Future Directions of Our Research
Given its notoriety, English in Appalachia has received little empirical scholarly attention. Outside of this current three-stage project, the most recent sociolinguistic interviews conducted in this region of West Virginia were in the 1970s. Over the last eight years, the PI and associates of the West Virginia Dialect Project have conducted 163 interviews with native Appalachians and have created the West Virginia Corpus of English in Appalachia (WVCEA), a corpus of 67 speakers balanced by age, sex, and region. Within the WVCEA, we have already conducted sociolinguistic analysis of 10 variables and have reported our results in eight papers. The work to date was funded by a previous NSF grant, BCS-0743489.
We are currently drafting plans for Stage 2 of a three-stage project. Within Stage 2, acoustic phonetic analysis will be brought to bear on consonant and vowel variation for native Appalachians. The research will focus on socially relevant variations in modern Appalachia, including the Southern Vowel Shift, several vowel mergers, and two sets of consonant variation. The primary goal for the overall project is to conduct quantitative sociolinguistic analysis on English in WV to determine its current status, including its regional affiliations, its relative degree of vernacularity, its sociolinguistic divisions, and its directions of change. From the research accomplished to date, it is clear that many of the traditional features of English in Appalachia are fading from WV, although some remain under the radar of social awareness. The most finely-grained and socially important language variation patterns in modern Appalachia are the ongoing changes to vowel systems, but the social and linguistic patterns of those systems have not been well documented. Another facet of this research is the examination of rural America. Rural areas in the United States are changing, and the sociolinguistic patterns discovered in this project will illustrate those changes. As WV is one of the most rural regions, an account of the current state of synchronic variation allows for an empirical assessment of (sub)urban/rural divides on sociolinguistic variation.
Stage 2 involves acoustic phonetic analysis in order to enhance the description of language variation in the WV region of Appalachia and to enhance the basic dialect description provided in the Atlas of North American English. Specifically, the extent and progression of the Southern Shift will be assessed: How complete is the shift in the southern half of the state? Geographically, how far north and into what rural areas does the Southern Shift stretch? In preparation for Stage 3 of this project, do rural areas demonstrate more advanced characteristics of the Southern Shift? Along with the Southern Shift, vowel mergers play an increasingly common part in the future of WV English, and their trajectory of change will be acoustically assessed by this project. The front-lax merger spreads from the South, and the low-back merger is originally from western PA, but the two mergers largely overlap in WV. Additionally for Stage 2, two consonantal variables will be analyzed: the merger of /hw/ ~ /w/, a current change in progress, is contrasted with θ~f (e.g. birfday), a more stable sociolinguistic marker.