The Tangier Island Accent Is British-Southern Slang That Only 800 Americans Speak

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Even with the internet connecting everybody to everything, it isn’t hard to be out of the loop about something – or completely miss that it exists. I learned of one of these situations recently. It’s a tiny island in Chesapeake Bay, called Tangier. The interesting thing about Tangier is the way the people who inhabit the island speak. The residents of Tangier, Virginia, speak with what can only be classified as the “Tangier accent”.

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What is the Tangier accent or dialect?

The dialect spoken by the residents of Tangier, Virginia, is something all its own. This unique accent was probably the earliest to form in America. Today, fewer than 800 people speak with it. Most of them are descendants of the original immigrants and still reside on Tangier. The accent seems to be a hybrid of a Southern accent and an English one. It’s considered American English, as it pulls heavily from the lexicon and phonetics of 17th century English settlers in the area. Some believe that the English accent heard is from the early settlers from Cornwall, in South Western England.

The longevity of this accent is accredited to the isolation of the island from the mainland. The residents live in a tight community. The island itself, is approximately 1,312 square miles with the estimated number of Tangier residents being 710, reported in 2017.

What is the history of the Tangier accent?

Tangier Island Accent
Flickr: Internet Archive Book Images

While a majority of the people who now inhabit the small island are descendants of the first immigrants in the 1700s. Before that, the land belonged to the Pocomoke Indian tribe. There isn’t much information on the tribe, however they were long gone by 1608 when John Smith explored the island for Europe. Many of the first immigrants to the island were farmers up until the 19th century. This soon changed to harvesting crabs and oysters from the Chesapeake Bay. Initially, this caused some tension between watermen transporting travelers and oysters dredgers from both Maryland and Virginia. Tangier is now known as the ‘soft-shell crab capital of the world’ and a majority of its residents make their living crabbing.

The second most profitable stream of revenue for locals on Tangier is tourism. With virtually nonexistent crime, the residents of Tangier live a laid back way of life on the island. For visitors, there are two bed and breakfasts, a beach, gift shops, and more. There is also duck hunting, in the northern area of Tangier, referred to as the “Uppards”.

Tangier Island Accent
Wikimedia Commons via Ser Amantio di Nicolao

Getting on and off the island is scenic and accomplished by either boat or airplane. On the island, the roads are small enough for only two golf carts to pass each each other, thus the main modes of transportation are bikes, mopeds, and golf carts, i.e. the perfect vacation transport.

If you’re planning your visit right now to this quaint, historic Tangier Island, go soon. The land has been reducing steadily since the 1800s. Rising sea levels have reduced the island’s habitability to under 50 years, according to a 2015 report by the Army Corps of Engineers.

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