Tangier Island is a three-mile-long fishhook-shaped piece of land in the middle of Chesapeake Bay. It has always been a community set apart from the mainland.
Though Tangier is just 19 kilometers (12 miles) off the shore of Virginia, the island's 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, in the late 1990s, Tangier's town council voted against allowing the movie Message in a Bottle to be filmed on the island. Council members objected to the presence of swearing, sex, and drinking in the script.
These days, the island has 500-plus residents, who have managed to retain a great deal of their traditional culture. They mostly use golf carts as transportation on the village's narrow roads and don't allow alcohol in public places.
Louder and Longer Vowels
Probably the most striking example of their heritage is the islanders' unique way of speaking. Tangier residents pronounce many common English words in an unusual way and use words and expressions that are understood only by islanders. In addition, islanders 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.
"The vowel system is quite different," Shores said. "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 said.
"It's not Elizabethan English"
Before European colonists arrived to Tangier, Native Americans lived there 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 its inhabitants 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 said. "I doubt if anyone could trace it to that," because the varieties of English "at that time were great."
Bruce Gordy is a Tangier native and a former teacher at the island's only school. He has put together a list of 350 expressions and words that he said 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 said. "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."
Here, People Eat "Spar Grass"
There are also a few words that are rooted in older forms of English. Instead of "asparagus," Tangier people say "spar grass," which Gordy said came from the Colonial English "sparrow grass."
Yet 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 said. "It's 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."
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 said.
Both Gordy and Shores believe Tangier's isolation has led to the islanders' unique 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 said. "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."
For generations, many islanders have supported themselves through crabbing and fishing. However, in recent years the bay's crab and oyster populations have dropped steeply, and as a result more and more residents are working on tugboats or 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 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."