Linguist-Community Collaboration and Shifting Linguistic Identities

Walt Wolfram, North Carolina State University

Though sociolinguists have an established tradition of addressing social issues related to language inequality, concerns about maintaining and shifting linguistic identity present special challenges for communities—and for sociolinguists committed to the principle of linguistic gratuity. How can sociolinguists collaborate with and support communities in recognizing and supporting a community’s desired outcome related to linguistic identity? We consider this issue by examining the linguist-community collaboration in several different sociolinguistic situations (1) The Eastern Band of Cherokee who speak an endangered American Indian language; (2) The Lumbee Indians of North Carolina who have completely lost their ancestral language; and (3) the Outer Banks community of Ocracoke which is rapidly losing its iconic “Brogue.” Each of these community situations presents a different set of challenges and opportunities for linguistic gratuity. In the case of the Cherokee, the community’s goal is to revitalize the Cherokee language now spoken almost exclusively by a couple hundred speakers over the age of 50. The challenge of the Lumbee, however, is gaining positive recognition for a unique variety of English that has replaced their ancestral language in indexing their identity, while the challenge on the island of Ocracoke is documenting and preserving the once-vibrant dialect of English whose recession appears imminent. The collaborative experience in each of these communities has been quite different, but there are also some unifying principles of collaboration and some common activities that have characterized these efforts. We identify some of the underlying factors that promote success in such collaborative efforts, including the linkage of language with cultural identity, the status of language in constructing a sense of place or Heimat, and the role of language in establishing historical tradition and political ideology. We also present illustrative examples of formal and informal educational materials that have been created with communities to promote linguistic identity in changing sociolinguistic circumstances, including documentaries, exhibits, school curricula, and social media.