University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics


In his description of the speech of residents of the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina, Hall (1942) made some tantalizing references to prosodic variation that he claims to be characteristic of the Appalachian region. He observed, 'the great force with which the stressed syllables are uttered results in an abnormal weakening of the unstressed syllables' (44). This observation suggests that rhythm and prosody could be sources of social variation among Southern varieties of American English. Building upon this suggestion, Reed (2018) found that Appalachian rhythm was distinct from a non-Appalachian Southern variety in that it was more stress-timed. Thus, the present paper seeks to determine if there is prosodic variation within this Appalachian variety.

Prosodic rhythm differences have been noted in many national, regional, and social varieties of English. In varieties of North American English, Thomas and Carter (2006) found that prosodic rhythm distinguished several varieties of English spoken in North Carolina, with Hispanic English and Jamaican English more syllable-timed than European American or African American Englishes. However, early African American English from ex-slave recordings was more syllable-timed than later varieties. Coggshall (2008) found that the English spoken by the Eastern Cherokee in North Carolina was more syllable-timed than their European American cohorts. Clopper and Smiljanic (2015) found differences in rhythm between Southern speakers and Northern and Western speakers. Thus, prosodic rhythm can be a fruitful area for variation.

The present study analyzes the prosodic rhythm from 24 (12 male and 12 female) Appalachian English speakers from northeastern Tennessee, balanced for age and education level (college vs. non-college). The data are comprised of reading passages collected during sociolinguistic/oral history interviews. Each passage was orthographically transcribed and then force-aligned. The durations of adjacent syllables were calculated using the normalized Pairwise Variability Indices (nPVI) adapted from the procedure outlined in Grabe and Low (2002). This measure provides a quantifiable measure of the durational variability (what was once called stress-timed versus syllable- timed). Greater variability in adjacent syllables indicates more stress-timing, or a greater difference in stressed and unstressed syllables. Preliminary results suggest that the Appalachian speakers are distinct from a cohort of Southern speakers from Clopper and Pisoni (2006). Further, preliminary findings indicate that speakers with a greater attachment to place, what I term 'rootedness', have a greater nPVI than that of less rooted speakers.

These results suggest that prosodic rhythm might be a productive means to 'sound Appalachian', differentiating from other Southern American English varieties in being more stress-timed. Further, these results indicate that rhythm might also be a dynamic means of signaling one's attachment to the local Appalachian area, highlighting one's rootedness within the region, as those speakers with greater rootedness had a greater nPVI. Thus, prosodic rhythm can serve to distinguish regional varieties, even closely related ones such as Appalachian and Southern Englishes. Further, rhythm can be used within communities to reflect meaningful social categories.



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