by David Healey
As if anyone needed further proof that Delmarva is a place unto itself, the people speak a different tongue. This language of the land between the bays is known as Delmarvese. You’ve heard it, even if you haven’t put a name to it. It’s that unique pronunciation that signals you’re from here and everybody else isn’t.
Caught me some feesh. Gaoin downy oh-shun. Eat some cray-abs.
Delmarva accents (Eastern Shore accents) have twangy vowels, punctuated by a long “0” sound. It’s an accent that’s distinctly Southern in its own way. My ﬁrst real introduction to this matter of local pronunciation occurred when I moved to Cecil County. I pronounced it See-cil. But old-timers insist on Sissal or even Sessal — much as the first English settlers would have said it.
Linguists will tell you that Delmarva’s unique way of speaking goes beyond mere accent. Delmarvese is a recognized dialect — a unique pattern of speech — that has its roots in the Elizabethan adventurers who arrived in Shakespeare’s era.
One of the ways dialect survives is through isolation, which is why it lasted so long on Delmarva.
“That is one of the factors. But it’s not that people don’t have access to other dialects through television and other media,” explained Tonia Bleam, lecturer in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Maryland. “There’s also a sense of identity. Speaking in a dialect might not be that conscious of a thing. But if you start to talk differently, your friends might think you are putting on airs. You might have different ways of speaking in different situations, such as when dealing with outsiders.”
Isolation certainly plays a role in places such as Smith Island and Tangier Island. These remote islands in Chesapeake Bay are recognized as having some of the truest Elizabethan dialects. But what does that mean?
Experts say centuries ago, the English language reached a fork in the road. Modern British — the kind we hear on BBC shows today — stayed at home but followed a path of change and evolution. The English spoken by the Elizabethan explorers, soldiers and settlers who came to early America stayed right here and did not evolve as much.
Some linguists and Shakespearean scholars make a case that Elizabethan sounded a lot like a Scottish brogue. The verbal tics are easy to pick up on if you know what to listen for.
Vowels like “a” are short and drawn out a little (think haaave and haaat). The “u” comes out shortened and combined with an oo sound (bush becomes boosh, for example). The biggest difference can be heard in the dipthongs, or vowels placed side by side. Modern English blends the sounds together, but Elizabethans would have pronounced each vowel — why else would they be in the word, right? An Elizabethan would have pronounced house as huh-oose. If you listen closely, it all starts to sound rather Delmarvesque.
Beyond accent, sentence structure bears similarities to an older English. A New York Times writer described it this way: “Mainlanders say, logically enough, ‘Look how blue the sky is.’ Not the Shoreman. He says, ‘Look at the sky, how blue it is.’ ” Now that sounds like Shakespeare.
“When we talk about different dialects we are really looking at all levels of structure,” Bleam said. While the older forms of English (such as those heard on Delmarva) stay the same, “It’s often the standard English that’s quickly changing.”
You don’t have to visit the remote areas of Delmarva to hear this dialect. If you troll YouTube, you will come across videos of locals conversing in their very own lingo.
I experienced this very phenomenon myself back in the early 1990s, during a visit to the town of Church Creek in Dorchester County. Vast salt marshes surround the town and as you drive into Church Creek you’ll pass a huge sculpture of a mosquito, which says volumes about this community’s sense of humor.
I drove down to Church Creek with a friend who was originally from Harford County, but had taken up residence in a half-abandoned vacation home long enough to join the volunteer fire company and get to know some people in the community. He had since moved away, but took me along for a visit. We stopped by the ﬁrehouse and talked with a couple of guys he knew. Normal enough. Then a third guy stopped by, and the three of them seemed to forget we were there and started jabbering among themselves in a seemingly foreign dialect.
It was spooky, like getting caught up in a time warp. I’d heard about this legendary Elizabethan dialect, but I’d been skeptical. Now I was a believer.
Sadly, it’s likely that the unique Delmarva dialect is in danger of dying out. But for now, it always seems like there is still an old-timer somewhere who talks the talk. Last summer, we ran into one selling produce at a roadside stand: “You can go right home now and put that ear in’ the booling wooter!”
Taking the sack filled with ripe sweet corn, it became clear that some Delmarvese requires no translation.
This article originally appeared in the Delmarva Quarterly.