God bless Tidewater folks who still drop the ‘r’

Published 5:11 pm Tuesday, August 31, 2021

I regret that I haven’t made a more serious effort to document fully the dialect of our native Southeast Virginia. I’ve written about it, even to the point of trying to explain that it is a non-rhotic form of English, a term used by linguists to define our tendency to drop r’s that follow vowels.

The subject came to mind again last Friday evening when I was hosting the Fleet Forces Band’s rock combo, the Four-Star Edition. The group’s vocalist, an energetic young lady with a powerful voice, asked “Where are you from?” to which I replied, “about three miles from here.”

That in itself intrigues people because fewer and fewer people grow old in their native surroundings, but I knew precisely what she was referring to.

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“You’re asking about the way I talk,” I ventured. She was.

I explained that my use of words (dialect) as well as the way they are pronounced (accent) are a rapidly dying remnant of speech found in Coastal Virginia and North Carolina. Its roots lie in 17th-century England, transported here by early colonists. It has survived largely because, up until about 50 years ago, the coastal region and areas immediately inland were pretty well isolated.

Before we go further, let me admit that I’ve always found the difference in dialect and accent somewhat confusing and certainly debatable, but so have professionals. You can go to professional sources and find overlapping and even contradictory definitions of the two, but the one in the previous paragraph is a workable differentiation, so I’ll leave it to grammarians and linguists to argue the fine points.

The important thing here is that our local usages are rapidly dying because younger generations, exposed more fully to non-accented speech on television and radio as well as in the community, have adopted it and have largely left behind the local pronunciations and usages that were common during my youth.

When I began college with a year at what was then Ferrum Junior College, I met and became friends with a Tangier Island native. His thick old English, still found on Tangier, was downright lyrical. I loved it.

Some years later, we renewed our acquaintance and friendship. The accent, however, was long gone. I asked about it and he said he had intentionally shed it because it was so different from those he encountered in his profession.

I thought then, and still do, that trying to eliminate such an integral, colorful part of one’s past is a shame. Local accents and particular word usages, whether they’re Downeast Maine, the thick Irish brogue of Boston or the honeysuckle smoothness of South Carolina, are reflections of a diverse national cultural background.

As to our Tidewater variety, it varies pretty widely, even within the region. Its greatest protectors are Chesapeake Bay watermen. Among them, a significant number still reside in lower Gloucester County, a section of which has always been known as Guinea, as well as Mathews County and the Eastern Shore. There, the pronunciations are closer to those of my youth than they are in Smithfield, which has become quite homogenized. As you move south and west of Smithfield, a more rural “Southern” accent emerges.

While our “way of talking” is dying, I hope that a half century from now there will still be a few people who drop their r’s. If so, they will continue to enjoy taking their boat out on the rivuh rather than the river, and hopefully they will still have a taste for delicious Chesapeake Bay “oistuhs.”


John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is j.branchedwards@gmail.com.