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 in the U.S. states of Maryland and Virginia. It connects directly to the Atlantic Ocean.

Tangier is a small island in the middle of Chesapeake Bay. Native Americans lived there for centuries. Then, Europeans arrived. English soldier and explorer John Smith sailed there in 1608. European settlers moved there over the next several decades.

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

Today, more than 500 people live on the island. They have kept much of their culture. The most obvious example is how they talk.

Outsiders Find It Strange

Tangier people pronounce many common English words in an unusual 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 was born on the island. Shores has studied Tangier people's way of speaking. Shores says he has figured out why outsiders find it odd.

Shores says islanders pronounce their vowels louder and longer than other Americans. This makes common words sound different. For example, take the words "pull" and "Paul." Islanders would pronounce those the same way, Shores said.

Bruce Gordy grew up on Tangier. For years, he taught at the island's only school. Gordy has put together a list of 350 words and expressions that are used only by islanders. One example is the word "wudget," which means a "big wad 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. 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."

Islanders Say the Opposite

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

Gordy doesn't think these words are what puzzle outsiders the most. "It's the fact that we are 'talking backwards' a lot." Islanders often say the opposite of what they really mean.

For example, Gordy said, if you want to tell people that someone is stupid, you don't actually say that. Instead, you say the person is smart. You say it in a way that shows you really mean the opposite. The sound of your voice shows you are "talking backward."

Island Off by Itself

Gordy and Shores have the same explanation for the islanders' way of speaking. They both believe it came out of the island's isolation from the mainland. In many ways, the island has been a separate world. Because of that, it developed its own way of speaking English. Islanders also kept some old forms of speech that disappeared in the rest of Virginia, Shores said.

For hundreds of years, many islanders have been able to get food from crabbing and fishing. Their life is based on the waters around the island. Things have been changing, though. The bay's crabs and oysters have been disappearing. Because of this, more and more islanders have had to look for new kinds of work. Many are now working on tugboats. Others have found work on the mainland.

Gordy is worried about these changes. He fears the islanders' traditional way of life might end. That could cause their unusual speech to die out.

Tangier's 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."

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
Media Credits

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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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