A Washington Post article by David A. Fahrenthold discusses the slow decline of the Chesapeake Bay way of speaking:

Years ago, before the watermen had to become bus drivers and the crab shanties were replaced by new red-brick houses, everybody on St. George Island knew about the arster, the kitchen and the sun dog.
The arster, of course, was a bivalve—called an “oyster” by some people—often found here at the remote south end of St. Mary’s County. “The kitchen” was a spot in the Chesapeake Bay where arsters were caught. And a “sun dog” was a haze that portended bad weather, a sign it was time to leave the kitchen and head home.
These words were part of the island’s local dialect, one of many distinctive ways of speaking that grew up over the centuries in isolated areas across the bay.
But now, like many of the other dialects, St. George-ese is fading. Many of the watermen who spoke it have left, and in their place are newcomers from the Washington suburbs and elsewhere…

Linguists are careful to stress that there is not one single Chesapeake Bay dialect but rather a vast array of accents and vocabularies.
There are distinctively southern speakers, like Tidewater Virginians who say “kyar” when they mean “car.” Further north are the residents of “Bawlmer, Merlin,” and along the Eastern Shore, in isolated waterman’s communities, people turn “wife” into “wuife.”
But to the west of this cacophony, there is Washington—a demographic behemoth, breaker of dialects.
Almost 50 percent of the region’s residents were born in a state other than the one where they live, which is more than other big cities and close to twice the national average. Linguistically, that means “nobody really has any idea what Washington, D.C., is,” said David Bowie, a linguistics professor at the University of Central Florida…
So far, there’s been no comprehensive linguistic study of the bay’s dialects to see if they’re all facing the same fate as Southern Maryland speech. But changes have been noted by old-timers and local historians across the area.
Northern Neck native W. Tayloe Murphy Jr.—the Virginia secretary of natural resources—said residents used to say they lived “in” the Northern Neck. Now, he said, many say “on,” as outsiders do.
In Delaware, historian Russ McCabe said he’s seen the decline of “among-ye,” which was that state’s rare way of saying “y’all.” One of the few times he’s heard it recently was at a church in Gumboro, in south Delaware.
“This older fella looked at me and [said], ‘Are among-ye going to stay for supper?’ ” said McCabe, who works for the state public archives. “I had a moment there, a twinge of almost sadness, because I hadn’t heard that in 20 years.”…
The most prominent exception to these changes is Smith Island, Md., a marshy place with about 360 residents, reachable only by ferry.
Here, with a brogue that’s been steeped in decades of isolation, Smith Islanders render house as “hace” and brown as “brain.” They use words that are relics of the British English used by American colonists, such as “progging”—which means to poke around the marshes looking for arrowheads.
University researchers were surprised recently to find that young Smith Islanders actually have a stronger accent than their parents. The researchers and islanders said they believe the change was a conscious attempt to assert the island’s culture in the face of declining catches and rising water levels.

I wonder if this reaction has any chance of actually preserving the dialect for a significant amount of time?
(Thanks to Joe Tomei for the link.)


  1. I’be been thinking about why local dialects around the world, even languages which have only a few speakers left, seem to be dying out so fast. Is it because of “popular” culture – TV, movies, radio, CDs, are so widely available? Much of it is American, but even the main “educated” language of a nation dominates media. What do you think?

  2. Yes, I think it’s the universal availability of mass media in a normalized form of the language. Sad but inevitable.

  3. I was born and raised in Calvert County, Maryland, a formerly rural, now exurban, peninsula on the western shore of the Bay. I hate to sound melodramtatic or curmudgeonly (especially since I am only 27), but it has been very difficult for me to watch our 350 year old culture being erased from the earth. I can’t even bring myself to read the article.
    Although LH is vastly more knowledgable about language issues than I, I disagree with the notion that mass media is the primary culprit for dialect and language death. I know in the case of my area, it has much more to do with the massive and overwhelming influx of outsiders who don’t share our speech. Although mass media is certainly a contributing factor, I think it’s this mixing of populations, particularly the rapid urbanization of developing countries, that is responsible for most language/dialect shifts.

  4. I totally agree with Andrew’s comment. Many of my own relatives are from the Baltimore and Washington D.C. areas not far from Cheasepeake Bay. They have pronunciations like /awnt/ for aunt, /harr-uhbl/ for horrible, /tur-uhbl/ for terrible , /poy-tree/ for poetry and /p’tay-tuh/ and /t’may-tuh/ for potato and tomato, and yes, /wor-shing-tun/ for Washington which you just don’t hear among most of the residents living in those cities today.

  5. I used to be one of those outsiders Andrew mentioned. My family moved to the Eastern Shore of Maryland when I was a teenager, but in our case, we weren’t “outsiders,” we were “chicken-neckers” (the explanation being that the locals crab using trot lines, whereas the non-natives would use crab pots baited with chicken necks). Other examples I remember from the local dialect are: the plural of you is “youse;” the past tense of see is “seen;” the fridge doesn’t break down, it “goes up.” Unfortunately, I think the demographic and physical landscapes of this area will inexorably change (due primarily to DC sprawl), and the linguistic one will too.

  6. I haven’t spent an appreciable amount of time in Pittsburgh, but I wonder whether Pittsburgh-isms are also disappearing as the population changes. Second person singular there was about halfway between “yinz” and “yunz”. Not sure how it was spelled.

  7. Andrew, you may well be right about the influx of outsiders being the primary culprit in this case. I suspect, though, that either factor would be enough on its own to doom a local dialect.

  8. I wonder what is the tipping point in ability of either factor to irrevocably change the local dialect?
    If I’m allowed to bring an example from different geographical zone, newcomers to Moscow (and this is a city much like New York in spirit and composition) usually adopt distinctive drawl of native Muscovites within very short period of time. It took my sister 1/2 yr in Moscow college, f.ex., to pronounce “бУлочная” as “бУлошная” and “заакр’й дзверь”, unconcsiously. And it stayed with her for at least 10 years, even when she moved out of town.
    I don’t have figures of percentage of native Muscovites (being born and lived all their life in the city) vs. outsiders, but I suspect the latter category prevail. Also, the history played big role in population change – wars, revolutions, guest workers influx (“limitA”) – and still anyone can spot a Muscovite from a mile.
    So what makes the dialect change in one cases and persevere in others?

  9. Excellent question. If anyone knows of studies on the subject, please post ’em.

  10. I’m always sad to hear of dialects dying out. I hope someone has the foresight to record the accent and the dialect. If not, we’re all the poorer.

  11. These language varieties have a delicate existence in the minds of their speakers. Many speakers are happily diglossic – they speak standard to their college or work friends but instantly switch to their local variety when they pick up the phone to speak to their parents. There can be interference between the varieties, where two possible usages sound right to the speaker’s ear, and they can’t remember which one is the way they’ve always said it and which one is the way all the cool kids say it. Then there’s the whole area of pride and/or shame in local identity, which can cause a speaker to speak either a flowery and overformal standard or an exaggerated and forcedly quaint local variety.
    By the way, did anyone see the film where Rita Hayworth, Gene Kelly, and Phil Silvers are eating oysters at a bar, and the barman says “Ya know what? I don’t think poils comes from oesters. I beg ya, be reasonable, how could a poil give boith to an oester?”. Was that a real dialect or a Hollywood dialect?

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