Lisa Cohen Minnick

Georgia Institute of Technology


Performing Southernness: Dialectal Representations and Southern Linguistic Identity

From local color literature to Gone with the Wind to closed captioning of television programs, third-person representations of dialectal speech have had enormous impact on the ways Southern identity is perceived both within and outside the South. This paper analyzes the influence of public portrayals and performances of dialect on popular perceptions of Southern identity. Contextualized within the Renaissance tradition of using literary dialect as an enforcer of linguistic norms and advocate of standardization, the paper argues that dialectal representations have persisted in those norming capacities into the twenty-first century, with evidence focusing specifically on the images of black and white Southerners as constructed by way of representations of speech. The paper analyzes the effects and self-perpetuating nature of the norming function with attention to perceptions and attitudes about non-standard, especially Southern, speech and its speakers. Also considered is the relationship between dialectal representations and beliefs about what constitutes Southernness, along with analysis of how and why dialectal speech is represented in the ways it is.

Sources of dialectal representations to discussed include American literature from the local colorists, Southwest humorists, and writers of the plantation tradition, to the attempts at authenticity by Realist and Naturalist writers, Modernist experimentation, and Harlem Renaissance reclamation. Non-literary sources emphasize popular and public portrayals of dialect, including minstrelsy and vaudeville. Finally, the role of mass media technologies in defining black and white linguistic Southernness in film and television is considered, with attention to how Southern speech is represented in scripted programming as well as how unscripted regionally and ethnically identified speech is represented in closed-captioned television interviews.

(Keywords: African American English, Southern White Vernacular English language perceptions, language and media, literary dialect.)

Selected References
Bernstein, C.G., ed. (1994). The Text and Beyond: Essays in Literary Linguistics. Tuscaloosa, AL: UP of Alabama.
Blank, P. (1996). Broken English: Dialects and the Politics of Language in Renaissance Writings. New York: Routledge.
Jones, G. (1999). Strange Talk: The Politics of Dialect Literature in Gilded Age America. Berkeley, CA: UP of California.
Minnick, L. C. and S. Tamasi. (2003). "From March Madness to Talladega: Closed Captioning Strategies for Interviews with College
    Basketball Players and NASCAR Drivers." Unpublished paper.
North, M. (1994). The Dialect of Modernism: Race, Language, and Twentieth?Century Literature. New York: Oxford UP.
Page, N. (1988). Speech in the English Novel. 2nd ed. Houndmills, Eng: Macmillan.
Preston, D. R. (1993). "Folk Dialectology." In Preston (ed.), American Dialect Research. Amsterdam: Benjamins. 333-378.
Preston, D. R. (1985). "The Li'l Abner Syndrome: Written Representations of Speech." American Speech 60:4. 328-336.
Rickford, J. R. and R. J. Rickford (2000). Spoken Soul: The Story of Black English. New York: Wiley.