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Rural African Americans and
Instant Messaging…

and the hills of North Carolina are alive with interesting language – including Instant Messenger conversations between two young African-Americans. Christine Mallinson and Becky Childs explore what their chats say about this corner of America.

Stereotypes abound about the people who call Appalachia home. The common assumption is that the region lacks racial and ethnic diversity and is populated mostly by whites of European ancestry. But Appalachia was actually settled by diverse groups of people. Coming to the area around 1000 A.D., the Cherokee Indians left a strong legacy; also, whites of varying ancestry — Scotch-Irish, English, German, Polish, Swiss, Portuguese, Spanish, French and more — have populated Appalachia since the late 1700s and early 1800s. 

Some African Americans were also brought to the area as slaves of these white settlers, but independent, non-slave African American settlements have also existed in Appalachia since earlier times. One small community, Texana, was established in Appalachia around 1850. Located high on a mountain in western North Carolina, Texana was named for an African American woman whose family founded the first black settlement in the area. Today the community has about 150 residents who live along the same hillside as the original inhabitants.

The two young men whose language we analyze live in Texana, N.C. One interesting fact is that Texana residents in general tend to be misidentified ethnically by outside listeners. In other words, when tapes of Texana residents talking are played for outsiders, listeners — more than 75 percent of the time in our tests (Childs and Mallinson 2003) — believed that the speakers were white. Thus, along with stereotypes about who is typically considered Appalachian, we also have stereotypes about the language Appalachians speak. Even sociolinguists — who study different languages and dialect and try to discover the specific patterns or social rules for talk — have traditionally analyzed the phenomenon they call “Appalachian English” without much regard for whether (and if so, how) this dialect might vary when it is spoken by non-white Appalachians.

In previous data analyses, we had begun to speculate about the impact of the Internet on the linguistic identity of young residents of Texana. In this paper, we look at how the different social factors of region, rurality and race intersect in the language of two of Texana’s Appalachian-raised African American young men. Rather than analyzing their language in a spoken or typically written format, we look at what they write online, in instant messenger conversations.

David and Chris were about 16. Even though they don’t live in an urban area, everything from their clothes to music is centered on African American culture

During our stay in Texana, we realized that despite the fact that Texana residents are not often perceived as sounding African American to outsiders, they do identify distinctly with African American culture. This certainly applies to the young men at the center of this essay, whom we call “David” and “Chris.” David and Chris were about 16 years old at the time of the study. Even though they do not live in an urban area, or one that would give them first-hand knowledge of an urban lifestyle, everything from their clothes to music to slang is centered on current African American culture.

 David and Chris are two of only a few African Americans currently attending their high school. They are popular and have many friends, especially other young men from the JV and Varsity football teams. They signal their identification with African- American culture in a number of ways. They frequently wear their hair in corn rows, wear FUBU clothing, and are always up on the latest trends in black music and movies. David and Chris also tend to use slang that is characteristic of hip hop or urban African- American culture — words such as “one,” “lata,” and “holla” for goodbye or “see you later” (instead of the outdated “peace”); “playa” for a sexually promiscuous male; “balla” for a person with many skills, often in the game of basketball; “chillin” for relaxing, and “aight” for all right or okay. We noticed that although David and Chris didn’t typically use these words in general conversation with us, they frequently used them when we communicated over the Internet, via instant messenger. Consider the following examples, in which relevant words have been underlined.

Example 1

MHSballa: well im gonna go so i’ll talk to u lata
MHSballa: 1

Example 2

fieldworker: well i gotta go, i’ll talk to you later
killaplaya: aight
fieldworker: bye
killaplaya: 1

Example 3

C24: gotta go holla

Example 4

killaplaya: chillin.. holla at me...6

In these four examples, we see several interesting features. First of all, the screen names themselves (which have been altered to preserve anonymity, but not to alter their character) are heavily influenced by slang terms. The young men also use the terms "lata," "aight," and "holla" in their chatting, even when the fieldworker writes “later” and “bye” to them first.  Finally, we see their use of “1” for “one,” a term derived from “One Love,” which was popularized in reggae music. According to, “one” is now commonly used by young African Americans to mean goodbye, later, or even “take care.” In Example 4, the speaker even uses the number 6 — presumably to also signal leave-taking, although in this case he seems to be using a different number, perhaps as a way of putting a unique twist on the use of “1.”

