Unique Speak

Unique Speak

Largely isloated, Tangier Island has developed a unique linguistic heritage.


3 - 12+


Geography, Human Geography, Physical Geography

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

Tangier is an island in the middle of Chesapeake Bay. Native Americans lived there for centuries. Then, Europeans arrived. John Smith was an explorer from England. He sailed to Tangier in 1608. After 1608, European settlers began moving there.

Tangier is just 19 kilometers (12 miles) away from the shore of Virginia. Its culture is a bit different, though.

Different Vowel Sounds

Today, more than 500 people live on the island. They have kept much of their culture. They also have their own special way of speaking.

Tangier people say many common English words in a different way. They use words that only other islanders understand. They also have an odd way of communicating. They call this "talking backwards."

David L. Shores is an expert on languages. He grew up on the island. Shores has studied Tangier people's way of speaking. Tangier people use longer and louder vowels than other Americans, Shores says. This makes words sound different. For example, take the words "pull" and "Paul." Islanders would say both the same way, Shores said.

A List of Odd Words

Bruce Gordy grew up on Tangier. He was a teacher on the island. He has put together a list of 350 words and expressions that only islanders use. One example is the word "wudget." It means a "big pile of money." Another is the expression "in the sweet peas." Saying someone is in the sweet peas means they are asleep.

"On the mainland, if somebody has a bicycle and they get a flat tire, then they have a flat tire," Gordy said. It's different on Tangier. "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."

A few unusual words come from old forms of English. For example, Tangier people call asparagus "spar grass." The name comes from "sparrow grass." This word was used a few hundred years ago. It is how English colonists in North America called asparagus.

The islanders also have a way of "talking backwards," Gordy said. Islanders often say the opposite of what they really mean. For example, say you want to tell people that someone is stupid. That's not the Tangier way. Instead, you say the person is smart, Gordy explained. You say it in a special way, though. The sound of your voice shows you really mean the opposite. This is "talking backward."

Not On the Mainland

What caused the islanders' way of speaking? Gordy and Shores believe it was the island's separation from the mainland. Islanders didn't spend much time with other Virginians. Because of that, they formed their own way of speaking. They also kept some old words that other Americans stopped using.

Fast Fact

Tangier Talk
Residents of Tangier Island, Virginia, United States, have a unique vocabulary. Here are some expressions:

  • coferd--bent, twisted
  • I've got a gnawing--I'm hungry
  • You get the cheese--what a liar you are
  • snapjacks--firecrackers
  • red lead--ketchup
  • nugs--sweets
  • eyewinkers--eyelashes
  • crummer--shovel
  • wicksy--unhygienic
  • solid circus--screamingly funny
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Stuart Thornton
Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
Kara West
National Geographic Society
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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