Southern Cultures 11.2 (2005) 105-107
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One would scarcely know it today from film and television representations (and rarely from the dialogue of published fiction), but the English of the American South is, and has always been, less uniform geographically and socially than that of any other region of the country. The region's settlement by varied European and African groups and contact between them, among other forces, have produced this diversity. Even less widely known is the extensive multilingualism of the South. Making a case for both of these are the nine essays in Linguistic Diversity in the South, along with a superb introduction that extracts and interweaves the themes of the case studies that follow, all of which are written accessibly by anthropologists and linguists.
In this volume one finds not descriptions per se of languages and dialects (only two essays have even a short list of features), but accounts of speech communities chosen for study for the ways in which they use and conceive of language and the ways in which their speech defines or circumscribes who their speakers are. Three contributions deal with Native American language communities—Seminole in Florida, Myskoke/Creek in Oklahoma, and Native Americans in the Carolinas in general. The rest of the essays deal with speakers of English—in Louisiana, West Virginia, North Carolina, and southwestern Virginia/northeast Tennessee. The communities are all on a social or geographical margin, but each is arguably typical of many others, so there is plenty of variety as well as generality here. Countless southerners will easily relate one or more of the community studies to ones they belong to. Just as important, the communities are all dynamic ones in which speakers do not simply retain, to one degree or another, linguistic patterns and practices of a former day, but actively construct new identities in which language plays key roles.
Two studies deal with the roles of language in organized identity movements. [End Page 105] Susan Stans and Louise Gopher preview and give the rationales for a program among the Seminole of South Florida that introduces intensive lessons on traditional culture and the native language, in an initiative that mirrors efforts to revitalize indigenous languages elsewhere in the South. Anita Puckett's essay analyzes how two very different groups in southwestern Virginia and northeast Tennessee use and manipulate ethnonyms and language practices from other spheres, including academic argumentation, religious testimony, and genealogical investigation, to claim or validate their whiteness and to construct a heritage in which this whiteness is a valued component. For both groups, Melungeons and Scotch-Irish, it is the better-educated, middle-class members who most energetically espouse these labels, which raises many questions beyond the scope of the study itself. For example, are such educated, prosperous members more affected by, or are they merely more self-conscious of, rootlessness and the need to discover (many would say "recover"), name, and value their heritage? How typical a social profile do these better-educated segments fit, at least for groups defining themselves as having European heritage? Do their sentiments filter down to members of the group at large, or is their quest for heritage creating divisions and tensions within the group with regard to its self-image?
In the proliferation of ethnic and local identity movements, which is a very recent phenomenon in the South as it is elsewhere, it is easy to detect both creative and defensive responses of peripheral and traditional communities to the effects of mass culture and to the dominance of English. This volume's studies show that communities are resilient and in distinct ways quite aware of language in dealing with the larger society, sometimes by claiming ownership and developing pride in a local or sub-regional form of English or even by commodifying that form. According to Wolfram's study of two groups in...