The Language of Belonging
April 19, 2017
We may think of home as a place or feeling, but for Rachel Hargrave, home is connected to how we speak.
Depending on where you are from, you might pronounce spigot as spicket or refer to a crayfish as a crawdad.
As a budding linguist, Hargrave studies how language — specifically dialects, such as those in southern Appalachia — connects to one’s sense of home, identity, and culture.
“When people think or talk about home, they are more likely to talk like where they are from,” said Hargrave, of Weddington, North Carolina, a sophomore majoring in creative writing and literature and language in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences at Virginia Tech.
“If you’re proud of where you come from and that’s your community and who you are, then you’re more likely to go into that accent.”
Hargrave’s own dialect is a mix from various small towns and big cities around the country.
“Not only do I have regional things because I’ve bounced around, but I also have things I’ve picked up along the way because my parents say them,” Hargrave said. “So now I am a mashup of different dialects and place markers.”
Hargrave is one of 14 recipients of the Fralin Undergraduate Research Fellowship, a program that aims to increase diversity in undergraduate research. Each fellow receives $1,000 to conduct research with a Virginia Tech faculty mentor over the course of one academic year.
Since September, Hargrave has worked with Abby Walker, an assistant professor in English specializing in sociolinguistics in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. Walker co-directs The Speech Lab at Virginia Tech, where Hargrave interviews people to collect recordings of speech as part of her research.
Under Walker’s guidance, Hargrave listens for how people who identify as being from southern Appalachia or Northern Virginia pronounce certain plural words, such as bees or keys. In particular, Hargrave is listening for the difference in pronunciation between beezeand beece and keeze and keece.
Ultimately, the strength of this pronunciation – from a “zee” to an “eece” sound — could be an indicator of how deeply one connects with a particular identity or has lived in a particular location.
“This is called z-devoicing, and we all do this a little, though some of us do it more than others,” Hargrave said.
The degree to which people pronounce words like these runs on a spectrum and seems to be a common trait among southern Appalachian speakers, explained Hargrave. Until recently, however, there has not been much research to back this up.
“We found that this kind of pronunciation is not a feature specific to Appalachian dialects, but rather a feature of southern dialects and used by those who identify as southern,” said Hargrave, who presented her findings at the 40th annual Appalachian Studies Conference held at Virginia Tech in March. “We still have to explore the social and ethnographic aspects to know how to connect these pronunciations with culture.”
Much of what Hargrave has learned comes from Walker and from Kirk Hazen, a linguist at West Virginia University who runs The West Virginia Dialect Project, which specializes in language variation in Appalachia. For almost 20 years the group has researched language in the region, and recently started working with community groups, schools, and health service organizations to address stigmas and stereotypes, such as a lack of education,
that tend to accompany certain accents .
“People who are not proud of where they are from will actively work to erase their dialects,” said Hargrave. “This can happen when people move from rural areas to cities, or vice versa. This can be very damaging, especially when someone comes from a community where everyone speaks like that, and then you start getting into issues where they feel like others are implying their entire community is shameful, broken, stupid, or any of these other stereotypes. This is a dangerous practice, but this is one of the coolest parts for me as a linguist. I really value diversity because there is no wrong way to speak.”
Hargrave presented her research findings as the featured student speaker at the Fralin Life Science Institute showcase in April.
“As a linguist, I sometimes get focused on the technical aspects of language description, but Rachel’s interest in identity and orientation has really made that a central part of this research project,” said Walker. “This really highlights that how you speak isn’t just this automatic outcome of where you live, but rather about how you feel about where you live and where you’re planning on going.”
Written by Cassandra Hockman