This Is AuburnElectronic Theses and Dissertations

The Sounds of Social Change: Phonology and Identity in Elba, Alabama




Head, Anna

Type of Degree





The purpose of this study was to determine whether and to what degree integration impacted speakers’ linguistic choices in the community of Elba, Alabama, with respect to three phonological variables: (ai), (oi), and (ING). Because history is integral to a project that investigates the effect of integration on language choice, and due to the cultural perspective offered by literature, the linguistic analysis is situated within the historical context of the Civil Rights Movement and its literary works. This study also defines integration emically, considering potential language differentiation in light of local events rather than national decisions and legislation. Using an interdisciplinary approach, this study of Southern English addresses issues relevant to the field of Southern studies as a whole. This study draws from interviews conducted in 2002 that elicited flood narratives and interviews conducted in 2008 that elicited conversation about integration and race relations in Elba. Although 79 participants were recorded, in order to maintain a balanced sample in terms of age, ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic status, only 64 interviews were included in the present study. These interviews were coded for both external (social) and internal (linguistic) variables, and statistical analysis was conducted using JMP 9 statistical discovery software. The study finds that African-American and European-American and older and younger speakers in Elba treat each of the phonological variables differently and that speakers’ choices can be characterized in terms of the interaction of age and local, regional, and national orientation toward nonstandardized variants. For (ai), which contains the most identifiably Southern variant, this study finds that African-American and European-American speakers are becoming less alike in the middle (b. 1963-1989) and youngest (b. 1990 or later) age groups, indicating that speakers’ choices were impacted by integration. For (oi), which contains a local nonstandardized variant, use of diphthongs increased for both ethnic groups, with the difference disappearing for the middle age group, which includes the first speakers to have a completely integrated school experience. For (ING), which contains the most nationally widespread nonstandardized variant, the youngest speakers converge. These findings speak to the complexity of linguistic choices made by speakers, both as individuals and as members of social groups in response to social change.