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For hundreds of years, the residents of Tangier Island have maintained a unique relic of their colonial past.
(Credit: Veena Rao)

(Credit: Veena Rao)

Tangier is a unique place. People come to visit and they say they didn’t realise places like this still exist in America. It’s sort of like stepping back in time," said Tangier’s mayor, James ‘Ooker’ Eskridge.

(Credit: Veena Rao)

(Credit: Veena Rao)

An island apart

Ninety miles south-east of Washington DC and 12 miles off Virginia’s Eastern Shore, Tangier Island is a remote sliver of marsh grasses, tidal creeks and bird-filled wetlands that’s home to 460 people adrift in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay. For the past few hundred years, the only way on and off the island has been by infrequent boat service, and a combination of geographic isolation and traditions harking back to its early British settlers make Tangier feel like it’s in a different era than the country that surrounds it.

Tangier's water tower, with a painted cross on one side and blue crab on the other, proudly displays what drives the island: faith and fishing. Here, people bury loved ones in their back gardens, families attend church on Sundays and you won’t find alcohol for sale in the island’s one grocery store and two restaurants. There are almost no cars on the 1.2-sq-mile island, and residents ride bikes and golf carts on Tangier’s one circular road. There is no mobile phone service, police presence or reason to lock your door.   

But while Tangier may feel like stepping back into the 1950s, it sounds like stepping back into the 1750s. That’s because the inhabitants have retained a unique form of speech that’s been passed down from the island’s earliest English settlers. Today, Tangier is one of the last places in the US where people still speak with traces of their colonial past.

Backward talk: Where 'late' means 'early'
(Credit: Veena Rao)

(Credit: Veena Rao)

Tangier talk

Each afternoon when Tangier’s ‘watermen’ return from their boats and head into their homes, they drift into a distinct dialect that sounds like a mixture of colonial-era brogue and Virginia Tidewater twang. Like the Chesapeake, vowels are deep and wide, stretching many syllables into two. Consonants rise and fall like waves and conversations are peppered with words like ‘ort’ (‘ought’), ‘yorn’ (‘yours’), ‘sot’ (‘sat’) and ‘iggy’ (‘going to’).

According to David Shores, a Tangierman, linguist and author of Tangier Island: Place, People and Talk, the island’s unique speech patterns likely migrated with its first settlers from Cornwall and then evolved inward. Today, most Tangier residents can trace their ancestors back to the island’s founding families in the 17th and 18th Centuries.

“This island has been so geographically isolated for all these years that it’s kept relics of its earliest settlers’ speech – likely lower-class British men,” Shores said. “Then instead of absorbing linguistic patterns from the mainland, it developed its own colourful characteristics independently.”

(Credit: Veena Rao)

(Credit: Veena Rao)

We were always taught in school that we did not speak properly... I was reading Charles Dickens and found out that many of these words that we have always been told were incorrectly pronounced were actually words that were used in England," said Duane Crockett, high school English teacher.

Tangier Island expressions
(Credit: Veena Rao)

(Credit: Veena Rao)

Unique speak

In addition to the island’s curious accent, visitors arriving on the daily mail boat from Crisfield, Maryland, will hear a number of phrases that will leave them scratching their heads. In fact, after hearing from tourists that they couldn’t understand islanders 11 years ago, Tangierman Bruce Gordy began compiling a list of more than 300 expressions that only exist on the island.

If you smell, you ‘have the meebs’. If it’s cold, ‘Hawkins is here’. If you’re asleep, you’re ‘in the sweet peas’. Want something to eat? Then you ‘mug up’. But if you only want crackers or sweets, then you need to specify ‘nabs’ or ‘nugs’. And if someone says you’re ‘selling cakes’, it has nothing to do with food.

“No boy, that means your fly is down”, Gordy said. While studying history at university, Gordy was surprised to read that some of Virginia’s English colonists called asparagus ‘sparrow grass’. “We still call it ‘spar grass’,” Gordy said. “And there are several nautical expressions on my list that go way back to when people sailed over from England.”

(Credit: Veena Rao)

(Credit: Veena Rao)

Some people have characterised Tangier’s way of speaking as ‘Elizabethan’ or ‘Restoration’ English, but that’s nonsense. Languages aren’t static and the Tangier dialect has changed a lot because of its isolation. It’s a distinct creation of its own," Shores said.

Virginia’s disappearing dialect
(Credit: Veena Rao)

(Credit: Veena Rao)

A disappearing dialect

In recent years, the outside world has drifted much closer to this isolated island. Up to five boats now transport daily visitors to Tangier’s docks from May to September; cable TV and high-speed internet arrived in 2010; and according to some, the island’s distinct way of talking is quickly vanishing.

“I’ve used some of our terms with younger people and they haven’t picked it up,” Eskridge said. “Each generation loses more of the language.”

“My grandsons have satellite TV and don’t understand a lot of the phrases anymore,” Gordy added. “I hate to see unique things that have worked so well for us coalesce into a bland way of speaking.”

Today, there are 61 students, aged five to 17, in Tangier’s combined school. With limited jobs on the island and state regulations restricting the number of watermen allowed to fish in the Bay, many young islanders are forced to abandon Tangier – and their dialect – to find work on the mainland. Not only is the population ageing, it’s also shrinking: according to the Census, today’s 460-person island had 727 residents in 2010.

(Credit: Veena Rao)

(Credit: Veena Rao)

Washing away

Not only is Tangier’s language and way of life threatened, but so is the very island itself. After centuries of living on and from the Chesapeake Bay, the water that has long sustained this fishing community is quickly washing it away.

According to marine biologists with the US Army Corps of Engineers, as reported by The New York Times, two-thirds of Tangier’s landmass has disappeared since 1850. At its highest point, the island is only 4ft high, and as sea waters rise due to climate change, an estimated nine acres of Tangier continue to erode into the Bay each year. Some scientists fear the islanders will need to start evacuating as soon as 2037, and by 2050 the island and its singular way of speaking may be completely underwater.

If the Army Corps of Engineers doesn’t allocate the estimated $30 million needed to build a seawall to protect the island, scientists fear this tiny speck of land could soon produce some of the US’ first climate change refugees.

(Credit: Veena Rao)

(Credit: Veena Rao)

We’re being threatened from all sides. Our main concern out here is to get protection for the island [by building] a rock seawall," Eskridge admitted.

(Credit: Veena Rao)

(Credit: Veena Rao)

A ghost island

If water levels continue to rise and Tangier’s shores continue to erode, residents won’t have to travel far to see what may happen to their island’s proud past. Just off the northern edge of Tangier’s habitable ridges, a sea-soaked sliver of land known as Uppards that was once connected to the rest of the island now lies separated by a wide channel.

“This used to be a small series of communities where people used to live until the 1930s,” explained 17-year-old Cameron Evans, as water lapped up against bricks from 19th-Century homes and dislodged tombstones from what was once a cemetery. Like the other five people in his graduating class, Evans doesn’t want to leave Tangier next year, but without any waterman positions opening up, he may need to go to the mainland.

(Credit: Veena Rao)

(Credit: Veena Rao)

This could be us one day if we don’t get our help," Evans said.