Back when I was in graduate school, I took a course on American English. We studied the history and characteristics of the various American dialects, including that of Tangier Island. This little island in the middle of Chesapeake Bay was settled by English folks from the Cornwall district back in the 1600s. They and their descendants were so isolated–today it’s an hour-and-a-half boat ride from the mainland–that their language and culture have hardly changed over the centuries.
As a 17th century scholar, I have always wanted to visit Tangier Island. So we did.
Tangier Island is just off the coast of Virginia, where we now live, and it’s officially a part of our Commonwealth. I looked it up, and saw that Reedville, which is where you can catch the boat there, is just a three-and-a-half hour drive away. The Western Shore of the Chesapeake bay is not nearly as touristy as the Eastern Shore, much less the Outer Banks that face the Atlantic, so after some effort, there being no hotels on Tangier Island, I found a place to stay 30 miles from Reedville. We set forth for a long weekend and just got back.
After that hour-and-half boat ride, we arrived. Today there are only about 500 people living on the island. They make their living as “watermen,” going out in their little boats to catch crabs, in particular. They catch them and then keep them alive, nurturing them until they molt off their shells, becoming the luscious “soft-shell crabs” (you can eat the whole thing). The women bring in some money by building a small-scale tourist industry. Some have opened restaurants, featuring mouth-watering and absolutely fresh seafood, a couple have opened gift shops, and others will give you a tour of the island on golf carts. (There are only a handful of automobiles on the island, mainly a few pickups for businesses. People get around on golf carts, bicycles, or just walk.) Tangier figured out how to handle the small number of tourists without becoming touristy. The boat comes in at 11:30 and leaves at 2:30. Just enough time to eat at a restaurant, take a tour, check out the shops, and then the tourists all have to catch the boat back and leave.
The language is not “Elizabethan English,” as it is often described. More like “Jacobean English.” Actually, a Jacobean Cornish dialect. They don’t use “thee’s” and “thou’s.” But the sounds, especially of the vowels, are similar to those of Shakespeare’s day. Here is a video focusing on the dialect, but note also the look and the feel of the place.
We just sort of hung around–eating a great meal, taking the golf cart tour–but I tried to get people talking. I listened to children playing and was glad to see that they still have it. I listened to watermen at the dock, and they really had it.
But it wasn’t just the language. Two hundred years ago, a Methodist preacher brought the Gospel to Tangier Island, and it has never left. The people are devout and pretty much all go to the same Methodist church. But this is Methodism of the sort before the Methodist church got so liberal. There is no alcohol on the island. The restaurant menus include Bible verses. When I unwrapped the coffee cup I bought, I saw that the clerk had thrown in a devotional page from the Upper Room.
There is one policeman on the island, but no jail, since there isn’t any crime. They have a grocery store, but no banks or shopping centers. They have a school, and the children roam the island with impunity, since there isn’t anything to hurt them. They have no movie theaters but play a lot of sports.
Recently, the internet and cable TV came to the island. When their children go to college, they usually don’t come back, since there is no work for them, unless they want to work on the water, like their fathers and their fathers, back to the time of Captain John Smith. Many worry that the days of the island life are numbered.
But in the meantime, the people of Tangier Island are friendly and gracious and hospitable. They live in an extraordinarily tight-knit community, far from the maddening crowd. I’m glad that such a place exists, and I felt privileged to visit it.