Lisa McNair

Georgia Institute of Technology

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Mill Villagers and Farmers: Linguistic Contact in a Georgia Textile Mill Town

This sociolinguistic investigation examines dialect change in Griffin, Georgia, a textile mill town about 40 miles south of Atlanta. Based on original fieldwork with 36 subjects, this study records dialect variation, tracks change through apparent time, and measures social network ties of each individual speaker. Two groups—the founder population of farmers and the later community of mill workers—are described as speech communities whose oppositional linguistic and social identities center around the socioeconomic institutions of the patriarchal textile mills and the pervasive cotton market. Drawing both from established research which verifies diversity in early American Englishes in the South, and from this new collection of data, I demonstrate that generational dialect changes are attributable to shifts in socioeconomic structure.

As agriculture waned throughout the 20th century, textile mills dominated the economic landscape of Griffin, and contact between these once-separate communities increased, dramatically restructuring the local linguistic ecology. The linguistic contact equations of different Southern regions varied due to diverse origins of speakers, migration routes, settlement patterns and population ratios. Analogizing from evolution theory, I describe the contact ecology in Griffin as a pool of competing linguistic features available to speakers for a selection process. A quantitative analysis of six phonological features shows that older speakers align oppositionally by occupational categories; in contrast, the contact patterns of middle age and younger groups cause a restructuring of the available pool of linguistic features. A quantitative analysis of six grammatical features examines influences such as settlement patterns, salience, and indexical significance, as well as phonetic simplicity, semantic bleaching and grammaticalization.

Finally, I critique the notion of linguistic “prestige” and instead propose that the changing structure of social network ties determines the routes of linguistic negotiation. The weak-tie innovators in Griffin were the children of farmers who had contact with the children of mill workers. Negotiating dialects as linguistic capital, these select pioneers interacted in a newly consolidated high school and thereby settled a perceptual frontier through friendships, common workplaces and marriages.

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