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American Speech 75.4 (2000) 357-359
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Issues of Identity
Redrawing Ethnic Dividing Lines through Linguistic Creativity
Natalie Schilling-Estes, Georgetown University
Sociolinguists often focus on how people's use of language reflects who they are. For example, an older white male in rural Tennessee will use language quite differently from a young African American in inner-city Detroit because of where he grew up, whom he grew up around, and the situations in which he found himself during his life. However, we have to remember that not only are people's language patterns shaped by their surroundings, but they often use language in creative ways to help shape, and reshape, their surroundings, their personalities, their very identities. Consider, for example, the case of ethnic identity.
For the past six years, I and a team of colleagues have been investigating interethnic dialect differences in rural, triethnic Robeson County, North Carolina, populated by roughly equal numbers of Lumbee Native Americans, African Americans, and whites. Our findings show that, even though the Lumbee have not had an ancestral Native American language for centuries, they do have a unique dialect of English that helps set them apart from neighboring whites and African Americans. For example, only the Lumbee sometimes use I'm for 'I've', as in I'm forgot 'I have forgotten'. In addition, only the Lumbee use vocabulary words like ellick 'cup of coffee' and toten 'omen or portent'. The Lumbee also share some dialect features with neighboring ethnic groups but use the features in subtly different ways, another way of marking their linguistic and cultural difference from surrounding groups. For example, both Lumbees and African Americans use be in certain sentences indicating habitual actions (e.g., He always be late for school), but only in Lumbee English can the form sometimes occur with an -s ending (He always bes late). Similarly, all three county ethnic groups use the pronunciation feature of r-lessness--that is, the absence of r in certain word positions, as in fahm 'farm' or cah 'car'. However, the Lumbee show intermediate usage levels for r-lessness compared with the low levels of county whites and the high levels of African Americans across the country. Thus, Native Americans in Robeson County use language quite differently from neighboring whites and African Americans, and in that sense we can say that their language use reflects their ethnic identity.
However, people are not automatons whose every action, word, and pronunciation are determined by preset social structures. If we take a close look at how people use language in conversational interaction, we can see [End Page 357] how they actively utilize the linguistic resources at their disposal to shape and reshape ethnic categories and relations between ethnic groups. For example, I recently conducted an in-depth analysis of a sociolinguistic interview between two young men, a Lumbee Native American from Robeson County and an African American from the coastal town of Wilmington, North Carolina. The two are good friends, and so the interview was more like a casual conversation than a formal question-and-answer session. If each speaker's language use simply reflects who he is, then we might expect each to use similar language patterns throughout the interview. However, I noticed almost immediately that this was not the case. Let's consider the case of r-lessness again. Instead of maintaining steady levels of r-lessness throughout the interview, the two showed widely varying levels. Sometimes the African American used high levels while the Lumbee used less (as we might expect), but at other times, the Lumbee used more. In addition, while the two sometimes used quite different levels of r-lessness, there were points where they sounded a lot more similar. Interestingly, the two showed the most widely divergent levels of r-lessness when they engaged in discussions of race relations--a topic that highlights ethnic separation and the fact that they are from different ethnic groups. However, when they talked about subjects that highlight the fact that they're friends--for example, difficulties with family or funny stories...