Hildebrandt, LaFond study Southwestern Illinois dialects

There are very few studies conducted in Southwestern Illinois when it comes to dialects. Professors at SIUE are changing that. Kristine Hildebrandt, assistant professor of English language and literature, and Larry LaFond, associate dean of SIUE’s College of Arts and Sciences and associate professor of English language and literature, are tackling the dialects with the help of undergraduate and graduate students.

“As a linguist who does documentation and description, most of my core work is done overseas, working with endangered languages,” said Hildebrandt. “When I started working at SIUE, it became apparent pretty quickly that this is a part of the country that doesn’t have much done in terms of the dialect patterns.”

The study stemmed from conversations that Hildebrandt had with LaFond. LaFond had considered doing this study previously, and began the foundational work with past SIUE students working in the Undergraduate Research Academy, which is part of the Undergraduate Research and Creative Programs Activities Program.

“I teamed up with Dr. LaFond, and we just decided, ‘Look. This would be a great pilot study to start looking at this region in particular,” said Hildebrandt.

The initial target for the study was the St. Louis Metro-East region, but they decided to expand the project. The Illinois counties that are now included in the study are Bond, Clinton, Jersey, Macoupin, Madison, and St. Claire.

“We weren’t really clear where the Metro-East began and ended. So we just decided to go with six counties we felt were really represented at SIUE,” said Hildebrandt.

Hildebrandt said the study will hopefully lay foundational work for future studies in the regions surrounding SIUE.

“Based on the findings we get, there are a couple of directions we could take this project further. One would be to go for more breadth, to start looking further into Illinois proper or to cross the river and do more Missouri/Illinois comparison,” said Hildebrandt. “Another way to look at it would be to go for more depth. One of my pet interests is a look at Black English.”

Black English is defined by Dictionary.com as “a dialect of American English characterized by pronunciations, syntactic structures, and vocabulary associated with and used by some North American blacks and exhibiting a wide variety and range of forms varying in the extent to which they differ from standard English.”

“One of the things we are hoping to get out of the pilot study is a beginning picture of what Black English in this part of the state sounds like and compare that, perhaps, with Black English that you would hear in New York, or in Atlanta, or even in Chicago.”

Hildebrandt stated that studies often look at age comparison as a method to understand what can cause variations and changes in dialects.

“There are these hypotheses [in dialectology] that perhaps certain groups push dialects changes faster than others, like women may be at the forefront of dialect change, or younger populations might be at the forefront,” stated Hildebrandt.

Hildebrandt’s study is focusing on the vocabulary people choose when they speak about certain topics. One example she uses is the ‘coke’ versus ‘soda’ versus ‘pop’ debate. The study also looks at syntax, or looking at the grammatical structures that people use. Vocabulary and syntax mainly fall under LaFond’s area of expertise, while Hildebrandt’s interest is on pronunciation.

“There is the whole ‘wash’ versus ‘warsh’ that really permeates people. I notice people saying ‘Warshington, D.C.’ instead of ‘Washington, D.C.,’” said Hildebrandt. “So, it’s not just the word ‘wash.’ It’s that particular context.”

Jill Rafalowski, a second semester master’s student studying teaching of English as a second language (MA-TESL) is working with Hildebrandt on this study. Rafalowski found this pronunciation difference to be more prevalent in the region than she believed.

“Since I’m from Belleville, which is included in the area we’re studying, I find it very interesting when we interview informants who are also from Belleville,” said Rafalowski. “I’ve come to realize that the pronunciation of the word ‘wash’ as ‘warsh’ is actually more widespread that I had originally believed.”

Hildebrandt has found many of the people interviewed are very curious about the dialect differences in the region. She hopes to present the information obtained from the study at SIUE after it concludes. She hopes the study will show several dimensions in the study, showing where there are divides in the dialects.

“I think we might find a bit of an urban-rural split. I think that if we have enough African-American people participate, we will see a race split. Their language heritage is very different,” said Hildebrandt. “A lot of Caucasian people here are going to come from Germanic heritage. And, there are still some older speakers here who say ‘zink’ for a kitchen ‘sink.’ And we probably won’t find that within African-American speech.”

Hildebrandt also hopes the study will be broad enough to show gender, degree of formal education, and socio-economic differences, as well as differences in counties. The study will not only yield the results that Hildebrandt is hoping for. It also gives opportunities for SIUE students to put their education to work as they learn it in the classroom.

“Dr. Hildebrant has made me realize all the opportunities that lie within the field of linguistics,” said Rafalowski. “Working with her on the dialects project has shown me how ‘alive’ the field of linguistics is–not only are their research opportunities abroad, there are research opportunities available in my own back yard.”

The study, “Illinois Dialects,” is available on the web. Jesse Pennington a recent graduate from SIUE’s master’s in mass communications program, designed the webpage. The survey and other data about the study are available on the website as well.

“I’m excited to have been a part of this research project. The WordPress technology utilized to create the site allows faculty to easily manage and update their site while staying connected to their participants and academic peers,” said Pennington. “They’ll be able to survey an unlimited amount of participants and use simple backend technology to aggregate the data through the WordPress interface. The full site and survey are also accessible on iPhones, DROIDs, etc. This is truly an example of academic research built for the 21st century.”

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