"Their whinin' is declinin'."
Harold F. Schiffman
haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Tue Feb 22 14:44:10 UTC 2005
Sunday, February 20, 2005, 12:00 A.M. Pacific
Rural ways lost, word by word
By David A. Fahrenthold
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON 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 at the remote south end of St. Mary's County, Md. "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 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.
"They don't know about sun dogs anymore," said Jack Russell, a native of
the area. "Half of them don't even know that the sun rises in the east and
sets in the west." Experts say the dialects, which encoded years of
memories and tradition in small communities, are eroding under pressure
from expanding suburbs and a declining dependence on the bay.
Linguists now are trying to record and preserve these ways of speech. They
fear that the bay soon will be overtaken by a suburb's interchangeable
sense of place and that the land and language in the region will be the
same as anywhere else. "The change in the dialect is so reflective of the
demographic change," said Emma Trentman, who studied Calvert County's
dialect as a Georgetown University graduate student. "When you use the
dialect, you're basically using a piece of history."
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, such as Tidewater Virginians who say
"kyar" when they mean "car." Farther north are the residents of "Bawlmer,
Merlin," and on 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
Linguists say this kind of dialect confusion is spreading to southern
Maryland, where tobacco fields and country stores have been giving way to
subdivisions and Starbucks. In the Charles County town of Waldorf, studies
have found that southern pronunciations such as "tam" for "time" are
disappearing. Also declining is the lingo of tobacco farming, since many
farmers took a state buyout.
Hagner Mister, a longtime Calvert tobacco farmer and former Maryland
secretary of agriculture, said the term "stripping room" a place where
tobacco leaves were taken off the stalk used to be common parlance. The
phrase now gets him funny looks. "People would say, 'Did I misunderstand
you?' " Mister said. " 'Stripping room?' "
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. 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
"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." St. George Island, a skinny strip of land two hours from
Washington, provides a microcosm of the region's changes. It once
supported a thriving oyster industry, but disease and pollution devastated
the oyster crop.
Watermen left to seek other jobs, and new people came after sewer lines
were extended there in 1990. "They're just smotherin' us," said Russell, a
native who stayed behind. "We're getting yuppi-tized."
Russell said the new residents have no reason to know the names of nearby
oyster bars or the points of land that watermen used as landmarks. To the
new people, he said, water is water. It's scenery.
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 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. "They act like they want to be heard with it,"
said Jennings Evans, 74, a retired waterman and Smith Island's unofficial
But when the ferry takes him to Crisfield, Md., on the mainland, Evans
said he sees the way the rest of the bay is going. He said Crisfield's
natives used to have a nasal, whiny way of talking which sounded funny,
even to a man who pronounces "sound" as "saned." But now, Evans said, he
can hear it changing.
"Their whinin'," he said, "is declinin'."
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