Tracing Native American language history through consonant cluster reduction: the case of Lumbee English

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Torbert, Benjamin. “Tracing Native American language history through consonant cluster reduction: the case of Lumbee English.” American Speech 76.4 (Winter 2001): 361-387. 35 references.


Torbert presents a detailed examination of consonant cluster reduction (CCR) in Lumbee English. He explains that “CCR is a variable feature in which clusters (usually with shared voicing) that end with a stop may delete the second segment of the cluster. For example, CCR commonly occurs in the production of ol for old, min' for mind, and lef' for left (p. 361). He begins by noting that Lumbee speakers fall between Anglos and African Americans in Robeson County as far as the frequency of CCR.

Torbert provides some interesting information in the "Sociohistorical Background" section of the article: 

  • Hayes Alan Locklear shared a phrase he was taught by elders which survives from the Lumbee ancestral language: “Ep ta tay wa nay wasin,” meaning “Creator, I love you” or “Jesus, I love you.” Torbert aptly surmises, “It is a telling phrase, for it sums up the dual existence the Lumbee must continually negotiate: a people with an intense sense of their Native American identity who have survived in a world dominated by Anglo people” (p. 370). 
  • The Native American languages surrounding Robeson County were mainly    Iroquoian and Siouan; these have no syllable-coda consonant clusters, which would be consistent, Torbert feels, with a transfer effect of increased rates of CCR in the Lumbee during the past century. If, however, the Lumbee migrated from the Roanoke Island area, they would have had a good deal of contact with Algonquian speakers. Algonquian languages have consonant clusters (pages 371-372). 
  • It is not known exactly when the Lumbee shifted from their native language to English. A fieldworker conducting an interview for the Linguistic Atlas of the Middle and South Atlantic States in 1934 had to abort an interview with a Native American subject born in Pembroke in the 1860s because the subject responded so slowly. The interviewer noted that the subject “preserves traces of foreign speech” (p. 372). 

In his overview of current Lumbee English, Torbert notes that the isolation of Lumbee speakers (which one would reasonably conclude would preserve distinctive language features) has been slowly and steadily declining since school desegregation began in Robeson County. Torbert also provides a useful table (Table 4, page 374) which lists fifteen specific features of Lumbee English phonology and notes whether they occur (either frequently or occasionally) in Robeson County Euro-American, Robeson County African-American, Appalachian, or Outer Banks speech.

Torbert's study of Lumbee consonant cluster reduction (CCR) used data from sociolinguistic interviews with Lumbee speakers (aged 16-97) conducted 1994 or later as part of North Carolina State University's North Carolina Language and Life Project (NCLLP). Torbert also used oral history interviews with Lumbee speakers (some as old as 96) conducted by Adolph Dial between 1969 and 1971. He divided the speakers into four age cells: those who grew up before World War I; between the World Wars; after World War II but before school desegregation; and speakers who had attended integrated high schools. For each of these age cells, Torbert included (whenever possible) eight speakers: four women and four men. To allow comparisons, he also tabulated CCR on Robeson County Euro-American and African-American speakers. 

Torbert focused his statistical analysis on the phonetic environment of CCR following final clusters--in particular, the prevocalic, preconsonantal, preglide, and prepausal environments. He used the VARBRUL program to analyze the statistics.

Table 5, “Incidence of consonant cluster reduction for Robeson County groups” (page 378), shows the main results of the analysis. Some of the main findings for Lumbee speakers are:

  • Preconsonantal monomorphemic reduction is very high (averaging 70% for the four age cells); 
  • Bimorphemic reduction (when results for the four age cells are pooled) is similar to formal, upper-middle-class English;
  • Bimorphemic prevocalic reduction declined from the oldest to the youngest age cell. The rate for the speakers who grew up before World War I is five times as high as the rate for speakers who attended integrated high schools. 

Torbert concludes that CCR is not an ethnolinguistic marker, like finite be, perfective I'm, and backed/raised/aj/; rather, it “. . . contributes to the larger picture of Lumbee English in a subtle way” (p. 382). He also surmises that “Because the Lumbee lost their ancestral language so long ago, one might not expect to find any traces of it in their current English variety, but the higher levels of prevocalic CCR among the oldest speakers may be substratal effects of language transfer in their past” (p. 383).

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