Volume 26, Number 4:  February 2008

From the Chair  |  In Print  |  Panels & Presentations  |  Awards & Appointments  |  Miscellany  |  From the Editor

The Common Reader

Walt Wolfram at TALGS

Wolfram2If you didn't get  the chance to see him, Walt Wolfram was here on campus Saturday, February 16, to speak at the 5th annual TALGS Conference organized by Jennie Whitehead and Stephen Hinman, graduate students in linguistics in the Department of English.  Wolfram is one of the leading American linguists and gurus of sociolinguisitcs active in North Carolina and the Middle Atlantic states.  Furthermore, Lida Cope sees him as "one of the few top sociolinguists/dialectologists in the country." She says, "His work on ethnic dialects of American English, dialect recession, and dialect awareness and education has been, in my opinion, especially influential. I  see Wolfram as a true applied linguist.  All his work concerns real-world language problems with practical implications for dialect communities and for education."  Michael Aceto calls him "a giant among sociolinguists, perhaps one of five 'big' names in the field (Labov would be another).  Few equal his record in terms of publications, grants, and service to the communities he works with."

In particular, Wolfram's love and interest for the dialect of the Outer Banks, the Appalachian Mountains, the Native Lumbees, and the dynamic changes evident in the Piedmont, make his understanding of the linguistic scene in North Carolina a fascinating showcase of the American experiment; that is, the unfolding drama of many different people and cultures living together, and trying to make it work through language adaptation. His many books include Dialects in Schools and Communities (1999, rev. 2007), American English (2005), Development of African American English (2002), Hoi Toide on the Outer Banks : The Story of the Ocracoke Brogue (1997), et al.

ncllpbannerWolfram is currently the William C. Friday Distinguished professor at NC State University, and directs The North Carolina Language and Life Project (NCLLP).  He took time out after his keynote address to speak with Elizabeth Howland for TCR.


Howland: So what's your goal for your research overall?

Wolfram: One of my goals before I drop dead, I want every kid in eighth grade in North Carolina to study the unit on dialect that relates to North Carolina.  We have a whole curriculum that we've developed.  I've taught it for 14 years, every year, over spring break, I go some place and teach it.  Often in Ocacroke, but I go to other places, too. I really want the world to get educated about that.

Howland: Why do you think it's so important?

dialectWolfram: Because I think it's a real area of unrecognized prejudice. If you didn't get a job because you're a woman or a person of color, you'd sue in a minute and you'd win. But if you donít get a job because of the way you talk, you just feel bad about yourself.  So I think it's a real problem As one of my colleagues described it -- it's sort of a dialect prejudice.  It's not okay to be sexist, it's not okay to be racist, but it's still okay to be dialectically prejudiced.  And that's something important for me to change.

Howland: You mentioned that media influence is exaggerated in dialect.  Do you think pop culture has an influence?

Wolfram: Pop culture has an influence on dialect, but it's sort of more like an overarching influence than it is a specific one.  Actually, the fact of the matter is, when we say the media doesn't have an influence, media does have an influence in terms of ideologies and cultural things, but not necessarily in terms of specific language items.  So, for example, one of the places the we've studied was Hyde County, North Carolina, which is very isolate, and the black population, the older people, sound very regional, so they identify with white.  The younger blacks sound very urban black, even though they've lived in Hyde County all their lives, so where do they learn that language? Well, they obviously got some of that from watching media, representations of black culture, and so that's how they want to be.  So media doesn't influence people in that you don't necessarily mimic people, but media does have an influence in overarching ideologies.

Howland: Is that how people define themselves? 

wolframbook2Wolfram: There's this sort of whole oppositional culture which is, you know, you don't want to be white.  And so talking standard English and not talking Black is strongly associated with a certain cultural identity that is opposed to how they think of themselves.

Howland: You mentioned dialect erosion that happens after three generations?  How do you prevent that?  Is there a way to prevent it?

Wolfram: Not really.

Howland: Is there a way to preserve it?

Wolfram: Not really. One of the things that we've done on Ocracoke, every year, I go for a week with a couple of graduate students, and we teach the kids in the eighth grade, about their dialect, and they end up loving their dialect, and they're so proud of it.  In the meantime, it erodes.  We were hoping, though, since they were so proud of it, they would sort of retain it, but they don't.  There are a few words that they've retained, that we've revived because we teach about them, but language happens because there are so many stronger influences.  And the erosion happens.  They're subject far more to economic and political associations.  I'm very optimistic about changing attitudes.  People were ashamed of the way they talked, they thought it was just stupid speech, and now they love their speech, but in terms of actually changing language, in terms of keeping language change from happening, you just can't.  I'm not really optimistic about that.

Howland: You always refer dialect back to culture. Can you talk about that a little bit?

hicksWolfram: Well, I think in some cases, particularly with some groups, they're so known by their language, like on the Outer Banks, or, for example, the Lumbee Indians who lost their native language a couple of generations ago, 150 years ago.  They don't have anything but this dialect in terms of language, and so it's very important to the Lumbees. I mean it's not like they think about it or try to meet about it in the longhouse, but it is very strongly associated with the culture because everybody says to them, you're not Indians, and they answer, yeah but we talk the same, everybody knows who we are based on the way we talk.  Or even in the South, the South didn't really develop Southern English until after the Civil War, not nearly as divergent from the North, as it is right after the Civil War.  Part of it happened because there was an emerging "mutualism" (not sure that's the word). To talk about language is to talk about culture intertwined.  By the third generation most all become monolingual anyhow.  Sort of like my parents spoke German, I know German, but my kids don't know German, other than the curse words I use.

Howland: Is the Cajun dialect in New Orleans dying out at all?

Wolfram: Well, it is dying out, but there's a revitalization movement, so actually some of the younger speakers who are really into Cajun culture are trying to revitatlize it.  Old people had it, middle-aged people don't have it, and now some younger speakers are re-acquiring it.

Howland: What accounts for this preservation versus what's happening on the Outer Banks?

Wolfram: Well, a lot of Cajuns are still in their own communities, in the same parishes, where people in Ocracoke, I mean, only 350 central islanders, and then during the summer they get 4 to 6,000 tourists every day, and a lot of the central islanders are on their second marriage and they've married people from off-island.  That's interesting.  It never works the other way around.

wolframbook1Wolfram: The thing that really I love about social linguistics is that it allows me to be an academic and a social activist because so much of the stuff that we argue is about sort of linguistic stuff.  I love the aspect of educating the public, educating eighth grade kids, taking the words of the street, doing things with communities, seeing them change their attitudes. In a couple of weeks we're going out to Ocracoke, at the Preservation Society, [and we are going to see] the oldest resident of the Outer Banks.  Muzel Bryant will be a hundred and four, and she's an African-American, the oldest remaining African-American from the only family that's lived on Ocracoke since the Civil War.  We've done a bunch of interviews, and we're going do a big event for her birthday and honor her.  I love doing stuff like that.

You know my parents have an eighth grade education, so they never understand what I do for a living.  Oh, I do research.  Why?  Why would anybody pay you to do that?  You know, they couldn't understand it.  So I had to sort of transcend that -- my research means more than just my academic career.  So that's why really, that's why we do the documentaries and the exhibits and education for kids. That's important to me.

previous issue
next page

Copyright © 2008, ECU  Department of English.