Talking Backward, 'a Mess Of Greens': The Distinct Dialect Of Tangier Island (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Talking Backward, 'A Mess of Greens': The Distinctive Dialect of Tangier Island

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

13:13:14
So we've heard English spoken with a Dinka accent, a Sicilian accent, even an accent found in the Eastern part of Indonesia. But now we turn to an accent you can hear much, much closer to home, specifically the Tidewater accent spoken on Tangier Island in the Chesapeake Bay. Now, if you've never been to Tangier, it's not really that far. It's like a 90-minute ferry ride from the mainland of Virginia and Maryland.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

13:13:37
But for hundreds of years, it was a hard place to get to. And that's kept the dialect of English spoken there, well, sort of a language unto itself. Courtney Collins recently went to Tangier to hear this unique way of speaking and how it's being preserved by the people who call the island home.

MS. COURTNEY COLLINS

13:13:55
Eleven-year-old Isaiah McCready and his friends are spending a summer afternoon on a very specific project.

MR. ISAIAH MCCREADY

13:14:02
We go sheven (sp?) in these little boats. My friend named Zack, we're building him a cabin.

COLLINS

13:14:07
Enclosing a portion of a small boat is the kind of activity that's second nature to kids on Tangier. They spend a lot of time on the water, crabbing and swimming. The small population of the island keeps the crime rate virtually nonexistent so kids have a lot of room to roam.

MCCREADY

13:14:23
It's a place of freedom. You can do anything -- pretty much anything you want.

COLLINS

13:14:28
Isaiah knows that he lives in a unique place and he's well aware that his equally unique way of speaking fascinates people.

MCCREADY

13:14:35
The reason we sound different, it's a certain accent that we have. Every time we talk, like, instead of come here we say, come 'ere.

COLLINS

13:14:43
But where does this dialect come from? Linguists say the roots of what you hear today can be traced back hundreds of years.

MS. CHRISTINE MALLINSON

13:14:50
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.

COLLINS

13:15:03
Christine Mallinson is 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.

MALLINSON

13:15:23
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.

COLLINS

13:15:36
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 raise just as many eyebrows.

MS. GAYLE LAIRD

13:15:52
Yeah, well, we like to say we talk backward. Like, if you were to say, could you do this today and I'd say, I-am and n-no, I'm not.

COLLINS

13:16:01
Tour cart driver, Michelle McCready has another example, but admits, native islanders try to rein in their contradictions around visitors.

MS. MICHELLE MCCREADY

13:16:09
Like, if we say, man, she's ugly, we mean she's pretty.

COLLINS

13:16:13
Really.

MCCREADY

13:16:14
Yes, yes.

COLLINS

13:16:15
Do you ever confuse people that are here to visit?

MCCREADY

13:16:16
Yeah, but usually when we're talking to tourists, we'll talk right.

COLLINS

13:16:21
Sharon Dise, who also drives tour carts, runs across the street to grab a packet called Tangier Talk that a gift shop on the island sells for $3. The packet contains expressions and terms used and understood, only by islanders. She leafs through it with McCready and reads one of her favorites.

MS. SHARON DISE

13:16:38
He just come from a mess of greens, meaning he stayed too long.

COLLINS

13:16:45
Tangier Island has unique characteristics that have kept its dialect, often referred to as Tidewater English, firmly in place. It's only accessible by ferry or small plane as it's situated almost in the exact middle of the Chesapeake Bay, which makes it difficult to visit. Experts say in the days before daily commercial ferries, the island was very hard to access, which is part of the reason why the language on Tangier hasn't merged with the language on the mainland.

MALLINSON

13:17:11
Back when there weren't ferries and there weren't highways and people had to only access these places by boats, it kept those accents more unique and less like the mainstream.

COLLINS

13:17:20
Mallinson says the small population on Tangier has also helped preserve its dialect.

MALLINSON

13:17:25
Let's say a person moves in from elsewhere in Virginia, they may not adopt the accent there, but their kids almost certainly would.

COLLINS

13:17:34
Golf carts, mopeds and the occasional four-wheeler are all you'll see trundling down the narrow streets of Tangier. Pair the lack of traffic with the lack of crime and McCready says Tangier Island is an incredible place to raise a family.

MCCREADY

13:17:48
It's very safe and our children can go out and play with no adults around and we don't have to worry about them.

COLLINS

13:17:55
But it's not the unique traffic patterns, the small population or even the one of a kind dialect that islanders say truly define the place they live. According to Laird, it's Tangiers uniquely warm spirit.

LAIRD

13:18:08
It's precious. It's home. I wouldn’t be anywhere else.

COLLINS

13:18:11
And it looks like advances in technology and transportation won't change that, nor the charming manner in which it's expressed. I'm Courtney Collins.

SHEIR

13:18:26
If you're interested in visiting Tangier and hearing islanders unique dialect for yourself, you can catch a ferry from different marinas in Maryland and Virginia every day during the summer. And you can find more information about that on our website, metroconnection.org.
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