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College of Arts & Sciences
Linguistics Program


Talk around Town: On Appalachian English

Paul Reed, a Linguistics Ph.D. candidate, gave an invited talk on Appalachian English at the East Tennessee Historical Society on September 10, 2014.

Below is the abstract of Paul's talk. For the website announcement, click here.

In Appalachia, there is evidence that the language varies from that of surrounding regions (Wolfram and Christian 1976).  The language varieties of East Tennessee form part of Appalachian English, a language variety that is distinct from other Southern Englishes and other regional and national varieties. Exactly how much or in what manner this variation occurs is the realm of linguistics, the scientific study of language. Most natives of Appalachia know that their language variety diverges from others, but they may lack the understanding of how systematic this variation is and what factors influence it. I will give an overview of the features of this English variety, and showcase two websites that help to spread the word about East Tennessee English and, more broadly, Appalachian English. This talk will help to equip listeners with tools to better understand variation and some factors that contribute to it, and will show how this rich linguistic system forms a central part of what it means to be an East Tennesseean, and how it is critical to local and regional identity.

Two features in particular will be analyzed in detail: monophthongization and intonation. It is known that the diphthong (2 vowel sounds in a single syllable) /ai/ can be realized as a monophthong (1 vowel sound in a single syllable), and this is a hallmark of Southern American speech (Thomas 2001, 2003; MacMillan and Montgomery 1989 list many studies), and of Appalachia in particular. This is one of the most salient language features of persons from Appalachia, thus it is now an identity marker. From this, a question arises, would a person whose identity has shifted away from Appalachia reflect this change in speech? What would happen in a family whose allegiance to the region shifts within and across generations? I will present an analysis showing how monophthongization varies within individuals and families will be presented. Three generations of a Southern Appalachian family were interviewed and occurrences of possible monophthongization were extracted and measured. The realization of /ai/ is crucially dependent on the amount of personal identification with the Appalachian region, which varied individually and generationally.

Additionally, I will present continuing research into patterns of intonation in Appalachia, focusing specifically on the realization of rising pitch accents. The phonetic realization of pitch has been shown to have regional variation in American English (Arvaniti and Garding 2007, Clopper and Smiljanic 2007) and other English varieties (Grabe et al 2000, Grabe 2004, Atterer and Ladd 2004, Ladd et al. 2009)  However, the extent to which speakers are identified by these specific pitch patterns and/or the extent to which speakers construct their regional and cultural identities through pitch accent (and intonation more broadly) remain virtually unexplored from a sociophonetic perspective. Anecdotally, the intonation of speakers from East Tennessee and Appalachia as a whole forms a crucial feature of this language variety.