On the construction of vernacular dialect norms

Record Number: 

Wolfram, Walt. “On the construction of vernacular dialect norms.” CLS 36: The panels. The proceedings from the panels of the Chicago Linguistic Society’s thirty-sixth meeting. Volume 36-2. Ed. Arika Okrent and John P. Boyle. Chicago: Chicago Linguistic Society, 2000. Pages 335-358.


In this paper, Wolfram uses two vernacular dialects—African American Vernacular English (AAVE) (in particular, Hyde County, North Carolina) and Lumbee Vernacular English (LVE)—to study the mechanisms of vernacular dialect norming. He begins with a broad discussion of four major issues in how vernacular dialect norms are constructed: the actuation issue, the embedding issue, the diffusion issue, and the dynamic issue.

He follows with a discussion of specific aspects of Hyde County, North Carolina’s AAVE and Robeson County, North Carolina’s LVE. He explains that a decade of research on LVE conducted by the North Carolina Language and Life Project (NCLLP) has identified (in comparison with Robeson County’s Anglo American and African American dialects) several diagnostic variables. The paper includes tables comparing nine grammatical structures and ten phonological structures as they occur among Robeson County’s Lumbee, African American, and Anglo American speakers. Wolfram discusses a study in which two sets of listeners (in Raleigh, North Carolina and Lumbees in Robeson County) were presented with twelve passages of 20-30 seconds and asked to determine whether the speaker was Lumbee, Anglo American, or African American. Both sets of listeners were able to identify the African American and Anglo American speakers with high accuracy (ranging from 70%-91.4%). The Raleigh listeners identified the Lumbee speakers with only 38.5% accuracy, but the Robeson County Lumbee listeners identified Lumbee speakers with 82.8% accuracy. Wolfram notes that for Americans outside Robeson County, “ethnic identity is defined in terms of a biracial dimension” (p. 351). Few people outside Robeson County are aware of its triracial nature and have heard Lumbee speech. The Lumbee themselves, however, consider their speech distinctive, and Wolfram notes that the ethnographers working with NCLLP have not found a single Lumbee who did not hold this viewpoint. Thus, this study corroborates speech as a symbol of cultural distinctiveness for the Lumbee.

Wolfram concludes by outlining five kinds of factors that need to be considered in studies of vernacular dialect norming, based on his study of Hyde County AAVE and Robeson County LVE. These are:

  • The linguistic dimension. This includes a “parallel, independent development, or ‘drift,” of features in vernacular dialect. It also includes what Wolfram, in a forthcoming work, is describing as the principle of vernacular dialect congruity.
  • The sociohistorical component. For LVE, this includes consideration of the fact that some 90% of the Lumbee population has been concentrated in Robeson County for many years. Other factors include population density and migration patterns.
  • The sociolinguistic component. This includes the processes of social embedding of dialect structures.
  • The sociopsychological component. The Lumbee use their unique identity to construct a “linguistic other”.
  • The ideological dimension. The Lumbee are neither Black nor White, but during their history they have had to distinguish themselves in a society that tried to force them to be one or the other—usually trying to deny them rights and privileges along with African Americans. Thus, “their dialect is more opposed to AAVE than it is to Anglo American vernaculars” (p. 354).
First Appeared in 1994 Book?: 
Category Tags: 
Publication Type: