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Walter Wolfram



Tompkins Hall 208


Walt Wolfram is William C. Friday Distinguished University Professor at North Carolina State University, where he also directs the Language and Life Project. He has pioneered research on social and ethnic dialects since the 1960s and published 23 books, edited 8 books, and published more than 300 articles. Among his research topics are endangered coastal dialects of North Carolina and the Outer banks; this includes several books, dozens of articles and five television documentaries on this topic, with an archival audio collection of almost 500 people interviewed from this area. He has received numerous awards, including the North Carolina Award (the highest award given to a citizen of North Carolina), Caldwell Humanities Laureate from the NC Humanities Council, the Holladay Medal at NC State, the Board of Governor’s Holshouser Award for Excellence in Public Service, and the Linguistics, Language and the Public Award from the Linguistic Society of America. He has been inducted into the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, and served as President of the Linguistic Society of America, the American Dialect Society, and the Southeastern Conference on Linguistics

I am interested in the relationship of environmental change, human ecology, and the status of dialect stability and change related to these factors.


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Date: 08/01/18 - 1/31/24
Amount: $461,416.00
Funding Agencies: National Science Foundation (NSF)

The activity will produce a four-part miniseries on African American Language for broadcast on a major television channel. The series is a sequel to the production of the one-hour documentary Talking Black in America, supported under NSF grant BCS-1247567 (????????????????Talking Black in America: A Documentary and Outreach Program???????????????). Episodes in the series will focus on the following themes: 1) the historical and contemporary development of African American Language; 2) the diversity of language use among African Americans based on region, age, status, education, and style; 3) the use of language in expressive performance, including preaching, comedy, music, hip hop, spoken word, and other expressive genres; and 4) the role of language differences in educational achievement and literacy. The intended audience for the series is a major TV channel (PBS, Discovery, History, National Geographic); the documentaries will also be streamed on You Tube and on other public media venues. The documentaries will be accompanied by an extensive website ( with a variety of educational resources, including streaming, descriptive chapters with integrated vignettes from the episodes, additional commentary, activities, and discussion questions for each 30-minute episode. The project will also produce archival videos of the full interviews with more than 40 experts interviewed in the project??????????????????linguists, historians, educators, performers, and public figures??????????????????with meta-tags relating to major topics and issues covered in the documentaries so that the material can be readily utilized for research and for informal educational purposes.

Date: 05/01/19 - 4/30/21
Amount: $28,001.00
Funding Agencies: Council on Library and Information Resources

The Language & Life Project (LLP) and the Sociolinguistic Archive and Analysis Project (SLAAP), partnering with The MediaPreserve will reformat 728 at-risk, rare audio interviews created for a foundational study on social stratification in American English (1966-67), ????????????????The Detroit Dialect Study???????????????. The interviews represent speakers from a variety of ethnic, religious, and economic backgrounds, and the oral history style of the sociolinguistic interview covers content of interest to a wide array of researchers and the public, such as politics, education, cultural norms and traditions. Further, a subset of the interviews are of critical importance to the study of African American Language, allowing researchers to gain a fuller understanding of its earlier development in urban contexts using modern methods of analysis. The digitized corpus will be incorporated into a larger collection via SLAAP, an audio archive that will enable access to and individual as well as collaborative analysis of the data.

Date: 09/15/13 - 2/28/17
Amount: $296,621.00
Funding Agencies: National Science Foundation (NSF)

