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 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."

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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