Feature Erosion and Ethnographic Alignment: The Case of Bertie County, North Carolina

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Title: Feature Erosion and Ethnographic Alignment: The Case of Bertie County, North Carolina
Author: Bowers, Angus Wayne Jr.
Advisors: Walt Wolfram, Committee Chair
Erik R. Thomas, Committee Member
Michael Adams, Committee Member
Abstract: Recent sociolinguistic investigations of African American communities in rural North Carolina have indicated that social history, regional location, community size, and relative insularity play major roles in determining the past and present state of ethnolinguistic alignment. This investigation reconsiders the relative effect of these and other variables by investigating ethnolinguistic alignment in Bertie County, North Carolina, a Coastal Plain rural context that is quite unlike the Appalachian and Outer Banks regional contexts that have served as the primary bases for recent hypotheses about trajectories of change in African American English. Bertie County, located at the junction of three distinct dialect areas: Coastal Plain dialect, Outer Banks dialect and Virginia Piedmont, exemplifies a transitional zone in terms of these adjacent dialect areas. How has this variety accommodated its regional contact varieties and negotiated its ethnolinguistic status in this unique, intermediary dialect situation, and what are its implications for sociolinguistic models of dialect contact, change, and ethnic alignment? Originally the home of the Tuscarora Native American Indians, Bertie County was transformed by colonization in the early 1700s into a European settlement characterized by the plantation system of farming (cotton and tobacco) prototypically representative of the American South and almost identical to neighboring Virginia—through which the founders of Bertie County passed. During the colonial and antebellum periods, Bertie exhibited economic success due to its dependence on the system of slavery, but the post-Civil War period has witnessed a continued economic downturn, with two-thirds of the rural County residents now African Americans who still do not share equitability in the County's resources and wealth. In addition, Bertie's regional affiliation—historically linked to Virginia and the coastal areas of North Carolina—has shifted toward a more broadly based North Carolina economy over the past century. How has this post-insular shift of association in a transitional dialect zone influenced the regional dialect in general and its ethnolinguistic alignment in particular? To examine these issues, I examine a set of diagnostic regional and⁄or ethnic phonological and lexical variables for African American and European American speakers of different generations to show how these groups have aligned and distinguished themselves in apparent time. Data gathered through sociolinguistic interviews indicate a pattern of change in which the groups were more regionally aligned in the past, but currently are following a path of divergence. This divergence underscores variation in social alliance as well as speech in that European-American speakers exhibit closer affiliation with the Coastal Plain dialect area whereas African-American speakers are electing to follow more general, urban-based AAVE trends at the expense of local dialect features. The durability of the majority African American core population, the continuing social disparity, and the growing awareness of language as an ethnic marker are all implicated in understanding the current progression of change and variation.
Date: 2006-05-08
Degree: MA
Discipline: English
URI: http://www.lib.ncsu.edu/resolver/1840.16/105

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