Inside The Small Island Off The Coast Of Virginia Where Residents Speak Like Colonial Settlers

Located roughly a dozen miles off the coast of Virginia in the Chesapeake Bay, Tangier Island is one of many isolated US cities with a deep-rooted culture. Accessible only by boat, Tangier, VA, is mostly cut off from the outside world. The community on Tangier Island embraces its insularity by actively excluding influences that could disrupt the residents' unique way of life.

Tangier Island's history factors heavily into its distinct character - especially the heavy Tangier dialect that has developed as a result of the secluded culture. The vernacular is almost incomprehensible to outsiders, as it includes words that date back centuries. In addition, the islanders' tonal pronunciation reveals Tangier's colonial connections.

With environmental perils looming, the language and traditions on Tangier Island may soon vanish, eliminating this fascinating link to America's past. 

Photo: Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY)

  • The Tangier Accent Is Full Of Long Vowels
    Photo: Eli Christman / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

    The Tangier Accent Is Full Of Long Vowels

    According to linguist David L. Shores, it's the pronunciation of vowels on Tangier Island that truly sets the language apart from others. Shores explains to National Geographic"They have a lot of idiomatic expressions, but the vowel system is quite different... they have a tendency to prolong a vowel." He claims they pronounce "set" and "dress" as "s-eh-uh-t" and "dr-eh-uh-s," respectively. 

    Observers have noticed similarities between the dialect on Tangier Island and that of the Outer Banks, NC, but linguists dismiss this connection due to distinct differences in pronunciation. 

  • Tangier Has A Unique Vocabulary 
    Photo: David Broad / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0

    Tangier Has A Unique Vocabulary 

    Residents of Tangier Island speak with a distinct inflection and pronunciation and have established their own vocabulary. Examples of words known only to people from Tangier include "iggy," which means "going to," and "wudget," a large wad of money.

    Moreover, Tangier denizens use obscure phrases, such as "in the sweet peas," about someone who is sleeping, and "my bike's bust" to indicate a flat tire.

    Speaking to a Virginia-based newspaper, The Daily Progress, former resident and author Bruce Gordy, claimed other Tangier-specific phrases include: 

    "He's in a kelter!" (He's visibly very upset!)

    "She can talk the flood tide down!" (She never stops yapping!)

    "That wind's kyowking - let's go gunning!" (It's really blustery - let's go duck-hunting!)

    "It's softening down." (It's hot and humid.)

    "Mom said I could tick some cherry lounies." (Mom said I could charge some sweets.)

    Residents often say the opposite of what they mean, and some believe Tangier Islanders are "talking backward." For example, Gordy describes how he calls someone unintelligent, "'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."

  • There Is Evidence Tangier Island Residents Speak Like Colonial Settlers

    Prompted by a group of tourists who could not understand the Tangier dialect, Bruce Gordy began collecting words and phrases unique to the island. He was surprised to learn that some of the pronunciations were almost identical to how settlers said certain words hundreds of years ago.

    One example of this phenomenon is the word "asparagus." According to Gordy's research, colonists pronounced the vegetable as "sparrow grass," and Tangier residents still say "spar grass."

    Gordy also indicated that Tangier Island water workers continue to use many nautical terms from hundreds of years ago.

  • Tangier Island May Trace Its Origins To Immigrants From Cornwall And Devonshire

    Captain John Smith claimed Tangier Island as British land in either 1607 or 1608. Tangier Island is one of a collection of islands known as Russell Isles. The origins of its first settlers are disputed, but reports indicate a man named Ambrose White was granted a patent on Tangier as early as 1670, and a member of the West family purchased the island from the Pocomoke people in 1666 for the price of two overcoats.

    By 1778, the Crockett family bought 475 acres of the island and became a well-known name in Tangier history. An influx of settlers from Cornwall and Devonshire in southwestern England populated the area in 1778. They brought a unique dialect to the land which, when combined with the Crockett family's "Virginia twang," created the famous Tangier accent.

  • The British Planned The Battle Of Baltimore From The Island In The 1800s

    The British occupied Tangier Island in 1812. About 200 men arrived on ships and, according to Reverend Joshua Thomas, the British "pitched their tents and immediately went to work with all their might, clearing the ground and building forts."

    From their base on Tangier Island, the British planned to bombard Baltimore, MD, in September 1814. Thomas wrote about praying with the troops, recalling the aftermath of the incident in which hundreds of people perished.

    The Battle of Baltimore started on September 12, 1814, and lasted two days, famously resulting in Francis Scott Key's "Star Spangled Banner" - a song he reportedly penned while trapped on a boat in Baltimore's harbor. The British started to leave Tangier Island in February 1815 and did not return. 

  • The Island Forbids Public Consumption Of Alcohol

    Tangier Island enjoys a low disturbance rate, perhaps thanks in part to a ban on public alcohol consumption. In fact, spirits aren't sold on the island, and the Methodist Church remains among the strongest influences of social behavior.

    Regardless, the bartender at Watermen's Inn in Crisfield, MD, insists many of the residents visit the establishment to imbibe: "They'll come in off the boat with no bags and drink all weekend. Wearing the same clothes every night. But they're really good people."

    Though it maintains a low offense rate, Tangier has seen substances hit the three-mile-long strip of land. Regardless, there are no courts or lawyers on the island. Resident Ricky Laird told a reporter, "You can leave your doors open. You don't have to lock anything."