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Bay's Dialects Slowly Dying

As City Encroaches and Watermen Leave, Linguists Try to Preserve Vernacular

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.

Jack Russell, with wife Viki Volk, laments the fading of the dialect on St. George Island. "We're getting yuppi-tized," he says. (Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)

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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.

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