Natalie Schilling-Estes

Georgetown University

Audio | Handout

Blurring Ethnolinguistic Boundaries: The Use of "Others'" Varieties in the Sociolinguistic Interview

For decades, one of the most pressing questions for dialectologists and variationist sociolinguists has been the relation, both current and historic, between African American and White language varieties in the U.S., especially in the American South, where much of the early development of African American Vernacular English took place (e.g. Schneider 1996, Wolfram and Schilling-Estes 1998). Concurrently, there has been much discussion, in fields such as anthropology, cultural studies, and social psychology, of whether it is possible, accurate, or desirable to study different ethnic (and other social) groups and their language varieties as isolable, clearly bounded, and relatively homogeneous entities, especially in recent decades, as the world’s peoples come into increasing contact with one another (e.g. Clifford 1998; Coupland 2001a, 2001b; Eckert 2000:23, 34; Giddens 1991; Mühlhäusler 1989; Wolf 1997: 3-23). However, the latter line of inquiry has had little impact of the former (cf. Montgomery 2000), and many variationists and dialectologists continue to anchor their investigations of language and ethnicity on ethnic division as an unquestioned 'given.' Only in investigations of 'crossing' -- that is, the use of language varieties other than one's "own" -- has there been extensive research involving the combined insights of quantitative investigations into ethnic group-based language variation and more qualitatively oriented inquiries into the very nature of group and individual identity (e.g. Rampton 1995, 1999). In the present study, I extend the investigation of the question of ‘ownership’ of ethnic varieties by looking at the use of "others'" language varieties in one of the key sources of data for variationists, the sociolinguistic interview. The interviews examined are drawn from a large-scale study of Robeson County, North Carolina, which is home to African Americans, Whites, and Lumbee Native Americans; and each interview involves participants of different ethnic backgrounds. I use both quantitative and qualitative (chiefly discourse analytic) methodologies. In addition, I move beyond traditional variationist methodologies by considering the linguistic usages of not only research subjects (interviewees) but also researchers (interviewers), as well as how co-participants in the interviews shape each others' speech. The analysis demonstrates that indeed ethnic varieties -- and ethnic identities themselves -- are not neatly bounded, monolithic entities but rather that different people -- and peoples -- freely adopt and adapt linguistic and cultural resources from one another, both at the local level, in unfolding interaction, and on a more global level, in shaping and reshaping group varieties over time and across space. Hence, in investigating ethnicity-based variation, including relations among different ethnic varieties, it is important that researchers expand the focus of their inquiries to encompass not only established ethnic varieties (as defined by aggregate usage levels for particular features by people associated with different ethnic groups) but also individual linguistic usages in interaction, including those which cut across dialect and language barriers as traditionally conceived (cf. Romaine 1989, LePage 1992).

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