This article presents an exploration of the discourse-level phenomenon known as “backwards talk” (pervasive, highly creative irony) in Smith Island, a small, endangered dialect community in Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay, on the U.S. mid-Atlantic coast. For example, island residents might use the phrase “He’s barefoot!” to indicate someone’s shiny new shoes. The article examines how this phenomenon compares with irony more generally; how it patterns across generations and contexts; how important it is to island residents, who view backwards talk as the defining feature of their dialect; and why the feature has gained such importance in the face of dialect loss—and potential loss of community continuity as well. Because backwards talk is irony, it has important solidarity functions. As playful, nonliteral language, it serves as a symbol of the performed “islandness” that islanders increasingly take up as they come into more and more contact with outsiders. Finally, as a means of offering critical evaluation of outsiders, backwards talk can be seen as a form of antilanguage or counterlanguage, with a central function of resistance against outside forces.
“Backwards Talk” in Smith Island, Maryland
natalie schilling is a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University. She is the author of Sociolinguistic Fieldwork (Cambridge University Press, 2013), coauthor (with Walt Wolfram) of American English: Dialects and Variation (3rd ed., Blackwell, 2016); and coeditor (with J. K. Chambers) of The Handbook of Language Variation and Change (2nd ed., Wiley-Blackwell, 2013). She is editor-in-chief of the Publications of the American Dialect Society (PADS) series and coeditor-in-chief of Language and Linguistics Compass (with Edwin Battistella). Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Natalie Schilling; “Backwards Talk” in Smith Island, Maryland. American Speech 1 November 2022; 97 (4): 483–511. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00031283-9412530
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