This activity will produce a one-hour documentary on African American English (AAE) in the United States and African diaspora intended for broadcast on a major TV Channel. No other variety of American English is as widely recognized and as controversial as AAE, and national controversies about this language variety have been erupting for more than a half-century now. These controversies call attention to the depth of people?s beliefs and opinions about language differences, the persistent and widespread level of public misinformation about language diversity, and the need for informed knowledge about language variation in public life and in education. The documentary and accompanying instructor?s guide are intended to promote: (1) an understanding of the status of AAE in American society, (2) an appreciation for its historical and current development, (3) the dissemination of informed knowledge about its use and distribution, and (4) an understanding of its role in education. The general goals for public education involve a sociocultural parameter on understanding the social role of language in community life, a sociohistorical parameter on the historical roots and orderly development of AAE, a cognitive parameter on understanding the systematic language patterning of AAE, and an affective parameter on confronting the attitudes and stereotypes that often characterize the public perception of AAE. The specific objectives are (1) to illustrate the role of language variation in African American communities; (2) to exemplify with examples from everyday speech the systematic language patterns of pronunciation, grammar, and lexicon that index AAE; (3) to demonstrate how various language contact situations, sociohistorical development, and sociocultural circumstances have led to the development of ethnically demarked varieties spoken by African Americans; (4) to illustrate language variation within African American communities based on region, age, socio-economic status, and racial density; (5) to portray the role of language and dialect in the construction and the presentation of ethnic identity; (6) to demonstrate that AAE is an authentic reflection of cultural and sociohistorical heritage; and (7) to present and illustrate the role of language differences in literacy and school achievement. Footage will be shot in a variety of locations in the US that include large urban areas (New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago), rural regions in North Carolina and Texas, and diaspora sites in Jamaica in the Caribbean and Liberia in West Africa. A prominent group of AAE researchers serving as an engaged Board of Advisors will collaborate in designing the themes and format for production, collecting the footage, and monitoring the editing. Several types of evaluation will be undertaken to ensure that the documentary meets its objectives, including pre- and post-viewing questionnaires and evaluations by diverse focus groups, and both quantitative and summative analyses of the results will be undertaken. This project addresses the language variety of English most strongly affected by dialect prejudice, stereotyping, and linguistic discrimination. In portraying the history, development, and symbolic role of language in the lives of African Americans, this documentary hopes to situate African American varieties of English as an integral part of the historical and cultural legacy of African Americans and to help counteract the persistent popular mythologies and misinformation about this language variety in American society.

Date: 02/15/15 - 1/31/17
Amount: $32,180.00
Funding Agencies: National Science Foundation (NSF)

The National Science Foundation will support the fourth symposium on Language Variety in the South: The New South (LAVIS IV), to be held in Raleigh, NC, April 9-12, 2015. LAVIS IV continues and expands upon the tradition of previous LAVIS conferences by bringing together thirty prominent linguists and researchers for a three-day, thematic symposium to explore language in ????????????????The New South,??????????????? a region that has undergone dramatic demographic, social, and cultural change in the past half-century. We have convened panels on regional groups, ethnic groups, longstanding minority groups, new immigrant populations, and urban and rural groups. While LAVIS IV will include topics central to previous LAVIS conferences (e.g., African American English and the complex language situation of Louisiana), for the first time, Spanish and Latino English will be a major topic at the conference as will Cherokee revitalization, linguistic gratuity, and recent immigrants in the South. Following sociolinguistic trends, we have arranged for a panel on dialect and identity as observed through performance in personal communication, online spaces, and songs. Finally, a panel is devoted to language in the dynamic metropolitan centers of the South??????????????????from which the most influential Southern identities and dialects of the future will likely arise. The conference draws public attention to the most prominently recognized regional variety of English in the United States and how its status is both stable and shifting in relationship to social changes. The examination of an array of factors (e.g., regional, ethnic, urban, rural, status, gender, style) demonstrates how diverse and complex Southern language variation is, and the impact that language variation has on social perception of the South, including unjustified stereotypes and linguistic discrimination that is still with Southern speech. The conference further demonstrates how language variation figures in the political, educational, and social assessment of the South.

