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American Speech 78.2 (2003) 123-129

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Language Variation in the American South:
An Introduction

Walt Wolfram
North Carolina State University


The study of language variation in the American South is a thriving linguistic industry. No other region hosts a biannual meeting in which the majority of papers focus on topics related to language within its boundaries (Southeastern Conference on Linguistics) as well as an international decennial conference dedicated to these issues. In 2004, the University of Alabama will host the third Language Variation in the South (LAVIS) conference, building on the highly successful format of the first two conferences, convened at the University of South Carolina (1981) and at Auburn University (1993). The collection of essays in this special issue of American Speech, presented at a symposium (Language Variation in the American South) at the annual meeting of the Linguistic Society of America in Atlanta, Georgia, in January 2003, offers a preview of some of the themes to be explored at the LAVIS conference.

Scholars in search of language data to examine the general dynamics of language change and variation as well as the regional, social, and ethnic patterning of American English will find unparalleled resources in the American South. At the same time, the South is more than a geographical area; it has an overarching identity that sets it apart from other sections of the United States. Part of this cultural divide was no doubt created by earlier settlement and migratory patterns and the effects of historical events such as the Civil War, but the American South now seems to have a cultural life of its own. Geographically, the South includes from 11 to 17 states, including the confederate states of the "Old South"—Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Texas—as well as parts of Kentucky, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Maryland, Delaware, and the District of Columbia. The regional boundary of the South is, of course, somewhat flexible, and the delimitation of Southern culture is highly debatable. In fact, it may well be that the boundary marking the growth of the Southern icon kudzu, the "miracle vine," as shown in figure 1, is as diagnostic as any other variable in terms of delineating the American South. [End Page 123]

Notwithstanding the debate over its regional boundaries and the definition of its cultural ethos, it is safe to conclude that no region in the United States has a stronger sense of its identity. The increasing commodification of things Southern—from kudzu to speech—is ample testament of this persistent and intensifying awareness.

The historical context and the cultural setting of the American South provide a unique database for the investigation of a wide variety of linguistic and sociolinguistic issues. In this special edition, we sample a few of these, but it should be understood that they are mere tokens of the much broader spectrum of language concerns. More comprehensive coverage would certainly include the historical and current state of Native American and European languages in the South as well as an array of other language-contact situations that have affected the region.

Although most people have a general notion of Southern speech, defining the precise boundaries geographically and linguistically can prove to be elusive. To begin with, there is great diversity in the English language of the South, with arguably more intraregional diversity than any other region in the United States. Regional atlas projects such as the Linguistic [End Page 124] Atlas of the Middle and South Atlantic States (Kretzschmar et al. 1994), the Linguistic Atlas of the Gulf States (Pederson et al. 1986-92), and the Phonological Atlas of North American English (Labov, Ash, and Boberg forthcoming) amply document this diversity, as do the essays in proceedings from the first two LAVIS conferences (Montgomery and Bailey 1986; Bernstein, Nunnally, and Sabino 1997). Determining the inter- and intraregional boundaries of Southern English can be a complex process, dependent on the kinds of variables selected and the methods used to plot them. Both perceptual maps charting speakers' cognitive placement of Southern English on maps...


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pp. 123-129
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Archived 2005
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