California is often portrayed as a sunny land of liberalism, urbanity, and opulence, but much of the state is conservative, rural, and poor. There is a strong "country" ethos in California's rural communities that has been bolstered by the in-migration of Southern and Midwestern ranchers, farmers, and timber-fallers during the Gold Rush, Great Depression, and post-WWII timber boom. These laborers also introduced dialect features to rural California that conflict with the state's (inter)national image. Since language variation is one tool people use to express and embody ideology, the dialect of California's coastal cities is heard as iconic of urban ease and fun, while these Southern and Midwestern features evoke all things "country".

The continuing marginalization of rural California (and rural communities everywhere) seems to elevate rural-urban differences in ideology and speech into a highly charged, supralocal opposition; city and country people compete to shape California and the country according to their own "authentically American" values. Thus, under the direction of Drs. Penelope Eckert and John Rickford, Katherine Geenberg's dissertation aims to study how "country" dialect features are used stylistically in one rural Northern California community: Trinity County. Studying not only who uses these country features, but how and when people use them, will provide a window into the relation between language, lifestyle, and ideology. The analysis also aims to uncover how local social divisions connect to larger, national divisions.

Geenberg will live in Trinity County for three months to complete an ethnography, including 60-100 interviews with a diverse sample of local residents. The dissertation will create a publicly-available corpus of interviews with rural, white and Native American Californians, which will fill a need for cataloguing dialects in the West. But Geenberg also hopes these data will raise awareness about the marginalization of American rurality, and help her and others better understand how people's politics arise from everyday experiences.

Project Report

Rural towns have often been understudied in sociolinguistics, especially in California. My dissertation shows that this lacuna affects our understandings of sociolinguistic theory and the progress of social and linguistic change. Despite popular perceptions of California, Country talk and Country lifestyles are alive and well in Trinity County today. This observation reflects both the area's immigrant history--e.g., the influx of Southern and Midwestern laborers during the Dust Bowl--and its contemporary social milieu. More specifically, the ideological oppositions between residents of Trinity County's two main towns, the Hayforkians and the Weavervillians, as well as between Trinity County’s "Hillbillies" and the state’s urban residents, are driven by socioeconomic disparities. So the fact that Hayforkians and Weavervillians speak differently from each other, and that Trinitarians’ sociolinguistic practices diverge from those of California’s urban, coastal residents, demonstrates that economic and political inequities shape patterns of language variation (and, perhaps, patterns of language change). This point has been underemphasized in recent sociolinguistic studies, and will hopefully garner more attention again in the future. Furthermore, the data discussed in Chapter 4 of my dissertation, "What it means to be NorCal Country: Variation and Marginalization in Rural California," can be interpreted to reflect the competition between recent California speech innovations and Southern-derived or associated speech features. Young people, women, White people and Weavervillians appear to talk more like urban Californians. However, "outdoorsy" Trinitarians and white, less educated use more Southern dialect features. This point is important because most theories of dialect diffusion posit that urban innovations spread, rather straightforwardly, from city centers to less populated areas. For many linguists, small towns are still not considered sites of innovation unto themselves, but rather as destinations for the spread of urban progress, no matter how slow that progress may be. But of course, rural speakers do have sufficient socioeconomic impetus to walk, talk, and dress differently from their urban counterparts. And this is what my data show: Trinity County "Country" is comprised of locally available speech features that actively oppose urban sociolinguistic "progress." So while the dissertation is an ethnographic study of variation in Trinity County, it is more than that, too. It is the first careful phonetic investigation of Country Talk in California. The work also shows the primacy of economic disparities, and ideologies about those disparities, in shaping linguistic practice. Thus, material disparities be taken into account in new theories of language variation and change.

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Stanford University
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