Guy Bailey

University of Texas at San Antonio



Demography and the Study of Southern American English

As the disciplines most squarely focused on language variation and change, dialectology and sociolinguistics are ultimately about the behavior of populations. Language change requires that some linguistic feature be adopted by at least a segment of a population, and language variation becomes significant only when it distinguishes one group from another or serves to establish parameters for the construction of an identity tied to a group. In spite of their focus on the linguistic behavior of populations, dialectology and sociolinguistics have yet to fully exploit the full range of demographic data that might sharpen that focus. The presentation examines the kinds of demographic data available to linguists and illustrates how that data can be used both to plan research on language variation and change and also to help interpret linguistic evidence. More specifically, the presentation outlines the range of census tools available to linguists, discusses the strengths and weaknesses of each, and illustrates how they can aid in planning or interpreting research on Southern American English. In addition, it provides a demographic profile of the American South, examines how that profile has changed over the last half century, and suggests ways that the profile will change over the next 50 years. Finally, the presentation examines some past linguistic problems such as the origins of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) in light of available census records. It suggests that much of the work on the origins of AAVE is inadequate because it fails to account for the demographic evolution of the African American population.