Ethnic identity and grammatical restructuring: be(s) in Lumbee English

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Dannenberg, Clare, and Walt Wolfram. “Ethnic identity and grammatical restructuring: be(s) in Lumbee English.” American Speech 73.2 (Summer 1998): 139-159.


A scholarly and perceptive analysis of be(s) in Lumbee Vernacular English (LVE), comparing it to be(s) among African-American and Anglo-American speakers in Robeson County. 

The authors begin with a summary of hypotheses on the ancestry of Lumbee language, particularly where and when the Lumbee learned English.  They are most convinced by the hypothesis that "the Lumbee are descendants of a multitribal and/or multiethnic contact situation rather that descendants of one exclusive Native tribe" (p. 140) and that “Iroquoian (particularly Tuscarora), Siouan (particularly Cheraw), and Algonquian languages may have had a formative influence on the Lumbee of today” (p. 140) (Also see KNIC009 and KNIC006). The Lumbee were observed speaking English as early as the 1730s.  They may have learned English from Highland Scots who came up the Cape Fear and into Robeson County in the early 1700s; from Ulster Scots who moved from Ireland into Pennsylvania, Virginia, and then the Carolinas; from English who came from the Albemarle and Pamlico Sound into Robeson County; or from African-American slaves who were in the area by the 1700s.  The authors note, “the exact mix of European groups and African groups and the influence of various Anglo varieties on the developing English varieties of Robeson County are difficult to determine precisely” (p. 140). 

The authors then present detailed analyses, with tables and examples, of the grammatical status of finite be in LVE; the semantic-pragmatic status; the dynamic status of be/bes; and the ethnolinguistic status of finite be.  They conclude that finite be  in LVE is restructuring so that it functions more like be in African American Vernacular English (AAVE), especially among young Lumbee speakers, who probably experience frequent social interaction with the county's other two ethnic groups.  The bes form, however, is associated by local residents with LVE and make LVE use of be distinct in Robeson County.  Thus, “a kind of mixed alignment sets apart finite be as an ethnic marker even while accommodating the strains of influence from surrounding Anglo-American and African-American ethnic communities at various point in Lumbee history” (p. 156). 

The authors also note that, as of this writing, they have a sociolinguistic interview base for Robeson County of 58 Lumbee, 18 African American, and 37 Anglo-American speakers and routinely add to it.

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