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MLK Colloquium: Walt Wolfram (NC State)

Friday, January 23, 2015
12:00 AM
Ross Business School, room R2240

"The Moral Obligation of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr's Legacy"

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s eminent status as an inspiring orator is one of his enduring legacies, and his use of rhetorical strategies in constructing his speeches has been illustrated in countless public re-broadcasts. His speeches to different audiences are also often cited as a model of different styles of presentation and performance, and they have now been subjected to a myriad of analyses and interpretations from a wide range of academic and sociopolitical perspectives. At the same time, there are surprisingly few detailed sociolinguistic analyses of how he utilized particular features from his ethnolinguistic repertoire and the stances he represented through his manipulation of specific linguistic variables.

This presentation examines several socially marked features of Dr. King’s speech in three different settings: (1) his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, read to an international audience in Oslo, Norway; in 1964; (2) his last public speech given to a predominantly African American audience to the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968, and (3) a one-on-one television interview with host Merv Griffin during a talk show in New York City in 1967. We consider his relative use of the -ing/in variants in swimmin’ vs. swimming, his postvocalic –r lessness in fou’ for four, and the regional and ethnic dimensions of his vowel system in these three diverse contexts. The results indicate that Dr. King showed both stability and flexibility in his use of these variables, consistently indexing his regional and ethnic status as a Southern African American at the same time that he accommodated different audiences and interactions on other social axes.

But there also is a deeper symbolic social meaning in Dr. King’s language variation and his dialect stance. His language performance and interaction embraced cultural tradition and transcended linguistic diversity, modeling linguistic equality in action. Nonetheless, more than a half-century after his Nobel Prize award, linguistic inequality remains “the last back door to discrimination” according to Rosina Lippi-Green (2012:73). In fact, well-intended academic professionals and university programs often reproduce and enable linguistic subordination rather than challenging it. As universities and public institutions grow diversity programs and initiatives, they continue to exclude or erase language from the diversity canon. I argue that King’s dictum “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” applies to linguistic inequality, and demonstrate by example how a sociolinguistic justice program can be implemented in a university, in a community, and in public education. 

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