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American Speech 75.4 (2000) 352-354

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Issues of Identity

Dialects and the (Re-)Construction of Identities

Lisa Ann Lane, Texas A&M University


Dialectology has always been a study of people's lives as expressed through local linguistic norms, dialects. Dialectologists have, therefore, focused on language use in everyday situations. These situations are usually taken for granted, but in them we negotiate our identities and in these everyday moments that we actively balance our realities and experiences against our ideals and expectations. This delicate balancing is a complex phenomenon that a new branch of dialectologists, ethnodialectologists, has begun to explore to answer questions about dialect change.

Ethnodialectology is an interdisciplinary approach to studying dialects as manifestations of individuals' and communities' sociocultural behaviors. Traditionally, dialectology focused on the relationship of linguistic behavior to geographic boundaries. This focus guided research on static dialect descriptions and linguistic theory testing. Ethnodialectology departs from traditional dialect geography and dialectology in recognizing the fluidity of (linguistic and social) identity as located not in statically categorized individuals residing in places fixed on a physical map, but in the dynamics of interactions between individuals whose identities are reconstructed by daily experiences. These interactions create links between the individuals, the individuals' respective communities, and the larger society that the individuals are situated in and that they align with (as "one of us") or in comparison to (as one of them"). When individuals come into contact and engage each other, they are involved in an immediate interaction of one [End Page 352] person to another, hence one identity to another, in a fixed place and time. They are, however, also involved in a more complex and unbound interaction of the various social and cultural norms that situate the interactional event and thereby contribute to defining the event, the place, the social space, the time, and the individuals themselves, both reflexively and comparatively. In this way, ethnodialectologists recognize that dialect studies are fruitful grounds for developing explanations of why communities change and how we can understand the relationship between language and social life by studying dialect change as a manifestation of identity (re-)construction.

In my research with coastal fishing communities in the North Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico, the balancing act of identity (re-)construction has turned into a roller-coaster ride, testing fishing families' willpower to sustain an industry and an identity under legislative, ideological, and economic attack. Whether or not the enacted policies are warranted is beyond the scope of the present discussion. What is relevant is that the local residents feel under attack, which has led to a decline in the population and the sustainability of the communities. These communities are now endangered. It is critical that we conduct fieldwork to collect this ethnographic and dialect data.

The comparative research I am engaged in reveals that local social constructs, which are factors in dialect change, become understandable when an emic (i.e., community-internal), sociohistorical perspective is taken. We are then able to understand why dialects change, because we understand the local and nonlocal meaning of the different face-to-face interactions that occur and in which individuals negotiate their different and changing roles inside and outside their community. The social constructs that comprise the local cultural and dialect norms and expectations provide residents with necessary cues to categorize events in locally significant ways as they engage in linguistic interactions. By including an emic description of the community, we can determine the locally meaningful sociogeographic and sociolinguistic variables used by the residents to index their changing identities. Differences in dialect patterns within and across individuals and communities can be understood from a holistic picture of the community as it is situated in the larger society. Hence, the analysis of social and dialect change can be taken from a descriptive to an explanatory level.

As we move dialectology into the future, there are a number of methodological and theoretical issues to address: (1) more sophisticated social modeling of residents' interactions to account for sociogeographic alignments that individuals choose to operate in or in comparison to...


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pp. 352-354
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2005
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