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American Speech 78.1 (2003) 3-30
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Network Strength and the Realization of the Southern Vowel Shift Among African Americans in Memphis, Tennessee
University of Nevada, Reno
STUDIES ON AMERICAN DIALECTS have questioned whether contemporary black and white speech is increasingly converging or diverging and what this indicates about American speech communities. In the face of speakers' overwhelming access to a larger national community, recent phonetic studies on the vowel shifts occurring in the United States point to a complex array of trends in the direction of vowel movements (Feagin 1986; Eckert 1988, 2000; Labov 1991, 1994; Clarke, Elms, and Youssef 1995; Gordon 1997; Anderson and Milroy 1999; Fridland 2000, 2001). White speakers in the urban North, particularly in the Great Lakes region, appear to be participating in a series of vowel shifts, labeled the Northern Cities Shift (NCS), striking particularly for the increasing differentiation of these speakers from those in other regions of the United States. Even more striking is the lack of participation in the incoming changes by African American speakers in the North. Whether Northern black communities are participating in a different set of vowel changes that may be drawing them closer to African American communities elsewhere remains an open question. Moreover, researchers working on Southern American dialects (Labov, Yaeger, and Steiner 1972; Feagin 1986; Labov 1991, 1994; Bailey 1997; Thomas 1997a, 1997b, 2001; Fridland 2000, 2001) have also noted a series of what appear to be distinguishing vowel shifts occurring in white Southern speech, referred to as the Southern Vowel Shift (SVS). Little is known about the ethnic distribution of the SVS, but preliminary work (Thomas 1997b; Bailey and Thomas 1998; Thomas and Bailey 1998) suggests the Southern African American community may not be participating in changes affecting white speech in the South. A lack of involvement by African Americans in the major sound changes in American dialects adds significantly to a national dialect picture of increasing divergence in [End Page 3] the United States, a stunning comment on the polarization of communication networks by region and ethnicity.
This article is a small part of a larger project that aims to comprehensively document the changes occurring in the vowel system in the modern South by examining a midsized mid-Southern community—Memphis, Tennessee. This research explores how variation in the production of vowels reflects the linguistic relevance of reference groups both internal and external to the South, and how such variation is perpetuated by those most frequently in contact in locally based social networks. An important goal of this study is to determine either the ethnic integration of the Southern speech community based on participation in the current vowel changes or the maintenance of coexistent separate and sociolinguistically meaningful African American and European American varieties.
Linguistic features can serve as markers of a myriad of sociocultural identities. The question is whether ethnicity serves as the overriding factor determining language choice in all contexts and, if it does not, how the negotiation of other types of symbolic associations is reconciled linguistically. The current article seeks to discover which, if any, features of the SVS may be affecting African American speakers in the Memphis area and whether participation or nonparticipation in the shift can be tied to their degree of involvement with the European American community.
The source of African American vernacular speech is hotly debated, but regardless of how the variety originally developed, African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is historically divergent from its surrounding European American dialects (Rickford 1998; Thomas and Bailey 1998). The source of sound changes that may affect contemporary African American English has not received extensive treatment, but migration of African Americans within the United States has traditionally been South to North as increasing unemployment led workers toward opportunities in factories in the North, where the availability of foreign laborers for Northern industry had been severely impacted by World War I. Migration, however, was not random, with Southern regional affinities for particular settlement destinations in the North. Additionally, this migration...