Is The Original English Accent Still Alive in Parts of the United States?
On the isolated island community of Tangier, Virginia, the residents speak with a dialect that is entirely unique. It’s part southern drawl, part “brogue,” and some have claimed it’s a relic dialect left over from the first English settlers to the area in the 1600s. But is that true? In this episode, we learn about the region, its dialect and the reason for this strange accent. Then we play the quick quiz with my wife Alison!
Chesapeake Bay is the largest estuary in the U.S. running from Norfolk VA, up through Maryland and almost all the way to Wilmington, Delaware. And what many people may not realize is that it used to be full of islands that are now lost to history. Subsidence, climate change, rising waters and erosion have taken islands that used to house fishing communities and turned them into uninhabited Marshland. Holland Island, Smiths Island, Shankses Island, and several more are now nothing but marshes littered with remnants. Remnants of tombstones, of houses, fishing piers and boat docks. And in a way, remnants are what this episode is about. Remnants of language.
The Chesapeake Bay is also home to several extremely isolated communities. When a community becomes isolated, that’s how a dialect forms. The more people mix with each other, the more congruent their speaking patterns become. So these communities we’re talking about today have developed to have their own distinct dialect. And we’ll talk about where that comes from, but the claim by some is that this is the closest living dialect to Elizabethan English from the 1600s.
Before we talk about that, let me just say that isolated communities with their own dialects aren’t specific to the Chesapeake Bay. Anyone who’s visited Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston or New York knows that some cities just have their own accent. Even where I live here in Ohio, you can sometimes tell when someone is from Cleveland versus Columbus. Clevelanders have a twinge of that Chicago/Minnesota lake accent, whereas Columbus – for whatever reason – is considered an “accent-neutral” city. There’s a place out in Northern California called Boonville that, instead of it’s own dialect, developed it’s own collection of sayings and phrases that are still used by some older Boonville residents today. They call it Boontling. And to the most seasoned English-speaker, it can sound like a foreign language.
Again – Boonville developed this regional jargon because it was an isolated community where farmers, loggers and ranchers just kept to themselves within the town. Today, fewer than 100 people still know Boontling.
The islands of the Chesapeake Bay are the same. Tangier Island, Virginia is in the center of the bay and has a population of about 700 residents. It used to be a retreat for the Poconoke Iniands. It was “discovered” by John Smith in 1608, but the first permanent resident was John Crockett in the late 17th century. To this day, many residents still have the surname Crockett. It was used as a military staging area by British Ships. In 1814, they left from Tangier Island to attack Washington and Baltimore and we know about that battle because it was then that Francis Scott Key wrote the Star Spangled Banner. In the 1900s the population rose to around 1,000. It was briefly used for missile testing by the U.S. government in the 60s, but has mostly existed as a fishing community. They rely on crabbing and oysters to make a living and Tangier is called the “soft shell crab capital of the world.”
There is no road leading to Tangier Island. There is a small airport, but other than that, it’s only accessible by boat. There are hardly any cars on the island and it doesn’t even get cell service. Linguists believe this is the reason that the community has developed its own dialect. People say it’s a remnant of the dialect of the settlers that founded it in the very beginning. To my ear, I don’t hear that as much. It sounds like a typical rural southern drawl to me, but there are these occasional words that slip in that sound somewhat British. Let’s listen to a little bit of Tangier Island.
You can hear it in the words “crowd” and “down.” it almost sounds like what we would associate with Irish pronunciations of those words. But like in Boontling out in California, some people with the dialect have it so thick that you can’t tell what they’re saying.
Just north of Tangier Island is the larger Smith Island, which is just over the line into Maryland. While the island is larger, the population of Smith Island is much smaller – only 200. And predictably, they have an accent almost identical to those of Tangier. It’s the same dialect, which some call a “Relic Accent.” It’s often compared to the accent of the rural West Country of England. Let’s listen to a little speech from Smith Island, Maryland.
These accents are sometimes referred to as “Hoi Toider” – from the way they pronounce “high tide” – “hoi toid.” In addition to these small Chesapeake Bay Islands, there is a part of the southern Outer Banks of NC where you can hear it as well. It’s also known as “Ocracoke Brogue.”
So while the legend and the lore around this distinct dialect is that it’s a holdover or relic from the Elizabethan English spoken by some of the first settlers, modern linguists dispute that fact. I’ll tell you more about that after a quick break.
So did this accent on remote islands of the Chesapeake Bay preserve the original dialect spoken by the British colonists? It’s a good story and it certainly seems to make sense. Here’s a community very near where settlers from England first arrived in the U.S. and they speak with a dialect distinctly different than the rest of the country. And occasionally this means pronouncing a word similar to how it would be pronounced in the U.K. And for many years, this was the prevailing theory about how places like Tangier Island, Smith Island and Ocracoke got their accent. That these communities were so isolated that their accent was a remnant that was kept.
Another theory is that the isolation of this island caused the residents to develop their own distinct dialect which neither reflects the dialects of their surrounding states nor does it have anything to do with the Elizabethan way of speaking.
The real answer probably lies somewhere in the middle. According to Linguist David Shores, the brogue that is spoke in these remote regions probably began as an English accent in the 1600s, but over time, developed inward and changed within the community. It’s even added phrases and jargon just like the ones in Booneville, CA. For example, if you stink from a hard day of fishing, you “have the meebs.” If it’s cold out, they say “Hawkins is here.” Here’s a fun one. If you’re “selling cakes,” it means your fly is down. These are all just phrases that came about within the community. But then you’ll see an occasional example of British influence. They refer to asparagus as “Spar Grass.” We know that Virginia’s English colonists called it “Sparrow Grass.” The dialect in Tangier, Smith and Ocracoke have these similarities occasionally, but have evolved so much, they really are their own thing now.
The more these places age, the less speakers there are of these accents. It’s from a combination of things. Firstly, even remote islands aren’t very remote anymore. The world is a much more interconnected place than it used to be. It’s the older folks you’ll hear speaking with the accent, but not the younger. It’s harder in general for families to keep their kids on the island when they grow up. Less and less people want to live in a small fishing community and choose to move away to the mainland. And finally, like the dialect itself, the islands of the Chesapeake Bay are disappearing. You can look at Smith Island and Tangier Island on a satellite map and immediately see the pattern of erosion that’s wasting the land down to nothing. If you look at Holland or Smith’s Island, you get a dark glimpse into the future of places like Tangier. At its highest point, it’s only 4 feet above the water. Nine acres of the island erode into the Bay every year. At the current rate of subsidence and erosion, there won’t be enough land for anyone to live on Tangier Island in another 20 years. It will be another story of a place, a way of life – and a unique dialect – lost to history.
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