Date: 09/15/09 - 9/30/13
Amount: $134,850.00
Funding Agencies: National Science Foundation (NSF)

This research examines the development of African American English (AAE) from childhood through adolescence and its potential impact on literacy acquisition and school achievement based on a unique, longitudinal database of 70 African American adolescents from low-and middle-income families. For 17 years, starting with infancy, the language of these youth has been progressively documented, from infancy through childhood and adolescence. The youth have also been documented for family, and school factors that may affect the development of AAE and school achievement during this period. For the middle-school years, a supplemental longitudinal sample of 70 friends of the study youth were recruited to participate in the study in order to provide important data on the influence of peer speech during this period. This project completes the data collection for the final phase of the longitudinal study, the 10th grade period, and undertakes the detailed analysis of language change and variation during childhood and adolescence. The study empirically examines different paths of change in the use of AAE during childhood and adolescence and how they are linked to selected family, peer, and school factors. Dynamic patterns include the stable use of AAE through childhood and adolescence, the decline in the use of AAE over childhood and into adolescence, and a curvilinear trajectory in which AAE variants intensify in early adolescence after a period of decline or stability during the early elementary school years. The research further examines how the use of AAE shifts in formal and informal situational contexts through childhood and adolescence, and the longitudinal associations between youth?s AAE and reading achievement during the elementary, middle and high school years. A complementary set of analytical procedures are used to measure AAE use, including a modified version of a Dialect Density Measure, which measures the incidence of AAE features per word or communication unit, calculations of the different types of AAE features used per word or communication unit, and an examination of individual, socially marked features in terms of their actual use in relation to their potential use. The use of AAE will be correlated with youth, family, and school characteristics, and will also be examined in terms of the development of reading skills and other dimensions of school achievement. Growth curve methods will be used to quantify patterns of change in the development of specific aspects of youths? vernacular dialect to determine their relation to literacy development and school achievement. Despite the robust research literature describing AAE, there have been no longitudinal studies of its development and change from childhood through adolescence, the most critical period of language shift during the lifespan. The study addresses the social and educational implications of the most significant nonmainstream sociocultural variety of American English, and the role of vernacular dialect prominence in literacy achievement and school achievement during those periods of schooling when trajectories of school achievement among different social and ethnic groups widen the most.

Date: 05/01/06 - 4/30/09
Amount: $223,645.00
Funding Agencies: National Science Foundation (NSF)

Old and New Ethnic Dialect Configuration in the American South The proposed research examines language variation and change in two disparate language situations, one involving an isolated language variety that has existed in the American South for several centuries and one involving the embryonic formation of a language variety associated with a recent immigrant group. These projects are united in their consideration of the processes of dialect configuration and reconfiguration as speakers and speech communities adjust to changing historical, social, and linguistic circumstances. In the first study, we re-examine language change on Ocracoke Island, the site of a previous study of dialect recession in a historically insular situation (SBR-9319577). During the last decade, an extensive formal and informal dialect awareness program has been instituted in one of the most concentrated and sustained efforts ever undertaken by sociolinguists to inform a small speech community about its language variety. Has this dialect awareness program had an effect on the actual speech of local residents? What changes can be documented in apparent and real time over the last 12 years, and can they be attributed to heightened dialect awareness? Can moribund dialects be revitalized? Ocracoke offers a unique laboratory for examining language change in real time as community language attitudes change and awareness is heightened in a dissipating dialect situation. The second study focuses on an incipient ethnolinguistic variety of English in the Mid-Atlantic South related to the emergence of new urban and rural Hispanic communities. While most sociolinguistic descriptions of Hispanic English in the US have focused on relatively stable, durable communities in the Southwest and urban Northeast, this study considers the English of emerging Hispanic communities in diverse urban and rural regional Southern contexts. Are novel, regionally situated ethnic varieties of Hispanic English developing in these settings? Do Hispanic residents accommodate to the local dialect of their cohort English-speaking communities, and if so, which dialect features do they acquire? How does the transition process from Spanish structures to English dialect structures take place? Contact situations such as those considered here offer an unparalleled opportunity to examine the process of dialect formation in its initial stages. Ethnographically based fieldwork will be conducted in each site, including a series of sociolinguistic interviews. For the study of language change in Ocracoke, several different subsamples of participants will be selected: (a) a subsample of speakers from our original subject pool; (b) a subsample of family members representing different generations within the same family; and (c) a subsample of participants who represent the current generation of adolescents and teenagers. Research sites for the emergent Hispanic communities represent both rural and urban contact situations with Anglo American and African American speech communities, and study participants range in their length of residency (LOR) in the United States from two years LOR to those born in the U.S. These studies seek to advance our understanding of the fundamental principles that underlie language contact, accommodation, and innovation in time and space, particularly as it relates to geographical and social isolation. Broader Significance The study contributes to the public understanding of language diversity in American society and offers an important perspective on national language controversies associated with the status of language differences. National debates related to bilingualism and to ethnic language varieties indicate the critical need to understand the role of language in society. There is an urgent need for formal and informal education about the relation of language differences to culture and ethnicity?for educators, policy makers, and the general public.

