Constructing ethnicity in interaction

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Schilling-Estes, Natalie. “Constructing ethnicity in interaction.” Journal of sociolinguistics 8.2 (May 2004): 163-195. 6 tables, 22 extracts.


In this study, Schilling-Estes works to further the application of social constructionist methods to sociolinguistics. She also uses quantitative methods and, through the vehicle of the sociolinguistic interview, studies localized speech practices. Her study examines ways in which both the interviewer and the interviewee use language to fashion ethnic identity as well as other aspects of identity.

Following concise overviews of the Robeson County context and Lumbee dialect, Schilling-Estes describes the sociolinguistic interview analyzed for this article. A Lumbee undergraduate student was interviewed for one hour and fifteen minutes by an African American graduate student. The two students were friends living in the same dormitory. The interviewer had spent a good deal of time in Robeson County. The interview was much more like a casual conversation than a formal interview. Conversational topics included two separate sections on race relations (in Robeson County currently, in Robeson County during the Civil War, in the South, and in current politics) and a section on family and friends.

Schilling-Estes examined the speech of the interviewer and interviewee for occurrences of six phonological and morphosyntactic features that are associated with ethnic or regional groups: postvocalic r-lessness; monophthongal /ay/; third-person singular -s absence; copula deletion; habitual be, and nonstandard regularization patterns for past tense be.

Generally, the interviewer and interviewee showed the usage patterns that would be expected for African Americans and Lumbees with regard to the features studied. Significant variations in the usage levels of certain features were noticed in the two sections in which race relations were discussed—when compared to each other and when compared to the section on friends and family. Schilling-Estes surmises that when race is being discussed, each speaker uses features that highlight ethnic distance from the listener; but when family and friends are being discussed, the speaker linguistically downplays his ethnic identity. She provides detailed analyses of these differences, illustrating them with twenty-two excerpts from the interview. She also uses two excerpts to show the interviewee’s use of r-lessness in a performative manner when he is quoting historical personages. She discusses, too, some ways in which the interviewer is able to shape the data gathered in the interview.

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