There have been many theories advanced about the accents of Alaskan Bush People’s Brown children. These theories often involve chicanery and sometimes speech impediments. Personally, when I first watched an episode of the controversial Discovery reality show, which chronicles the escapades of a family allegedly raised away from civilization, I was struck by the similarity to the accent of Tangier Island.
Tangier Island (as well as Smith Island—they’re both in the Chesapeake Bay) is famous for its local dialect, thought by linguists to be an example of Restoration-era English. While the brogue-ish accent is probably far more diluted than it was when the island was truly isolated in the Chesapeake, to an outsider, it’s still hard to understand—and the residents still have trouble understanding outsiders, too. You can get a sense of it in this video; here, for comparison, are the Browns.
Tangier Island is known for its crabbing, but the industry’s future is in jeopardy, and naturally enough, many young people wish to move away from the tiny island. There’s still a solid tourism industry, but not everyone’s ideal getaway involves eating tons of crab cakes and reading on the beach. (Although to some of us, it must be said, that’s paradise. As might be obvious, I thoroughly enjoyed my visit.)
There’s a long, imperative quotation you see often on Tangier—it’s printed, for instance, on the back of the recipe pamphlet I bought at Hilda Crockett’s Chesapeake House:
Step not lightly upon these shores nor cast lighthearted gazes upon our isle … take not a dim view of our dwellings nor laugh at our narrow roads … do not misunderstand our language nor make joke of our native tongue … do not mock our walk or look down upon our quaint ways … for upon these shores have walked me of God, made of fiber woven close for age … and inside these dwellings laughter and love have flowed to make mansions of our homes … Our language is that of times past and ages still unknown and our native tongue speaks with truth, understanding and compassion … Our walk is that of pride and labor—bent somewhat from toil but never from shame … Our quaint time is abundant here and we wish it not away … And fear not our streets, as narrow they are, for they are roads of welcome to strangers, highways to let all visitors come into our lives, and exit for those who misunderstand us, or mistrust us or wish not our love.
The place is the opposite of a reality show. It’s another quiet real-life drama playing out in our time.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.