Date: 04/01/06 - 3/31/09
Amount: $105,908.00
Funding Agencies: National Science Foundation (NSF)

The proposed research will examine the rate and growth of literate language and vernacular dialect use in African American youth and their role in the acquisition of literacy skills. The specific aims are: a) to describe the acquisition of literate language and to identify, child, family, and school predictors of the acquisition of literate language; b) to examine the extent to which African American youth show shifts in the use of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) over time and between formal and informal contexts; and c) to determine the role of literate language and vernacular dialect in the development of literacy skills. Although language and literacy skills impact each other at all developmental stages, the linkages take on more significance during early adolescence. Study participants are 140 youth from two samples who will be followed longitudinally and 140 additional friends of these youth who will be seen in only 8th grade. One longitudinal study sample consists of 70 African American adolescents from low- and middle-income families whose language, early literacy skills, and family and school environments have been prospectively documented since infancy. This unique longitudinal sample will be supplemented by a new sample in 6th grade, as a friend of each adolescent will be added to the original sample for all phases of data collection, increasing the number of adolescents to be followed from 6th through 8th grade to 140 youth. The study will include measures of adolescents' literate language and the use of AAVE in formal and informal activities with friends and adult examiners using both standardized tests and nonstandard assessment measures. Decoding and comprehension skills in reading in 6th and 8th grade will also be assessed. Hypotheses will be tested about the predictive importance of family background factors in literate language, effects of interlocuter and task formality on the use of vernacular dialect, and the role of literate language and vernacular dialect in youths' literacy achievement. Growth curve methods will be used to quantify patterns of change over time in the development of specific aspects of adolescents' literate language and vernacular dialect to determine their relation to literacy development. The study findings should be of interest to parents, teachers, and other educators and researchers concerned with issues related to the school success of African American youth and risk factors for school failure. The findings of this longitudinal study will further understanding of trajectories of language development and vernacular language patterns, the sociocultural factors that influence language, and their impact on the literacy achievement of African American adolescents. The database, the focus of inquiry, and the implications of this study offer the prospect of addressing a unique set of critical theoretical, educational, and social issues related to the study of the language and school success of African American youth.

Date: 06/15/07 - 2/27/09
Amount: $74,696.00
Funding Agencies: National Science Foundation (NSF)

Dialect Loss and Innovation: Documentaries and Outreach Program This project will produce two one-hour documentaries on language diversity in the southeastern United States, one on a receding traditional variety of English on the Outer Banks of North Carolina tentatively titled Vanishing Voices of the Outer Banks, and one on the emergence of Spanish and Hispanic English in the Mid-Atlantic South tentatively titled The Spanish Voice in the New American South. The intended audience is a regional public television audience, but the documentaries will also be appropriate for a general broadcasting audience and for other informal science education venues. The project is related to NSF research grant BCS-0542139, ?Old and New Ethnic Dialect Configuration in the American South,? but it is also connects more generally with our extensive, ongoing public outreach activities related to linguistic diversity. Current national controversies about language diversity, including issues related to language loss and innovation, indicate the symbolic role of language differences in American society. These debates call attention to: (1) the entrenchment of people?s beliefs and opinions about language diversity; (2) the persistent and widespread level of misinformation about the nature and significance of language diversity; and (3) the need for authentic knowledge about language variation in public life and education. To counter widespread, popular misconceptions about language differences, it is essential to disseminate accurate, reliable information about language variation to the general public. The proposed activities are intended to promote an understanding of the natural basis of language variation and to raise awareness of the sociolinguistic, cultural, and educational issues related to the recession of a traditional language variety. At the same time, the documentaries highlight a new language-contact situation as Spanish and Hispanic English become a prominent part of the linguistic landscape of the Mid-Atlantic South. The general educational goals of the documentaries and associated outreach activities involve (a) a sociohistorical parameter that focuses on understanding the historical roots and orderly development of language varieties; (b) a sociocultural parameter that focuses on understanding the social role of language in community life; (c) a cognitive parameter that focuses on understanding the systematic patterning of language varieties; and (d) an affective parameter that focuses on confronting the attitudes and stereotypes of linguistic subordination that often characterize the public perception of language diversity. Descriptively, the project provides visual documentation of the history, development, and current status of receding and emerging language varieties of the American South as representative of other changing language situations in the USA. This project also addresses broader issues of social inequality related to language prejudice and stereotyping in American society, including discrimination based on language differences.

