Recasting Regional Divides as Local Choices
Professor of Linguistics, West Virginia University
As the United States transitions away from rural communities towards ever-larger suburban communities, the sociolinguistic landscape is changing, and along with it, rural dialects. In order to address questions of language change in rural dialects, we examine how adolescent speakers deploy both changing and stable linguistic variables to create anew the sociolinguistic fabric of their community. This paper draws from recent work in rural and town schools to assess the sociolinguistic choices 21st-century teenagers face in developing their own sociolinguistic identity. This study’s community is in northern Appalachia, and its regional affiliation has shifted over time. In Appalachia, the most northern boundary of the South moved further south during the last century, leaving a myriad of opportunities for identity orientation (Preston & Cramer 2018).
The interdisciplinary research team, which brings together educational and sociolinguistic researchers, conducted ethnographic research, sociolinguistic interviews, and focus groups with teens in a rural school in northern West Virginia. We conducted FAVE-assisted acoustic analysis of 20 rural students’ vowel systems, along with quantitative assessments of socially diagnostic variables, including ING variation, leveled was, and quotatives. Previous studies of the region have thoroughly investigated for all of these variables with the 20th century speakers.
We explore how these teens’ educational orientation and local identities shape their vowel space in light of the ongoing changes of the Southern Vowel Shift (SVS) (Dodsworth & Kohn 2012; Fridland 1999; Thomas 2003). Although the SVS surged throughout West Virginia until World War II, several stages became increasingly negatively socially marked as the 20th century wore on, including the reversal of the FLEECE and KIT vowels and the reversal of the FACE and DRESS vowels. The arc of language change has transformed a nearly-complete Stage 2 in the northern half of WV at the mid-20th century to complete separation by the end. Relatedly, southern vowel systems became marked as “country”, rather than geographically southern, and were available in the northern, rural areas of WV throughout the end of the 20th century.
It is important to note that these teens live and attend school in a completely rural area. Additionally, almost all of the students have the front-lax merger, low-back merger, and back-vowel fronting. Hence, the dismantling of the SVS as a coherent change is driven through pointed identity choices by 21st-century teenagers within the local social context.
With a thorough knowledge of the diagnostic 20th-century sociolinguistic variables, this presentation explains variation in sociolinguistic awareness, as well as motivations and directions of language change. We answer how adolescents’ ongoing recreation of their social meanings builds community patterns that lead to synchronic variation and language change. This study looks at the sociolinguistic space from the individual to the community—the crucible of language variation—to search for the triggering mechanisms for both maintenance of variation patterns and language change.
Cramer, Jennifer, & Preston, Dennis. 2018. Special issue on Changing Perceptions of Southernness. American Speech: A Quarterly of Linguistic Usage, 93(3-4).
Dodsworth, Robin, and Mary Kohn. 2012. Urban rejection of the vernacular: The SVS undone. Language Variation and Change: 24: 221-245.
Fridland, Valerie. 2003. Network strength and the realization of the Southern Vowel Shift among African Americans in Memphis, Tennessee. American Speech, 78(1), 3-30.
Thomas, Erik R. 2003. Secrets revealed by Southern vowel shifting. American Speech, 78(2), 150-170.