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American Speech 78.2 (2003) 209-228

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Language Change in "Conservative" Dialects:
The Case of Past Tense Be in Southern Enclave Communities

Walt Wolfram
North Carolina State University

Natalie Schilling-Estes
Georgetown University


Dialectologists traditionally assume that language change in historically isolated, enclave communities is more conservative than that in more widely dispersed, mainstream populations. 1 Though they acknowledge the potential for independent, internal linguistic change in such language varieties, the role of innovation tends to be overlooked in favor of THE RELIC ASSUMPTION, namely, that dialect forms in peripheral dialects will remain relatively static and resistant to language innovation. Indeed, Andersen (1988) maintains that this assumption has led researchers to slight the role of system-internal innovations in language in peripheral communities in favor of explanations grounded in hypothetical (and often unlikely or even impossible) contact situations resulting in the diffusion of change from outside areas. Andersen notes,

there are internally motivated innovations which arise independently of any external stimulus. These too have an areal dimension and may appear to spread merely because they arise in different places at different times. [54]

Andersen not only admits the potential of internally motivated change but asserts that peripheral varieties existing in closed, concentrated communities actually may show more dramatic changes than those occurring in more mainstream varieties, including "exorbitant phonetic developments" (70).

In this study, we compare the trajectory of language change for a single morphosyntactic feature—past tense be leveling—in a set of representative enclave communities in the mid-Atlantic South to examine its path of change over the past century and the general role of innovation in peripheral dialect communities. Though enclave dialect situations have always [End Page 208] been of interest to dialectologists, their significance seems to have heightened over the past couple of decades. One of the reasons for the recent interest is the rapid change in some of these isolated areas. A number of historically insular dialect communities have been undergoing dramatic economic and social transformation due to the changing demographics of American society and the increased accessibility of these communities to outsiders. As historical sociocultural and linguistic traditions have been subjected to increasing external influence, the dynamics of dialect change and maintenance in endangered dialect communities (Wolfram and Schilling-Estes 1995; Schilling-Estes and Wolfram 1999) have come under greater scrutiny. Accordingly, there has been increased concern for documenting the traditional forms of these dialects before they are lost, or at least before the dialects are restructured to accommodate recent influences.

Another reason for the increased interest in enclave dialect situations is their role in the historical reconstruction of prominent vernacular varieties in the United States. Under the relic assumption, it has been maintained that these situations might provide a window into the earlier structure of evolving vernacular varieties such as African American Vernacular English (AAVE) (Poplack and Sankoff 1987; Poplack and Tagliamonte 1991, 2000; Poplack 1999; Wolfram and Thomas 2002) or Appalachian Vernacular English (Montgomery 1989; Montgomery and Hall 2003). In fact, over the past decade enclave communities of African Americans in the American South (Mallinson and Wolfram 2002; Wolfram and Thomas 2002; Wolfram forthcoming) have provided spoken-language evidence for revising the historical reconstruction of AAVE.

Finally, such situations may yield valuable insight into the dynamics of retention, diffusion, and innovation in language features and the social and linguistic factors underlying them. Our examination of past tense be leveling in this study, for example, demonstrates that change in enclave communities may simultaneously include both retention and innovation. Furthermore, it shows that it is not always possible to draw sharp dividing lines between the maintenance of founder or donor dialect features (Mufwene 1996, 2001), diffusions from outside varieties, and internal innovations. Because enclave communities are by definition relatively self-contained, they allow us to better isolate and examine interrelations among the various social and linguistic factors that affect directionality in language change than is sometimes possible with larger, more diffuse societies. [End Page 209]

Past Tense Be in the American South



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pp. 209-228
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Archived 2005
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