Date: 03/13/07 - 9/30/08
Amount: $268,837.00
Funding Agencies: US Dept. of Education (DED)

Teachers need to be provided with the professional development and support, as well as a research-based language curriculum, that will allow them to maximize the limited amount of time that they give to language instruction. Instead of focusing on decontextualized grammar worksheets and activities, we want to provide teachers with strategies and support so they can have their students working on language exploration and awareness that is integrated with local, regional, and state culture and history, resulting in a more sophisticated understanding of and respect for language variations and contexts, and an increased ability to manipulate mainstream American English or Standard English in the ways necessary to succeed in school and life. In addition to becoming more adept with language, we also see the potential connection for teachers and students to make use of local history, events, places, and artifacts, as resources for further developing an integrated language program recognizing and extending the Voices of North Carolina. This proposed project makes use of the research-based language curriculum developed by noted scholars Walt Wolfram and Jeffrey Reaser, entitled Vocies of North Carolina: Language and Life from the Atlantic to the Appalachians (2005) as a professional development tool. The professional development program proposed here falls under the larger umbrella of effective literacy instruction in English language arts and social studies, and it specifically addresses issues of language variation, dialect awareness, contexts for effective language choices, and cultural diversity by providing sustained support in the form of workshops for 8th grade English language arts and social studies teachers in Wake County Schools, specifically those teachers at middle schools with at-risk, high poverty student populations. Reaser will introduce the curriculum materials and resources while Middle Grades Academy education faculty will provide insights into strategies for integrating the curriculum as well as creating meaningful contexts for incorporating it into existing middle school curricula for English language arts and social studies. Teachers will have the opportunity to not only experience the curriculum resources themselves, but also develop plans and projects to enhance their teaching for the next school year and beyond.

Date: 01/31/06 - 11/30/06
Amount: $1,200.00
Funding Agencies: NC Humanities Council

This project proposes to construct an exhibit in the gallery located at the Outer Banks History Center on Roanoke Island celebrating the contributions of African Americans to the development of the Outer Banks and coastal North Carolina. The small but durable African American community on Roanoke Island is presently the only African American community on the Outer Banks, though it has often been invisible to the outside world. Recent research on the contributions of African Americans in the early maritime development of coastal North Carolina, on the establishment of the Freedmen's Colony on Roanoke Island during the Civil War, and on the all-black lifesaving unit on Pea Island from the late nineteenth century through the mid-twentieth century has documented that African Americans played a significant but often-overlooked role in the development of coastal North Carolina, including the Outer Banks. The exhibit, related to outreach activities initiated under an NSF Informal Science Education grant scheduled to end in December 2005, will be centered on the production of a video documentary on the Freedmen's Colony by the North Carolina Language and Life Project at NC State to be completed by February 2006. It will also include audio clips from a series of oral history and sociolinguistic interviews conducted under a NSF Behavioral and Cognitive Research Program grant scheduled to end February 28, 2006. The collaborative exhibit, which will combine the results of our research and the documentary production with representative images and artifacts from the archives of the Outer Banks History Center, will run from May 2006 through November 2006, at which time it will become part of a permanent exhibit at a community-based location commemorating the Freedmen's Colony of Roanoke Island.

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