The curvilinear hypothesis revisited: Sound change in Charleston, South Carolina.

Maciej Baranowski (University of Manchester)

The dialect of Charleston, SC, long known for the distinctive character of its phonological system, has recently lost most of its traditional features in the process of regionalization operating across American English, whereby small local dialects are losing their traditional features and becoming part of the larger regions. At the same time it is undergoing a number of new changes, some of which are spreading throughout American English, such as the low-back merger and the fronting of the back upgliding vowels. In fact, Charleston, along with the South Midland, is leading the rest of American English in the fronting of /uw/ (GOOSE) and /ow/ (GOAT). In the traditional dialect, the long mid back vowel of GOAT is at the back periphery of the system, with the upper-class speakers over 65 being the most retracted (and often ingliding). The youngest generation of the highest-status social group, on the other hand, has made a sudden jump ahead of everybody else: upper class women around the age of 20, followed closely by young upper-class men, are now fronting the vowel more than anybody else in Charleston and in the rest of the country.

There has been some concern in sociolinguistics recently over the use of social class as a factor because supposedly such categorization does not accurately reflect actual divisions in American society. While this may be true to an extent of some communities in the U.S., it is clearly not true of Charleston, where social class is shown to play an important role in accounting for the linguistic variation and change found in the dialect. However, the specific ways in which social class interacts with the distribution of linguistic features do not fully conform to Labov's finding known as the curvilinear hypothesis, whereby linguistic change is led by an intermediately located social group, such as the lower-middle or upper-working class, rather than the highest or the lowest-status group. It appears that the fronting of the back upgliding vowels in Charleston is in fact being led by the highest-status social group.

The study is based on a sample of 100 speakers, aged 8-90, representing 5 social classes. The speech of 43 of those speakers has been analyzed acoustically, and the results have been subjected to multivariate analysis.