Do you hear a difference when you say the words “heel” and “hill?” What about “pin” and “pen?” And did I see you “walking” or “walkin’” yesterday? These are the questions one researcher is asking as he studies sociolinguistics in Appalachia.

West Virginia University Professor Kirk Hazen, Ph.D., and his team of undergraduate researchers just received a second grant from the National Science Foundation. The four-year, $239,742 grant is for a study of phonetic variation in Appalachia and begins the second stage of a 12-year project.

“During the first part of the project, we were trying to connect with previous research,” Hazen said. “No modern linguistic research had been done since the 1970s. We wanted to see how English in Appalachia has changed in the 20th century.”

The first part of this project evaluated the grammar being used by the inhabitants of Appalachia. The second part focuses more on the physical qualities of the sounds of Appalachian vowels and consonants. For example, a pattern for West Virginians is pronouncing “L” as a vowel rather than a consonant so that a word like colt sounds like coat.

“Rural areas in the United States are changing, and the sociolinguistic patterns discovered in this project will illustrate those changes,” Hazen said.

The study also evaluates the perception of language by asking research participants to evaluate sounds of other West Virginians by listening to recordings and judging the social qualities of those sounds. These tasks will assess society’s speech perception and help with the broader scope of the project.

Currently, there are several vowel changes going on across the entire country. There is a growing divide between northern and southern vowels, and this second stage investigates where that line falls in West Virginia. Hazen also is evaluating whether rural areas demonstrate more advanced characteristics of the southern vowel shift.

This study is being conducted on native West Virginians whose parents are also natives of the state. They are evenly grouped by age, gender and region.

For the third part of the project, Hazen and his team will use the knowledge they have collected to evaluate how different communities use language to construct identities and distinguish themselves. They will look at rural vs. town speakers from southern and northern parts of the state to make comparisons on how their language varieties change.

Hazen furthers sociolinguistics by presenting dialect diversity programs to numerous communities, including future health professionals, social workers, students, and service organizations.

However, throughout the entire 12-year period of the project, Hazen is also trying to educate West Virginia students about language in general and specifically about dialects.

Hazen says the broader impacts of this project are perhaps most important for internalized language attitudes. Too many Appalachians, even those proud of their heritage, apologize for their language.

“People have been led to believe that their language reflects some underlying inadequacy,” Hazen said. “Unfortunately, such myths are ubiquitous and deeply entrenched throughout Appalachia. Unearthing and confronting these linguistic misconceptions will require a thorough understanding of the state’s language variation and a statewide effort to teach its legitimacy and value. This project provides the means for helping West Virginians to avoid self-effacing loathing of their language diversity.”

WVU Department of English Chair John Ernest said Hazen understands that our words say a lot about us.

“From the classroom to the community, from his interactions with established scholars to his devoted mentoring of rising students, Kirk approaches his work with a clear sense of the importance of understanding how we have spoken our way through the world―how the world changes our language use and how our language use has the potential to change our worlds,” Ernest said.

The National Science Foundation is a U.S. government agency that supports fundamental research and education in all the non-medical fields of science and engineering. Hazen’s field of linguistics focuses on the scientific study of language.

For more information, contact Kirk Hazen, professor of English, at (304) 293–9721or



CONTACT: Rebecca Herod, Director of Marketing and Communications
304-293-7405 ext. 5251,

Follow @WVUToday on Twitter.