Investigating intra-ethnic differentiation: /ay/ in Lumbee Native American English

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Schilling-Estes, Natalie. “Investigating intra-ethnic differentiation: /ay/ in Lumbee Native American English.” Language Variation and Change 12 (2000): 141-174.  


This detailed, carefully reasoned, and well written and researched study focuses on /ay/ patterning in Lumbee English as well as on linguistic and social differences among Lumbee speakers and between Lumbee speakers and White or African American speakers in Robeson County. In particular, the author examines three variants of /ay/ in different age and social groups of Lumbee speakers: (1) the monophthongal or glide-shortened variant; (2) a backed or backed/raised variant; and the [aI] variant found in non-Southern American speech. Schilling-Estes provides a thorough quantitative analysis of these variants in Lumbee English; explores their use among Robeson County White and Black speakers; and considers the inter-ethnic patterning of distinctive Lumbee English features such as invariant be or bes, r-lessness, perfective I'm, and leveling to weren't.

Schilling-Estes begins her analysis with a discussion of the concept of an insular or historically isolated community and how the concept might be applied to the Lumbee. She notes that the fields of sociolinguistics and dialectology have lagged behind other fields in questioning the concept of the pure, truly isolated culture which is being threatened or tainted by outside influences. She notes classification schemes that can be used to measure the extent to which a culture is insular; according to these, Robeson County is “relatively historically insular” (p. 144). She also provides a very useful historical and social overview of the Lumbee community.

The author's introduction to the Lumbee dialect makes the important point that the Lumbee themselves, as well as White and Black speakers in Robeson County, have long held that subcommunities of Lumbees can be identified by their speech differences. For instance, Prospect residents are considered the most traditional Lumbees, and their speech is thought the most authentic. Schilling-Estes notes that the present study is the first to look at dialect differences within the Lumbee community.

The research involved 70 sociolinguistic interviews with Lumbee speakers--from the North Carolina Language and Life Project (which began in early 1994), oral history interviews conducted by Adolph Dial (1969-1971), and from a recording of 17 Prospect school children made in 1993. The raw results of /ay/ patterning among Lumbee speakers are shown in Table 1. Types of /ay/ patterning are grouped as pre-voiceless, pre-voiced, pre-nasal, and pre-word boundary. In each of these groupings, the three variants mentioned earlier are tabulated. Results are also shown for four generational groups and, within each generational group, for Prospect residents, Union Chapel residents, and others. Table 2 shows raw data (in the same categories) on /ay/ patterning among Robeson County Black and White speakers. Other tables show VARBRUL analyses for the three varieties of /ay/ among Lumbee, Black, and White speakers.

Schilling-Estes provides detailed, carefully reasoned analyses of the results of this research, considering both internal and external constraints. Her results showed that in general, both inter- and intra-group differences with respect to /ay/ are lessening. However, dialectal distinctiveness is preserved (compared to Blacks and Whites) in Lumbee use of backed and/or raised /ay/. This variant is most commonly used in pre-voiceless contexts, and next most commonly in pre-voiced contexts. This variety of /ay/ is favored in Prospect, somewhat favored in Union Chapel, and disfavored elsewhere. This distinctive pattern was observed in all four generations of Lumbee speakers.

Schilling-Estes goes on to discuss other distinctive features of Lumbee dialect, comparing their use among Robeson County Blacks and Whites. She concludes: “Even though the Lumbee may be too numerous and widely dispersed to preserve wholesale dialectal distinctiveness, they have nonetheless managed to preserve a degree of linguistic uniqueness by heightening their usage levels for several noticeable forms and by preserving or innovating unique patterns for variants that they share with neighboring ethnic groups” (p. 168). 

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