More on our local dialect

Published 5:20 pm Tuesday, July 26, 2016

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    “Short Rows” reader Jim Davis of Rushmere sent a note this week after reading the reprint of the 2002 column about Southeast Virginia’s rich linguistic heritage.

    He reminded me that included in that heritage must be “drudge,” as in “I’m going drudging for oysters.” For the uninitiated, that means dredging.

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    I agree with him. It is one of my favorite local pronunciations. I did write about it, but it was a very long time ago — 15 years, in fact. The column at that time mentioned drudging, but was focused not on dredging, but on the pronunciation of oyster.

    Oysters are locally pronounced something like “oisters,” or, I think, a bit closer to “oistuhs.”

    And watermen do go drudging for oistuhs and the James Rivuh — that’s River to newcomers.

    A few other uses can still be found, but only rarely, around the work docks of the lower Chesapeake Bay. One of them, now certainly almost gone, was the pronunciation of “canoe.” Log canoes were beautiful and practical workboats used in the late 19th and early 20th century, and in my time, watermen who remembered the old canoes invariably referred to them as “Can’oos,” with the emphasis on Can.


    The many waterfronts of the Chesapeake Bay still offer a sampling of the Middle English dialect that was once a trademark of our region. Ours is a version of the non-rhotic dialect, variations of which can also still be found in Great Britain and New England. Basically, we drop “r’s” that come after vowels, leading to words like rivuh instead of river.” Tidewater natives also have a unique way of pronouncing such double vowel words as “out,” which comes forth as something like “ote.” About becomes abote and so on.

    In my lifetime, much of our linguistic heritage has been lost as we began talking more and more like the carefully trained radio and television personality voices we listen to, rather than our grandparents. Whether it’s Tidewater, Georgia, Alabama, the Midwest, Main or Long Island, a dialect is an important, colorful and quite harmless part of our identification with home and family. It’s a shame to see them go.