Robeson County, NC

About the Site

Robeson County, North Carolina, is a tri-ethnic community located along the corridor of Route 95 near the South Carolina border. Native Americans comprise approximately 40 percent of the county population, African Americans 25 percent, and Anglo Americans the remaining 35 percent. According to historical records, early Anglo settlers from the Scottish Highlands, some of whom were Gaelic speakers, found the Lumbee, the Native-American group within the county, speaking English when they arrived in the Robeson County area in the 1730s. A group of African Americans, including both runaway and free slaves, was also scattered in the region at the time, so that the three ethnic groups have lived in this region for almost three centuries.

The ethnic relations of the three groups have shifted through time in response to various sociopolitical events, including the desegregation of county school in the early 1970s. Despite some increase in intercommunication among the three ethnicities, ethnic boundaries remain strong; and Robeson County in large part continues to exist in a state of de facto segregation into three ethnic communities. Given the prominence of the Lumbee in this region and the longstanding tradition of maintaining three separate ethnic communities, Robeson County provides an ideal site for examining how the English variety of a Native-American community is sociolinguistically situated with respect to surrounding local varieties.

The economic base of Robeson County is changing. Robeson County historically has been a farming community producing large crops of tobacco and cotton. Corn has also been a major crop in the county. While these crops are still grown and sold today, the county is moving away from agriculture into other business. Robeson County is also home to the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, which was originally founded as an Indian normal school in the late 19th century.


Robeson County, NCRobeson County, NCRobeson County, NC

Research Questions

We have interviewed comparable sets of older, middle-aged, and young speakers of all ethnicities in an effort to determine:

  1. the distribution of dialectally diagnostic structures revealing patterns of shared and distinctive language features;
  2. shifting patterns of language that show convergence or divergence between the three ethnic groups over time;
  3. the role of dialect marking in the determination of the Lumbee speech community

We have conducted interviews with over a hundred Robeson County speakers. While our focus is on the vernacular structures within and across these respective varieties, we are also examining representative standard speakers in order to provide a profile of the social differentiation of language within each community as well.

Among the variables studied were _bes_, perfictive I'm, weren't regularization, backed /ai/ nuclei, front-gliding /au/, and several lexical items such as juvember 'slingshot' and ellick 'coffee.'


Atkinson, Tarra Grey. (1995). The assessment of Lumbee Vernacular English speakers: A sociolinguistic profile and application. Masters thesis, North Carolina Central University.

Brewer, Jeutonne P; Reising, R W. 1982. Tokens in the Pocosin: Lumbee English in North Carolina. American Speech, 57, 2, summer, 108-120.

Coggshall, Elizabeth. (2006). Differential Vowel Accommodation among two Native American Groups. M.A. thesis, North Carolina State University.

Dannenberg, Clare J.. (1996). Moving toward a diachronic and synchronic definition of Lumbee English. M.A. thesis, North Carolina State University.

Dannenberg, Clare J.. (1999). Null copula and ethnic distinctions: Grammatical and phonological distribution in a tri-ethnic community. Journal of English Linguistics, 27.: 356-70.

Dannenberg, Clare J.. (2002). Sociolinguistic constructs of ethnic identity: The syntactic deliniation of an American Indian English. Publication of the American Dialect Society 87. Durham: Duke University Press.

Dannenberg, Clare J., and Walt Wolfram. (1998). Ethnic identity and grammatical restructuring: Be(s) in Lumbee English. American Speech, 73.: 153-59.

Dannenberg, Clare J., and Walt Wolfram. (1999). The Roots of Lumbee English. Raleigh, NC: North Carolina Language and Life Project.

Hammonds, Renee. (2000). People's perceptions of Lumbee Vernacular English. Masters thesis, North Carolina Central University.

Kerns, Ursulla H.. (2001). A comparison of lexical items in Lumbee Vernacular English from the Pembroke and Prospect communities. Masters thesis, North Carolina Central University.

Locklear, Hayes Allan, Natalie Schilling-Estes, Walt Wolfram. (1996). A Dialect Dictionary of Lumbee English. Raleigh, NC: North Carolina Language and Life Project.

North Carolina Language and Life Project. (2000). Indian by Birth: The Lumbee Dialect. Raleigh, NC: North Carolina State University Humanities Extensions.

Peterson, James Braxton, Jr.. (1995). Style variation in the sociolinguistic interview: An empirical study of interviewer adaptation. Masters thesis, North Carolina State University.

Schilling-Estes, Natalie. (2000). Inter-ethnic differentiation and cross-ethnic accommodation: /ay/ in Lumbee Native American Vernacular English. Language Variation and Change, 12.: 141-74.

Schilling-Estes, Natalie. 2002. On the Nature of Isolated and Post-Isolated Dialects: Innovation, Variation, and Differentiation. Journal of Sociolinguistics, 6, 1, Feb, 64-85.

Thomas, Erik R., and Elizabeth L. Coggshall. Forthcoming. “Comparing Phonetic Characteristics of African American and European American English.” Linguistica Atlantica. (Journal of the Atlantic Provinces Linguistic Association).

Wolfram, Walt. (1996). Deliniation and description in dialectology: The case of perfictive I'm in Lumbee English. American Speech, 71.: 5-26.

Wolfram, Walt, and Clare J. Dannenberg. (1999). Dialect identity in a triethnic context: The case of Lumbee American Indian English. English World-Wide, 20.: 79-116.

Wolfram, Walt, and Jason Sellers. (1999). Ethnolinguistic marking of past be in Lumbee Vernacular English. Journal of English Linguistics, 27.: 94-114.

Extension Projects

Indian by Birth, documentary film