David and Chris also use instant messenger conversations as a way to assert their black identity. In one conversation, excerpted in Example 5, Chris tells the fieldworker about an incident at school that challenged his identity as an African American.

Example 5

C24: there was a fight

C24: yesterday

C24: matter of fact 2 fights

C24: yesterday

C24: and i seen them both

fieldworker: really? anyone from up in texana getting in the fights?

C24: naw

C24: i bout did

C24: with this racist dude

C24: he ran threw the hall with the damn rebel flag talkin — so i bout popped him and the principal grabbed me

C24: and they got in trouble

As one of the few African Americans at his high school, Chris frequently experiences racism and prejudice. Perhaps in response, he asserts himself frequently as an African American. In our final example, we consider Chris’s IM away message from February of 2004.

Example 6

it's black history month so yall — better respect me…

Malcolm X

By any means neccesary.

Fight for it or shut up

In this example, Chris recognizes Black History Month and demands respect as an African American, presumably from other white peers who might otherwise disparage him on account of his race. He also cites Malcolm X, the radical civil rights activist, and announces that those who would not fight for civil rights should “shut up.” Thus, in this virtual world, Chris can create a place where he is allowed to comment on his race without fear of the repercussions of others, as he has experienced before (as seen, for instance, in Example 5).

Chris and David use the Internet to create and maintain their identity

In these examples from instant-messenger discourse of two young men living in a rural Appalachian African American community, we see how speakers employ urban slang terms to create and maintain a distinct linguistic identity. Given that David and Chris, like most residents of Texana, might “sound white” to most outside listeners, their use of words and terms that are specific to African American culture — particularly those that are media-highlighted and widely diffused — is one of the few ways, if not the only way, that these young men are marking ethnic differences in their speech. They choose salient words and terms and combine them with discourse that exhibits their ethnic identity to indicate their connection to the young African American marketplace and to express and reinforce their presentation of self as young African American men.

It is noteworthy that the domain that David and Chris choose to frequently use these urban slang terms is online. Perhaps the virtual community is a safe space where they can index their identity as African Americans and use terms that symbolically reflect it. David and Chris are not only using these words and terms to develop new dialect norms for a generation of young Appalachian African Americans. They are also expanding the repertoire of words and terms that outsiders may not think that rural African Americans tend to use.

<>In addition, they are using the Internet as a site to claim, express and assert their ethnic identity through language. As Merchant (2001) notes, new linguistic conventions often emerge in computer-mediated communication. Young people are often the innovators who quickly adapt to this technology. As online discourse allows us to use language in different ways, it alters the relationships between social and linguistic factors such as language, dialect, region, ethnicity and culture — and young people like David and Chris may be leading the way.

Suggested Reading/Additional Resources

  • Baugh, John. Beyond Ebonics: Linguistic Pride and Racial Prejudice. Oxford University Press, 2000.
  • Childs, Becky, and Christine Mallinson. “Using media to make difference: An examination of lexicon in the construction of ethnolinguistic identity.” Southeastern Conference on Linguistics LXIV/South Atlantic. Modern Language Association. Atlanta, GA. Nov. 14, 2003.
  • Merchant, Guy. “Teenagers in Cyberspace: An Investigation of Language Use and Language Change in Internet Chatrooms.” Journal of Research in Reading 24(3) (2001): 293-306.

Christine Mallinson is a Ph.D. student in the department of Sociology and Anthropology at North Carolina State University. She previously received her MA in English/Linguistics from North Carolina State University after completing her bachelor's degree in Sociology and German from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her primary research interests are in the field of sociolinguistics, and her current research investigates the intersection of language with regional and ethnic identity in a community of African Americans in Western North Carolina.

Becky Childs received her M.A. in English with a concentration in linguistics from North Carolina State University and is now pursuing a PhD in Linguistics at the University of Georgia. Her research interests include language variation, specifically phonetic variation in English dialects.

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