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American Varieties

Lumbee Dialect

Lumbee English bears the imprint of British English, Highland Scots, and Scots-Irish. This dialect of North Carolina native Americans is distinctly different from their Anglo-American and African American neighbors. Walt Wolfram explains in this reprint from the 1998 Archives of North Carolina State University News.

More than 40,000 Lumbee in North Carolina's Robeson County know they are ethnically and culturally Native Americans, says renowned linguist Dr. Walt Wolfram. So why have they struggled unsuccessfully for decades to gain complete formal recognition from the federal government? Many believe the loss of their ancestral language may be one fundamental barrier.

Current research by Wolfram, North Carolina State University's William Friday Distinguished Professor of English, and a team of researchers indicates that although the Lumbee lost their ancestral tongue generations ago, they have developed a unique Lumbee English dialect. They look to history as the primary force that shaped a dialect characterized by particular patterns of pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary.

The Lumbee English dialect, Wolfram says, bears the imprint of the early colonization by the English, Highland Scots and Scots-Irish. Moreover, Lumbee Native Americans' speech is distinctly different from that of their Anglo-American and African-American neighbors.

Historical evidence shows that the Lumbee have been speaking English for more than two centuries. As early as 1730, European settlers were surprised to encounter a large tribe of English-speaking Indians in the region. Just where and when they learned it is a matter of conjecture, says Wolfram.

Though research findings reveal some similarities in Lumbee and Outer Banks speech, the isolated examples aren't strong enough to support the popular theory that links the Lumbee with the Lost Colony. In pronunciation, for example, both use "hoi toiders" (high tiders); in vocabulary, both try not to "mommuck," or make a mess of it; and in the grammatical use of weren't, both might say "She weren't here."

"We were surprised to find examples of dialectal affinity to the Outer Banks," says Wolfram, "but they are isolated examples." He suggests that more likely, both speech communities shared a common Scots-Irish English dialect influence, which also is apparent in Appalachian speech.

Wolfram and a team of graduate students have been conducting community-based language studies in Robeson County since 1993 as part of his North Carolina Language and Life Project. The goal of the Lumbee study, funded by the National Science Foundation and the William C. Friday Endowment, is to promote dialect awareness and a sense of language heritage among the Lumbee Native Americans and the broader community.

Early on, the researchers collaborated with the late Adolph Dial, a revered Lumbee elder, scholar and author; Stanley Knick, director of the Native American Resource Center at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke; and Dr. Linda Oxendine, head of the department of Native American Studies at UNC-Pembroke.

The linguistic analysis has included study of the voices on Dial's Lumbee oral history tapes recorded from 1969 to 1971; interviews of more than 150 Lumbees and their Anglo-American and African-American neighbors; study of early American history books and documents; and the learning sociohistorical facts about this tri-racial community.

Last year, Wolfram and his students transferred Dial's fragile tapes onto 35 compact discs and presented them to the Native American Resource Center in order to preserve the literary, historical and linguistic treasure. A CD with dialect samples also is in the works.

The team's research findings are the basis for a number of published and forthcoming scholarly papers and presentations, as well as a variety of material for public consumption. In 1996, Wolfram, Hayes A. Locklear, Natalie Schilling-Estes and Clare J. Dannenberg compiled A Dialect Dictionary of Lumbee English to capture the uniquely colorful Lumbee language. In Lumbee, chauld means embarrassed; on the swamp means in the neighborhood; a juvember is a sling shot; and bog is a helping of chicken and rice.

Additionally, Wolfram and Dannenberg co-authored Ethnic Identity and Grammatical Restructuring: Be(s) in Lumbee English in "The Journal for American Speech." In it, they discuss the unique use of bes in the Lumbee dialect, a feature that sets them apart from other ethnolinguistic groups. For example: It bes really crowded; The train bes running; Babies bes born like that. The authors note that the verb form probably could be attributed to the inflence of early inhabitants of English, Welch and Scots-Irish extraction.

Wolfram, along with members of the Robeson County community, are producing a documentary video about Lumbee English, and will construct an interactive museum exhibit to informally educate residents and the general public about the historical and current role of language among the Lumbee.

"We hope the video and exhibit will demonstrate how the Lumbee, the largest Native American group east of the Mississippi, have moved from the loss of their ancestral language to the development of a distinctive English variety that plays an integral role in shaping a unique, cultural ethnolinguistic identity," Wolfram says. The video will follow the model of his previous successful documentary, The Ocracoke Brogue, which was both entertaining and instructive.

Wolfram says that dialect awareness and pride may be a hard sell among the Lumbee. "Unfortunately, the Lumbee have suffered from a kind of linguistic double jeopardy. They gave up their ancestral language heritage to accommodate the political and economic pressures of colonial encroachment -- an accommodation that has severely hindered their pursuit of full federal recognition as a Native American group. And, the language they molded is rejected as bad English."

But Wolfram and company are in it for the long haul. A major research book and a popular book are in progress. And, they are developing a school enrichment curriculum that will celebrate the Lumbee language as a genuine -- and legitimate -- cultural heritage.

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Suggested Reading/Additional Resources

Walt Wolfram is the William C. Friday Distinguished Professor at North Carolina State University, where he directs the North Carolina Language and Life Project. He has pioneered research on social and ethnic dialects since the 1960s, publishing 16 books and more than 250 articles on language varieties such as African American English, Latino English, Appalachian English, and Southern Vernacular English. Wolfram is deeply involved in the application of sociolinguistic information and the dissemination of knowledge about dialects to the public. In this connection, he has been involved in the production of TV documentaries, museum exhibits, and other community-based dialect awareness initiatives; he also served as primary linguistic consultant for the Children's Television Workshop, the producers of Sesame Street. He has served as President of the Linguistic Society of America, the American Dialect Society, and the Southeastern Conference on Linguistics.

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Sponsored by:

National Endowment for the Humanities Hewlett Foundation Ford Foundation   Arthur Vining Davis Foundations Carnegie Corporation

National Endowment
for the Humanities

William and Flora Hewlett
Foundation

Ford
Foundation

Rosalind P.
Walter

Arthur Vining
Davis Foundations

Carnegie
Corporation of New York