Talkin' Backwards on the ESVA

One particularly interesting feature of the Eastern Shore dialect that is often associated with Tangier Island is “talking backwards.” Another name for this feature is talking “over the left.” This phrase comes from an older expression -- “over the left shoulder,” which is a colloquialism used to indicate insincerity, negation or disbelief on the behalf of the speaker. When I think about talking “over the left,” I imagine someone with their head turned towards their left shoulder while speaking, as if they are literally talking to another person behind them. The linguistic term for “talking backwards” or “over the left” is semantic inversion. In linguistics, semantics refers to the meanings of words and phrases. So, when Eastern Shore folks say things like “that’s poor” to mean “that’s good,” they are inverting or flipping the standard meaning to convey the opposite of what they’re actually saying. 

But how are you supposed to know if someone is talking “over the left” or if they’re being genuine? There are a few clues to help you recognize an “over the left” utterance. Prosody, which encompasses aspects of spoken language such as rhythm, intonation, and stress is a good indicator. Basically, when someone is “talking backwards,” they are employing verbal irony, which sounds reminiscent of sarcasm. Context also plays a large role in distinguishing an “over the left” utterance from a genuine one. For instance, if it’s pouring outside and you hear someone say, “It ain’t raining none,” they are clearly “over the left.”

Take a listen to some “over the left” utterances below! The first utterance for each clip is genuine, and the second utterance is “over the left.” What differences do you notice? (“Yeah, I am” can mean “No, I’m not”) (“That’s poor” can mean “That’s good”) (“She’s ugly” can mean “She’s pretty”)

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