I'm not sure how well known Tangier Island is outside the Chesapeake region. To make a long story short, Tangier Island is an isolated fishing community in the Chesapeake bay. It has been mostly isolated for hundreds of years. You constantly hear that the accent has remained unchanged since the 17th century. This accent is often cited as an example of what an Elizabethan accent would sound like.

My question is — without audio recordings, how can one make conclusions about how the accent has changed? What do we truly know about the Elizabethan accent that we can use to infer that the Tangier accent is very close? Is it actually close or has it just evolved down its own line?

  • Is this a duplicate of english.stackexchange.com/questions/224/… ? – delete Sep 4 '10 at 2:37
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    That is very close. Although my question seems more related to the methodology of determining how accents evolve. – Doug T. Sep 4 '10 at 4:27
  • I've added a bounty on this, just for fun. – delete Sep 9 '10 at 15:52
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    I'm not addressing the question, but Tangier Island is not all that isolated, and has not been for decades, whatever myths it's fun to propagate. Since the widespread availability of television in North America over fifty years ago, regional accents and linguistic differences in general have shifted and blurred at an increasing rate. – mickeyf Sep 10 '10 at 4:28
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    To answer the question in the title directly: no. There is not a single known dialect of any language in the world that has remained unchanged since Elizabethan times. Every dialect of every language is in a constant state of change, though some dialects will go through more changes (or more radical changes) than others in a given timespan. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 10 '16 at 13:09

Here's how you could possibly tell. Get someone from Tangier Island to read Elizabethan poetry. If everything rhymes then the rumour about the accent may have some truth. I believe this method is used to deduce how period accents may have sounded.

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    This approach is sometimes used to compare Chinese dialects to classical Chinese. But I wonder if, especially for English, vowel shifts might not have happened uniformly, so that rhyming pairs might still rhyme even if we pronounce them differently. – Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Sep 10 '10 at 20:09
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    Late comment. @Mr. Shiny and News - Since rhymes often confuse long and short vowels, and the GVS affected only long vowels, the test is actually likely to work. Also consider Scottish where the GVS was much milder (house still being pronounced "hoose" for instance). – Alain Pannetier Φ May 25 '11 at 12:00

All that I can add is that David Shores, a native of the island and former professor of English at ODU, wrote a book on the Tangier dialect. He has made numerous comparisons to the Elizabethan English and says that it is not related to that at all, but just a regional dialect that has remained because of the isolation of the island. No different than other areas near the east coast of the United States. Even though Tangiermen are not as isolated as in the past, and do have access to media, they still grow up listening to each other and speaking the way the generations before them did.

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    Can you please edit this to tell us the title of the book and give us a link to it if possible? – curiousdannii Oct 1 '15 at 3:39
  • It's a regional dialect that to my ear sounds much more British than any other American dialect I've heard. I am sure that this is where the idea originally came from. – Peter Shor Sep 10 '16 at 13:27

I'm English and listening to interviews with various people from Tangier Island (particularly older folks)it's very evident that this accent has kept distinct elements of the old Cornish dialect (different to modern Cornish, which is slightly less 'yokel' sounding!). There are distinctly 'flat' sounding English intonations to some words and it's definitely Cornish. However,any Brit listening (even to old audio of folks who are no longer with us and with much stronger accents containing more pronounced English intonation) will likely agree that the Tangier accent still sounds 'American' and not English, with a clear southern sounding 'drawl', albeit far less pronounced than in other areas of the American south. It's clear that this accent has likely evolved into something rather unique; not quite pure old English, not quite fully modern American, but I'd wager you a shilling (!) it's still not an accurate depiction of true Elizabethan English. It's fascinatingly close, but not quite close enough.

  • Could you provide a link to the interviews you reference? Otherwise, fantastic, this is fascinating! – BladorthinTheGrey Sep 10 '16 at 14:39

I heard the same thing about people living in the Appalachian Mountains. According to Bill Bryson in The Mother Tongue, this is a common misconception.

  • I've talked with both people from the Appalachian Mountains and one of the islands (I forget which one) off the East Coast which is supposed to have an Elizabethan accent. People from the Appalachians sound definitively American to me. The person from the island sounded definitively English, although he said that people from England he talked to thought he sounded American. This was probably nearly 30 years ago, and the accents may have blurred since then. – Peter Shor May 26 '11 at 0:09

Is it possible that say 100 years ago, the Tangier Island population spoke with the more distinct Cornish accent something closer to their early ancestors who migrated from Cornwall. An uneducated ear may have thought it to be Elizabethan english, not what Shakespeare wrote in his plays or sonnets, but what the every day person from Elizabethan England spoke.


That excellent book ‘Language Myths’, edited by Laurie Bauer and Peter Trudgill has a chapter entitled ‘In the Appalachians they speak like Shakespeare’. The author of that chapter is Michael Montgomery, Professor of English and Linguistics at the University of South Carolina. The idea, he says, ‘cannot withstand even a little objective scrutiny’ and goes on to give six reasons why. I know nothing of the ‘Tangier accent’, but I’m confident that the reasons for rejecting it as being that of Elizabethan England will be much the same.

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