Fine in the world: Lumbee language in time and place

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Wolfram, Walt, Clare Dannenberg, Stanley Knick, and Linda Oxendine. Fine in the world: Lumbee language in time and place. Pembroke, NC: Museum of the Native American Resource Center, UNC-Pembroke, 2002. 92 pages. Key source


Clear, readable, attractively designed, and enhanced by numerous photographs, charts, and other illustrations, this book provides an excellent overview of the major questions and issues related to Lumbee language. It begins by explaining that even though the Lumbee stopped using their ancestral language generations ago, their language is nevertheless distinctive. Called Lumbee English, it is categorized by linguists as a dialect of American English. It sounds “different” to people outside Robeson County (Lumbee people are often asked where they come from); and it also sounds different from the speech of African Americans and European Americans in Robeson County. Even the Lumbee Act of 1956 (PL 84-570; 84th Congress, 2nd session) notes the tribe’s “. . . distinctive appearance and manner of speech.”

The book provides background information on the Lumbee community, discussing the importance of education, Pembroke as the tribe's cultural center, previous names of the tribe, assistance from the state government, and the limited nature of federal support. The authors also address the question of cultural development and assert that change does not threaten cultural identity; it may, in fact, strengthen it. They aptly state, “The loss of the ancestral language or languages by the Lumbee is a cultural, historical, and scientific tragedy, but the irrepressible and malleable nature of their culture in maintaining language identity through the replacement language, English, is a testament to the adaptability of human nature and the strength of the connection between language and culture” (p. 3).

Nature of Lumbee English

In describing the vocabulary, pronunciation, and sentence structure of Lumbee English, the authors note that there are a few words that are distinctively Lumbee, but more that are also found in other dialects of the southern Coastal Plain. The hallmarks of Lumbee English are its ways of combining structures. Lumbee English uses some pronunciations that are also found in Outer Banks English and Appalachian English (see the chart on page 68). One distinctive grammatical feature is the use of bes. Lumbee English differs depending on the age of the speaker, the community of residence, and the speaker’s contacts and professional training.

Lumbee English and language correctness

Some features of Lumbee Vernacular English, such as be in “I’m been there,” the prefix a- in “They were a-huntin’,” and the double negative in “They didn’t go nowhere” are nonstandard. Most structures in Lumbee English were, however, deemed acceptable at some point in the history of English. The authors discuss nonstandard features in terms of the dominant culture’s perceptions and the “linguistic inferiority principle.” They emphasize, “Linguists, who study the intricate patterning of language apart from its social evaluation, stand united against the definition of any dialect as a corrupt version of the socially favored variety” (pp. 18-19). This section of the book concludes with a very important observation: “Lumbee English is certainly different from standard English and is not the language of mainstream America, but it has linguistic authenticity and serves an essential, symbolic role in marking cultural and ethnic identity. There can be no other reason for its survival in the face of persistent pressure to assimilate to the language of mainstream America” (p. 21).

The ancestral languages of Lumbee English

Difficulties in making a determination of the ancestral language(s) arise from the facts that there is little historical documentation on this matter; by the mid-1700s the Lumbee no longer used their native language exclusively; and archaeological evidence shows that the Lumbee River was, for thousands of years before European contact, a zone of cultural interaction, making it likely that the Lumbee developed from an amalgamation of other native groups. The three main language groups in the Carolinas at the beginning of the historic period were the Algonquian, the Iroquoian, and the Eastern Siouan.

The roots of Lumbee English

This section addresses the development of Lumbee English and influenc es from the English colonists, the Highlanders and Ulster Scots, and African Americans. It provides a more detailed discussion of the major features (vocabulary, pronunciation, and sentence structure) compared to other dialects, with several useful charts.

Dialect and culture

In this section, the authors conclude, “Study of Lumbee English indicates that it is a robust, distinctive dialect that embodies important dimensions of a community-based culture. That the emblematic role of language has shifted from an ancestral language to a distinctive dialect of English is a testament to the linguistic adaptability, resiliency, and vitality of the Lumbee language community” (pp. 78-79).

The book ends with an appendix listing articles, books, theses, and dissertations on Lumbee English and an extensive list of references for the book as a whole.

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