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What is the purpose of The Changing Language of Chatham County Project?

The Language and Life Project and NC State’s linguistic program have partnered with the Chatham County Historical Association to record two important realities in Chatham County:

  1. The changing sounds of the language in Chatham County
  2. The oral histories of life-long residents

Where is Chatham County?

Chatham County is right in the middle of the state, making up the east corner of the Research Triangle in North Carolina’s Piedmont region.

What is an oral history and why is it important in Chatham County?

An oral history collects and preserves information about a person, community, or historical event through audio and video recordings and transcripts. Through eyewitness accounts, these collections can offer a fuller and richer glimpse into the past. These records breathe life into stories that could have otherwise faded away.

The Voices of Chatham collection consists of excerpts from interviews that NC State researchers conducted with Chatham County residents. These snippets feature the interviewee’s impactful and memorable stories, highlighting themes of change, recalling school days, and speaking to Chatham County’s close relationship with its agricultural foundation.

In this oral history, you will hear stories about the construction of the highway, the transformation of the farming community, school integration, the role of Church in day-to-day life, the influx of people into Chatham County, and other topics.

Why are you studying Chatham County?

Chatham County has experienced major economic shifts in the past century as it has transformed from a largely farming and factory based economy to a commuter county. This makes Chatham County perfect for a linguistic study on how community change affects its language!

By carefully examining interviews collected across generations of residents, language researchers can reveal hidden linguistic phenomena like how we pronounce things, which words we use, which pronunciations we avoid, and other subtle changes that may have social causes.

How is this information being gathered?

Beginning in the summer of 2019, the project team has been recording interviews with life-long residents of Chatham County. The recording equipment helps accurately capture seemingly small differences in how words are pronounced between groups of people over time.

Additionally, the interview questions attempt to elicit the stories of Chatham County residents. Interviewees are asked about their childhood, families, past times, work life, and memories of Chatham County.

Who is being interviewed?

Any person who is at least 16 years old and has lived in Chatham Country for at least three quarters of their life is eligible to be interviewed. From young adults to great grandparents, every person’s story reveals something significant about life in Chatham County.

What are you going to do with the interviews?

In an effort to create an oral history exhibit of Chatham County, our team will present stories from the interviews through this website. People can browse through the varied and rich history of Chatham County, its residents, and its languages. These stories will provide future generations with perspectives from the past and help newcomers understand the beautiful and varied life of Chatham County.

The interviews will also be used by our linguists who will analyze the sometimes subtle differences in pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary. Language change can often reflect social change within a community, creating a linguistic map of an evolving landscape. These analyses will also inform language researchers about how language changes in different kinds of communities.

How is the language in Chatham County changing?

That’s what we are investigating! Events like economic, political, or social shifts can affect how people speak. For example,, as a result of an influx of newcomers into certain rural areas, researchers have found small shifts in how vowels are pronounced in certain words or linguistic environments. This might seem unimportant, but over time, these small differences amount to big changes. For instance, where a grandparent might pronounce “time” as “tahm”, their grandchild might say it more like “taim”. Recording these changes not only helps researchers learn more about how language changes, but also informs us as to social reasons of why these changes are taking place.