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Tangier Islanders Retain Unique Dialect

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Tangier Island is accessible by ferry or small plane.
Courtney Collins
Tangier Island is accessible by ferry or small plane.

Eleven year-old Isaiah McCready and his friends are spending a summer afternoon on a very specific project.

"We go shoving in these little boats," Isaiah says. "My friend named Zack, were building him a cabin."

This kind of activity is second nature to children on Tangier. They spend a lot of time on the water crabbing and swimming. The small population of the island keeps crime virtually non-existent, so children have a lot of room to roam.

"It's a place of freedom, you can do anything, pretty much anything you want," he says.

Isaiah knows that he lives in a unique place, and he's well aware that his one-of-a-kind dialect fascinates people.

"The reason we sound different, it's a certain accent that we have," Isaiah says. Every time we talk instead of come here, we say come year."

But where does this dialect come from? Linguists say the roots of what you hear today can be traced back hundreds of years.

"Tangier was founded in the late 1600s by settlers who were actually Cornish settlers so we see some influence there. And because of the remoteness of the island the residents who live there were really in linguistic isolation from the mainland," says Christine Mallinson, assistant professor in the Language, Literacy and Culture Program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

She says a lot of people describe the dialect on Tangier as Elizabethan. While remnants of Old English can still be heard in today's Tangier dialect, Mallinson says there’s a lot to it that’s island grown.

The accent on Tangier isn't just a simple freeze frame of Old English either. Language is always changing and always developing and the Tangier Islanders have also come up with their own unique innovations and variations that make the dialect their own," she says.

Back on the island, lifelong resident and Tangier History Museum volunteer Gayle Laird says she knows exactly what Mallinson means. She admits, the accent on Tangier gets islanders a lot of attention, but their unique grammatical patterns raises just as many eyebrows.

"Yeah, well, we like to say we talk backward," Laird. “If you were to say could you do this today? And I'd say I am, meaning no, I'm not."

Tour cart driver Michelle McCready has another example, but admits native islanders try to reign in their contradictions around visitors.

"Like if we say, man, she's ugly, we mean she's pretty, but usually when were talking to tourists, well talk right," McCready says.

Tangier is only accessible by ferry or small plane, which makes it difficult to visit. That's part of the reason why the language on the island hasn't merged with the language on the mainland.

Mallinson says Tangier's small population has also helped preserve its dialect.

"Let's say a person moves in from elsewhere in Virginia, they may not adopt the accent there, but their kids almost certainly would," Mallison says.

Golf carts, mopeds and the occasional four-wheelers are all you’ll see trundling down the narrow streets of Tangier. But it’s not the unusual traffic patterns, the small population or even the dialect that Islanders say truly defines the place where they live; Laird says its Tangiers uniquely warm spirit.

"It's precious, it's home, I wouldn’t be anywhere else," says Laird.

And it looks like advances in technology and transportation wont change that.

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