among ye

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed Jun 15 17:06:54 UTC 2005

Bay's Dialects Slowly Dying
As City Encroaches and Watermen Leave, Linguists Try to Preserve

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 19, 2005; Page A01

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.

"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 that 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.

Now, linguists are trying to record and preserve these ways of speech.
They fear that soon the bay will be overtaken by a suburb's
interchangeable sense of place -- and that the land and language here 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, 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.

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 Calvert County and 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, because many farmers have
taken a state buyout.

Hagner R. 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.

Now, the phrase gets him funny looks. "People would say, 'Did I
misunderstand you?' " Mister said. " 'Stripping room?' "

Across the country, linguists say, big cities such as Baltimore and New
York safeguard dialects because native speakers are usually talking to one
another. But in an area quickly turning into suburbs, such as Southern
Maryland, every conversation with an outsider can exert a subtle pressure.

"If you realize that everywhere you're likely to go, there's a different
norm, there's incentive . . . to change the way you talk a little bit,"
said Bowie, who studied Waldorf.

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

"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 the District,
provides a microcosm of the region's changes. It once supported a thriving
oyster industry, but then disease and pollution devastated the oyster

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 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

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 historian.

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'."

 2005 The Washington Post Company

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