Tangier Island and the spoken word


Tangier Island boats. Image: Blogger’s own.

Sometimes, I trip myself up speaking my own language. During my “yonderings” through New England years ago, I mispronounced the town name of “Gloucester” while chatting with the staff at a Danvers, MA motel and was promptly corrected.

It’s fascinating to me how the spoken word varies within my own country, with various regions using a variety of words for the same item and different ways of pronouncing the same word. Even the origins of my country’s regional accents are interesting to study, and Tangier Island is an intriguing example.

Tangier lies out in the Chesapeake Bay between Maryland and Virginia, a few hours southeast of Washington, DC. It’s a small, peaceful outpost of Virginia and the residents there make their living from different sources: gift shops, restaurants, the sea and tourists.

There are few cars there since they won’t fit over the road bridges, and the only way to get there is by air or by boat. Most residents get around by golf cart, mopeds, boats, bikes or foot.

Tangier has attracted the attention of linguists since some of the residents there sometimes speak in an accent that is similar to Restoration-era English. Tangier was settled mainly by people from the southwestern part of England (a.k.a. the “West Country”) such as Gloucestershire, Bristol, Wiltshire, Somerset, Dorset, Devon, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. Due to its isolation from the Virginia and Maryland mainlands, the unique accent was less corrupted by other sources.

I had the chance to visit Tangier with two of my Brit friends a while back. Tangier had been mentioned in some books and articles I’ve read, so I was curious to see what it looked like and to hear the accent if I could.

We were in Maryland at the time so we took the ferry over from Crisfield on a hot summer’s day. For most of the trip over, we enjoyed the refreshing breeze as the ferry cut through the water.

(I needed it. My air conditioning at the Crisfield motel where we stayed the night before behaved very oddly. It only cooled off the air from the floor to a height of about four feet. When I was lying down, I was comfortable but when I stood up or sat up, there was no relief from the humid heat. Weird.)

We took a ride via a golf cart around the island, with our guide pointing out various landmarks. In some ways, the homes of Tangier resembled those in many Shenandoah Valley small towns — white one-story and two-story buildings with darker shutters and wide porches. If you plucked up a house from a Shenandoah Valley town and plopped it onto Tangier, it would fit in quite nicely.

Tangier Island mailbox

Fun mailbox on one of Tangier’s streets. Image: Blogger’s own.

Sadly, I didn’t get to hear the accent but enjoyed my visit there anyway. I wouldn’t mind going back again.

If you’re interested in Tangier’s unique accent or want to see more of this island, here’s a Vimeo video, courtesy of Tyler Yowell. Have fun watching and best wishes for 2015!



Filed under Writing

6 responses to “Tangier Island and the spoken word

  1. Tangier is a fabulous place or was. Yes we say things differently even in various areas of Virginia and West Virginia. I love the way the folks in WV pronounce Caanan as in the valley of. Nice post.

  2. I heard about Tangier’s odd accents and have wanted to visit there myself. Here’s hoping it’ll be sometime soon.

    And if it makes you feel any better, I was once reprimanded in Lancaster, PA, for pronouncing it “Lan-CASS-ter.” Apparently the way you say it is “Lan-KISS-ter.”

    Learn from me!

    • I’ve been to Lancaster — thank goodness I pronounced it the right way!

      You can get to Tangier from Crisfield on the Maryland side or from Onacock or Reedville on the Virginia side. You could fly into Norfolk International Airport, rent a car and then Tangier’s only about 65 miles away.

      Just don’t forget to wave hi to me out the airplane window as you pass over in your plane. 😀

  3. There’s a town in central Illinois called Monticello. However, the “c” is pronounced as an “s.” When my husband and I visited Thomas Jefferson’s estate and used the Illinois pronunciation, a rather grand old Virginia dame made it clear we weren’t in Illinois anymore. 🙂


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