Christine Mallinson                        Becky Childs

North Carolina State University                    University of Georgia




African American Women's Language in the Smoky Mountains of Appalachia

Descriptions of African American women's language within variationist sociolinguistics and discourse analysis emphasize both the complex, dynamic nature of language use and the need to conduct locally situated ethnographic studies in order to examine diverse linguistic practices. Accordingly, this paper presents a study of variation in the speech of women residents of Texana, North Carolina, a community of 153 African Americans situated in the Great Smoky Mountain region of Appalachia. The general picture of the linguistic behavior of the Texana community shows that most residents accommodate their language to the norms of the surrounding White Appalachian community (Childs and Mallinson 2003, Mallinson and Childs 2002), while at the same time they also maintain levels of linguistic variables traditionally associated with African American speech. But although the community seems to indicate some general dialect patterning, we find extensive sub-group variation within the group of women residents - particularly if we consider linguistic differences among women who share similar demographic profiles yet differ strikingly in terms of social relations and social practices.

Using data collected from a series of sociolinguistic interviews from May 2002 to February 2003, we analyze several diagnostic sociolinguistic variables (e.g., rhoticity, consonant cluster reduction, prevoiceless /ai/ ungliding, 3rd sg. -s absence, copula absence, and habitual be), acoustic vowel data, and specific lexical items, to investigate variation in different women residents’ levels of typical African American English and/or Appalachian English features. On first glance, our analysis points to strong intergenerational effects, but we also argue that community of practice (Eckert 2000; Eckert and McConnell-Ginet 1998; Meyerhoff 2002) is a significant variable outweighing traditional demographic variables such as social status and age in an analysis of these women’s sociolinguistic variation. As such, we explore how local context and modes of group participation must be considered to account for the social embeddedness of particular language varieties in explanations for the heterogeneous and variable linguistic development that can occur within a particular speech community. We thus conclude that the community of practice construct provides a basis for investigating the mutual construction of individual and community identity along with other social variables, within the broad-based demographic category of African American women's speech.

Childs, Becky, and Christine Mallinson. 2003. "The Regional Alignment of African American English in the Smoky Mountains."
    Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Dialect Society: Atlanta, GA.
Eckert, Penelope. 2000. Linguistic Variation as Social Practice. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Eckert, Penelope and Sally McConnell-Ginet. 1998. "Communities of Practice: Where Language, Gender, and Power All Live."
    Pp. 484-494 in Language and Gender: A Reader, edited by Jennifer Coates. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Mallinson, Christine, and Becky Childs. 2002. "African American English in Appalachia: Dialect Accommodation and Substrate
    Influence." Paper presented at the South Atlantic Modern Language Association Conference: Baltimore, MD.
Meyerhoff, Miriam. 2002. "Communities of Practice." Pp. 526-548 in The Handbook of Language Variation and Change, edited by
    J.K. Chambers, Peter Trudgill, and Natalie Schilling-Estes. Malden, MA: Blackwell.