Making Us Different

Making Us Different

by Dillon Hershey

Imagine living on an island that is 1.236 square miles with the population being only about 730 people. The only way to get around on the island is by golf cart or by bikes. There are only three cars on the island; the mail truck, the police car and the garbage truck. There is only one fire truck and one ambulance that barely fit down the streets. There are two churches on the island. The average grade size is four kids. The main occupations are on water, like crabbing and conching. Believe it or not, an island like this exists off the coast of Virginia, called Tangier Island. It lies in the Chesapeake Bay close to Smith Island.

Tangier Island has been in my life since I was young. My grandmother’s brother flew to Tangier Island one day to get a good seafood meal and ended up bringing back some information about a bed and breakfast there. My grandmother and grandfather went on a short vacation there and really liked it, so they brought the rest of the family along the next time they went to the island. My family started to travel there in the summers, when I was about a year and a half old. Usually we would stay on the island for about four to five days and we would act like tourists. Coming in on the tour boat, renting a golf cart, staying at a bed and breakfast, catching crabs, watching the sunset, going swimming in the frigid water and getting ice cream at Spanky’s. When I was five years old, my grandparents bought a house there and we didn’t go as tourists anymore. We came in on the mailboat, we got our own golf cart, people knew who we were and we had our own house. We were almost like real Islanders*. One thing that separated us from the others though, was their accent. We never picked up on that.

The Watermen* dialect is very different from any other dialect that you will hear. It is often classified as Elizabethian, with a mixture of British and Southern accents. The very first time my family went to island, my dad remembers a boy sitting on the edge of the dock with a bucket of crabs. The boy was about five or six. He saw my dad standing there and he said “Not a very good day for crabbing.”, but it sounded like “Not a verry goood day fer craabin.” My dad had no idea what just came out of his mouth. My grandmother, who spends more time than the rest of us on the island, still can’t understand some of the watermen* when they are talking very fast to each other. Their dialect is hard to explain because it is so odd sounding. For example, when they say the word saturday, it sounds like this: “Sourer-day” while people in Philadelphia say it more like this: “Sat-er-day”. They often stretch out one syllable words containing a long ‘a’ or ‘i’ vowel sound to make the word two syllables. Crab is a word you will hear many times at Tangier because crabbing is one of the main occupations on the island. They make crab into 2 syllables like this, “craa-ab”, enunciating the first syllable. Five and bad are other examples, they would say it: “fy-ave” and “bay-aad”

American Tongues, a documentary about languages in the United States, has a two minute clip about the Tangier dialect. The dialect in the documentary is a very heavy dialect that you don’t hear very much anymore. They have started to modernize their dialect for the tourists. Islanders grew up with having to repeat themselves so that the tourists can understand them. They depend on the tourists because the other occupations besides crabbing, are all tourist based. As the tourists keep coming though, the Islanders start to accommodate their dialect so that the tourists can understand them. I can understand why the Islanders would do this but I think that tourists are having too much effect on the Islanders’ dialect. I’ve noticed that watermen, who work on boats with just people from Tangier Island, have a heavier Watermen accent than people who work on the island and interact with tourists. The dialect is still strong but not as hard to understand.

I went to the island over the summer to help my grandmother with her art classes that she teaches there. I was working with kids from ages five to thirteen. All of their dialects were different probably depending on what their parents’ jobs were. By Wednesday, I found myself thinking in their dialect. I couldn’t say any words out loud in fear of messing up and offending them but in my mind I had a sentence that was formed just listening to the kids talk. During my stay there, I understood most of the sentences that the Islanders said but sometimes it took a little bit longer for me to reply back to them if we were having a conversation.

I think, if I were to stay at Tangier for a longer time, I might pick up on their dialect. I find myself doing that already when I visit my family in Lancaster County. They also have a small dialect that I pick up on and use when I am with them. I think that it would be interesting to see if I stay at Tangier for a month, if I start to talk like one of them too. I don’t think that code-switching is bad because I do all of the time. I just think that all sorts of dialects and accents can be so different and interesting that people should try to preserve their dialects, so we don’t become a system of identical sounding humans.

*Note: There is no specific term for the people living on Tangier, so I used two different terms, Watermen and Islanders. I used Watermen while referring to the dialect and Islanders while talking about the general population of the island. I also used watermen while referring to their occupation. I used a lowercase ‘w’ because it is an occupation.

Works Cited:

American Tongues. Dir. Louis Alvarez. 1988.