Allison Burkette

University of Mississippi

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Constructing Identity: The Use of Southern Grammatical Features to Create Community Persona

Interviews conducted with twelve members of a close-knit Appalachian community reveal dramatic differences in terms of each individual’s use of Southern grammatical features. This paper explores possible explanations for those differences, focusing on speakers’ attitudes toward the community’s impending ‘progress’ and individual community roles. In terms of sociolinguistic variables, the ‘usual suspects’ (i.e. age, sex, education level) will be evaluated in terms of their explanatory value, yet preliminary data analysis suggests that these explanations do not account for the wide range of intra-group variation. In fact, the speaker characteristic that is most helpful in casting light on motivations for using (or not using) Southern grammatical features is the speaker’s attitude toward the social and economic changes taking place in this small Blue Ridge town.

Though a number of other southern grammatical features will be mentioned briefly (such as intensifying right, irregular prepositions, and inceptive got to), this paper concentrates on two specific grammatical features: a-prefixing and non-standard past tense. The use of each of these features will be outlined in detail. As such, the context in which these two features occurs will be closely examined – especially the relationship between the occurrence of these features and their location within narrative passages.

Three speakers in particular, all of them older women, set the pattern of traditional community grammatical feature use. The other speakers, all of whom share close social and familial ties with these three women, use Southern features to a lesser (and varying) degree. An analysis of the use of Southern grammatical features indicates that speakers who more closely adhere to the ‘traditional’ community attitudes and viewpoints are the ones whose speech most closely ‘matches’ that of the older, core community members, especially in passages that relate some sort of ‘family story.’

Thus, this work demonstrates the manner in which specific Southern grammatical features project information about how the individual speakers perceive themselves in relation to the community, what role(s) speakers undertake within their community and how each speaker feels about the changes taking place in this small, rural, mountain town.