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Bay's Dialects Slowly Dying

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?' "

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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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 Delaware.

"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 crop.

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 arrowheads.

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'."

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