Sociolinguistic constructs of ethnic identity: the syntactic delineation of Lumbee English

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Dannenberg, Clare J. “Sociolinguistic constructs of ethnic identity: the syntactic delineation of Lumbee English.” Diss. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1999. 167 pages.


Dannenberg studies three forms of be --perfective, finite bes, and null copula --in Lumbee English. She compares Lumbee use of be to use by Anglo-Americans and African Americans. She also analyzes the ways in which Robeson County speakers use forms of be to maintain ethnic boundaries.

Dannenberg analyzed taped interviews with Robeson County residents to gather her data. The interviews conducted by the North Carolina Language and Life Project (NCLLP) from 1994-1999 surveyed over 220 Robeson County residents, spanning all three ethnic groups and ages 10-98. Tapes from the Oral History Project conducted by the University of Florida, (see The Lumbee Indians: an annotated bibliography, item 1044) and the Adolph Dial interviews were produced in the mid-1970's; participants were aged 50-90 at the time. Dannenberg remarks that “Combining data from these three sources allows for an apparent time comparison of language variation and change over the last one hundred years” (p. 7).

The NCLLP interviews were “casual and conversational in nature, following the format of the traditional sociolinguistic interview” (p. 8). The questionnaire used by the interviewers is reproduced as Appendix A. Dannenberg explains how participants were selected for the NCLLP interviews, how the interviews were recorded (equipment used, recording considerations for the interview setting), and how the data was analyzed (using VARBRUL, “a multivariate, probabilistic program designed to weigh the effects of language-internal and extralinguistic constraints on variable speech” (p. 11)). 

The chapters of the dissertation are as follows:

  • Chapter 1: Introduction.
  • Chapter 2: History of the roots of Lumbee English, from prehistory to current times, with additional background information on salient events in Lumbee history and on the history of Whites and African Americans in Robeson County. 
  • Chapter 3: Use of perfective be in Lumbee English. 
  • Chapter 4: Use of finite be(s) in Lumbee English. 
  • Chapter 5: Occurrence of null copula among all three ethnic groups in Robeson County.
  • Chapter 6: Analysis of Lumbee use of varieties of be to negotiate and renegotiate ethnic boundaries.

Useful tables include 2.2, “A comparative, selective lexical profile of Lumbee Vernacular English” (p. 53); 2.3, “A comparative profile of Lumbee Vernacular English pronunciation” (p. 55), and 2.4, “A comparative dialect profile of Lumbee Vernacular English grammar” (p.57).

Dannenberg's conclusions, listed in Chapter 6, include the following:

  • In Robeson County, use of perfective be is unique to the Lumbee. 
  • Both Lumbee and Anglo-American speakers use null copula with are; the two ethnic groups are similar in both form and occurrence of this language feature. 
  • Lumbee use of finite bes is similar to older versions of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) described in the Linguistic Atlas of the United States, although younger Lumbee use is similar to the AAVE habitual bes. Dannenberg summarizes: “Considered together, . . . the forms of be analyzed in this study demonstrate that the Lumbee maintain a distinct and unique 'fit' in relation to local and regional varieties of English--not African American, not Anglo-American” (p. 145). 
  • “Ethnic identity is a negotiable process rather than a static construct” (p. 145)--illustrated by the fact that perfective be, a relic form, can be considered an ethnic marker, and finite be(s) has experienced changing alignments over time. 
  • Lumbee use of forms of be indicates that “. . . Lumbee English is quite adaptable in the face of language loss and encroachment. The ability of Lumbee English to adjust and reconfigure is certainly a testament to the vitality of this language variety” (p.150).
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