, residents employ a curious way of communicating that they refer to as “talking backwards.”
David L. Shores, author of the 2000 book Tangier Island: Place, People, and Talk, is a linguist who was born on Tangier Island. He has pinpointed the reason why the speech of Tangier Island strikes outsiders as odd.
“They have a lot of idiomatic expressions, but the vowel system is quite different,” Shores says. “I mean, it’s English. You can understand the people, but they have a tendency to prolong a vowel.”
According to Shores, the islanders pronounce their vowels louder and longer, which causes common words to sound different when uttered by Tangier natives. “If you would take the words ‘pull’ and ‘Paul,’ they would pronounce those the same way,” he says.
Some writers and scholars have said the natives of Tangier, an island that people believe has been inhabited since 1686, speak an old form of English that goes back to the time of Queen Elizabeth I, who ruled England from 1558 to 1603.
Shores doesn’t buy into that theory. “It’s not Elizabethan English by any means,” he says. “I doubt if anyone could trace it to that, because the varieties [of English] at that time were great.”
Bruce Gordy, a Tangier native and a former teacher at the island’s only school, has compiled a list of 350 expressions and words that he says are used and understood only by islanders. It includes the word “wudget” for a “big wad of money” and 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,” he says. “Well, all of our lives growing up here, and even as adults, 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.”
There are also a few obscure words that are derived from older forms of English. “The reason Tangier people call ‘asparagus’ ‘spar grass’ is because it came from the Colonial [English] ‘sparrow grass,’” Gordy says.
But Gordy doesn’t think it’s the strange vocabulary that puzzles outsiders most when hearing Tangier residents speak.
“I think what confuses them is not so much the expressions or terms,” he says. “It’s the fact that we are ‘talking backwards’ a lot.”
He offers up an example. “If somebody’s stupid, you know what I say?” Gordy says. “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.”
Gordy compares “talking backwards” to saying something sarcastically. “If you want to emphasize how deeply the thing should be expressed, you say it with sarcasm,” he says.
Both Gordy and Shores believe Tangier’s isolation has led to the islanders’ singular way of speaking.
“I think it’s the same way with your Welsh, your Ulster Scots, the Cornish people, the Irish people, and so on,” Shores says. “Here you have these communities that people came to early, but they have just been isolated. They have retained features that have passed out of Virginia speech.”
The economy of Tangier Island is moving away from its tradition of crabbing and fishing as the number of crabs and oysters in the bay plummets. More residents are finding work on tugboats or looking for jobs on the mainland.
Gordy fears this could have devastating effects on the islanders’ way of life, including their speech.
Tangier’s unique characteristics are “all tied to the water” and residents’ intense focus on the island and its surrounding area, he says. “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.”