Anita Puckett

Virginia Tech

Audio | Handout

Kinship Talk and the Construction of Identity in the Upper South

The resurgence of heritage organizations and ethnic groups in the Upper South has made even more salient the importance of kinship and genealogy in constructing each group's sense of identity than pre-Internet modes of researching and transmitting family trees permitted. In face-to-face social interaction by group members, kinship and genealogical discursive practices still constitute core verbal resources for reproducing, transforming, and maintaining group cohesion and boundaries. Yet these discursive practices exhibit patterned grammatical, phonological, and contextual variation internally in intragroup usages and externally in cross-group comparison. This presentation examines the semantic, metalingual, pragmatic, and metapragmatic significations of these variations from the perspective of how they construct group-internal identity and group-external empowerment or disempowerment, especially as they relate to racial privilege and access to political economic resources. Data from southwest Virginia, east Tennessee, and southeastern Kentucky were collected ethnographically over seven years using ethnography of discourse techniques consistent with linguistic anthropological methods. Ethnohistorical materials from late 18th and early to mid 19th centuries personal and public documents as well as contemporary listserv and website texts were also sampled for comparative purposes. Subjects studied include self-identifying Scotch-Irish, Melungeon, Monacan, and African American members. Analysis first describes discursive features defining various forms of kin or genealogical "talk." It then focuses on semantic and pragmatic meanings of attributive possessive constructions such as "my cousin," "my great-grandfather's land," or “his Melungeon ancestors” as textualized, entextualized, retextualized, and contextualized in various forms of "kin talk." These constructions merge interlocutors with non-present (often deceased) kin and with non-kin entities into a single grammatical construction that merges interacting "selves" deictically indexed by the possessive nouns or pronouns with the entities referenced by the possessed nouns or embedded possessors. These relations in turn deictically index the immediate discursive text in which the construction appears, other non-present but metapragmatically-linked discursive practices common to the group’s verbal repertoire, and the participant framework in which the utterance occurs. The emergent complex of significations constructed by the patterning of these usages constitutes "stored" value (Graeber 2001:78) in the ethnonym designating the heritage or ethnic group, creating political-economic (de)value for those having rights or authority to use this name. The presentation concludes by arguing that these relationships yield linguistically-based insights into how ideologies of racial language are constituted in Southern American English varieties.

Graeber, David. 2001. Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value: The False Coin of Our Own Dreams. New York: Palgrave.