University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics


This study investigates the degree to which African Americans participate in the sound changes currently in progress in the dialect of Charleston, South Carolina. It is based on a sample of 60 African Americans native to the area, recorded during sociolinguistic interviews; spontaneous speech is supplemented with word list reading and minimal-pair tests. The speech of 20 of the informants has been analyzed acoustically. The paper focuses on two sets of sound changes found earlier in the white population, three vocalic mergers: the cot-caught merger, the pin-pen merger, the beer-bear merger, and the fronting of the back upgliding vowels /uw/ and /ow/, as in two, goose, and so, goat, respectively, and compares the progress of the changes in the two populations. The oldest generation of African American Charlestonians share the distinctive features of the traditional dialect, such as very back /ow/, with the oldest white speakers. The younger generations, however, are not participating in the fronting of the back vowels advanced by white Charlestonians. The two groups are acquiring the cot-caught merger and the pin-pen merger, but African Americans are more conservative in the unmerging of the bear-bear merger found in the traditional Charleston dialect, now largely unmerged in the white population.