The roots of Lumbee language

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Dannenberg, Clare J., and Walt Wolfram. “The roots of Lumbee language.” Revised draft. Unpublished report. Raleigh, NC: North Carolina Language and Life Project, North Carolina State U, August 1997. 38 pages. 40 references.


Tells the story of Lumbee language identity by seeking answers to these questions (quoted from page 1): “What Native American language(s) did the Lumbees once speak and what happened to that language(s)? What varieties of English have influenced the language(s) over the generations and how might this influence still be manifested in present-day Lumbee English?” The authors assert, “The story of Lumbee language identity is thus not simply speculation about the Native American languages that were once spoken by their ancestors, but about the flexibility and resiliency of a cultural group in shaping an ongoing, vibrant language identity through the available language resources, whether they be Native American or American English” (p. 1). 

The report first discusses each of the three main Native American language families (Algonquian, Siouan, Iroquoian) that were present in North Carolina by the beginning of the historic period, cautioning that each family influenced the others and that the Lumbee probably spoke, or were at least acquainted with, some form of each one. There is discussion of the Lost Colony and the position advocated by Lumbee historian Dr. Adolph Dial that the Lumbee are descendants of intermarriages between the friendly Croatan Indians and the Lost Colonists. The authors speculate on what variety of English the Lumbee would have been speaking by 1700 if this supposition is correct. They also discuss other sources of language acculturation that would have affected the Lumbee as they migrated inland toward Robeson County (Scots Highlanders, Scots-Irish, slaves). Also mentioned is the effect the social distancing within Robeson County during the Henry Berry Lowry period may have had on Lumbee language, such as adoption and preservation of vernacular features. 

The remainder of the report focuses on the current condition of Lumbee English, based on the authors' interviews with 76 Lumbee, 39 Anglo-American, and 20 African-American speakers in Robeson County and their listening to oral history tapes of Lumbee speakers. They assert that Lumbee English is “a highly systematic language system” having “a rigorously patterned structure with solid historical roots” (p. 24). It contains much variation, based on the community and the educational and social background of the speaker. The authors give examples comparing Lumbee vernacular English, Robeson County African-American vernacular English, Robeson County Anglo-American English, Appalachian vernacular English, and Outer Banks vernacular English.

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