The word “y’all” can give you a good indication the speaker is from the south.
“Yinz”? Probably Pittsburgh. And “Youse” – youse know that’s gotta be the New Jersey area.
And right in the middle of this cultural crossroads sits West Virginia.
Kirk Hazen, professor in the Department of English and director of the West Virginia Dialect Project, heads the one-man linguistics department at West Virginia University and is the only researcher documenting dialect in West Virginia.
Language is ever-changing, depending on cultural influences, social differences and linguistic constraints that provide a platform for growth and expansion, he said. As language unfolds, dialects are transformed.
“No dialect is ‘incorrect,’” Hazen said. “English is a living language, and no dialect is any more ‘correct’ than another. But dialects carry social baggage – certain characteristics signaling a standard or stigmatized way to pronounce a word or phrase.”
Hazen completed his doctorate in linguistics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and participated in the North Carolina Language and Life Project at North Carolina State University under the tutelage of sociolinguist Walt Wolfram.
"No dialect is 'incorrect,'" said Kirk Hazen, professor in the Department of English and director of the West Virginia Dialect Project.
"English is a living language, and no dialect is any more 'correct' than another. But dialects carry social baggage – certain characteristics signaling a standard or stigmatized way to pronounce a word or phrase."
Hazen, of Michigan by way of North Carolina, began teaching at WVU in 1998 with a two-pronged set of goals: to research language in the Mountain State and to teach about how language in the Mountain State, and language in general, works.
That goal translated into an undergraduate research training lab, the only fully undergraduate, National Science Foundation-funded lab on campus. The lab, which bridges humanities and sciences, uses scientific methodologies to study patterns in language.
Research from this training lab supports the West Virginia Dialect Project, which gathers recordings of West Virginia speakers through casual conversations and reading passages. The recordings, totaling nearly 200, are analyzed through computer software programs to track certain instances the researchers may be looking for at that time.
“We look at dialect features of different kinds; we look at how features change over time by comparing younger and older speakers; it’s very important to get as representative a sample of West Virginia as we can. We want to know ‘how have the language patterns of the state changed?’”
Isabelle Shepherd, who graduated from WVU in 2014 with degrees in political science and English, said she was a proud “grammar snob” before taking Hazen’s “The English Language” class.
"It's impossible for there to be a 'correct' way when language just simply isn't that stable. Instead, accepting the various forms of language and dialect allow us to accept and understand the people who use the multitude of forms."
-Kirk Hazen, professor in the Department of English and director of the West Virginia Dialect Project.
“I ‘corrected’ and judged the language of others, indulging in some false superiority,” she said. “In his class, Kirk showed me the errors of prescriptivism; largely, that it’s based in socioeconomic disparity. The reason we favor “aren’t” over ‘ain’t’ – even though ‘ain’t’ used to be the prestige form – is because the latter word has been stigmatized due to its usage by those of a lower socioeconomic class.
“Language changes, and it’s natural for language to change. It’s impossible for there to be a ‘correct’ way when language just simply isn’t that stable. Instead, accepting the various forms of language and dialect allows us to accept and understand the people who use the multitude of forms.”
“I am from Southern West Virginia – the town of Pineville – so I was no stranger to being mocked because of my dialect and the stigmas that surround it,” Lovejoy said.
“Naturally, I viewed my way of speaking negatively, but working with Kirk at the West Virginia Dialect Project has changed that. I am constantly paying close attention to the way people talk and how language is used, and I think it helps me understand folks and the world better. Why might someone have ‘vocal fry’? Did that sign just use ‘was-leveling’? It’s a blessing and a curse sometimes, but it’s mostly a blessing.”
Vocal fry, you ask? Well, you’d recognize it if you heard it. Britney Spears and Kim Kardashian are both well-known fryers who use the low, guttural speech. And was-leveling is common in sentences like “There was 10 people in the Mountainlair” rather than the grammatically acceptable “There were 10 people in the Mountainlair.”
What grade-school English teachers may find cringe-worthy, Hazen finds a fascinating ethnography on the area.
• Most recently, the group has looked at the single dialect feature differences in pronunciation of “W” and “Wh” in words like “witch” and “which.” In the past, the two words would be pronounced differently, but for most speakers today, they are the same.
• Other patterns he has researched include looking for typical rural linguistic characteristics like “demonstrative them” heard in “How ‘bout them apples?”
• Hazen and his team have also researched vowel differences typically found in the southern part of the United States. For example, they look for the difference between “bed” and “bay-ed” for speakers here in West Virginia.
• A-prefixing, which would be found in “he’s gone a-hunting,” and was-leveling, as in “we was playing,” are less common than they were in the middle of the 20th Century, Hazen said.
• While those in the southern United States tend to pronounce “pin” and “pen” the same way, western states sound “cot” and “caught” the same way. West Virginia tends to overlap and have both.
“West Virginia is much like other rural regions in the nation,” he said. “The stigmatized dialect features have declined – though not disappeared. They’re not as widespread as they once were.”
Hazen said the major takeaway from the research thus far is that language in West Virginia is evolving similarly to how language is evolving everywhere else in the rural United States.
“In some ways, what we do is help defy the stereotypical expectations of language in Appalachia,” Hazen said. “We’re finding folks who live in West Virginia and documenting how they speak, bringing modern language analysis to the state of West Virginia. This kind of research often doesn’t fit people’s romantic stereotypes of the state.”
By Candace Nelson
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