Natalie Schilling, Associate Professor of Linguistics at Georgetown University and Member-at-Large of the LSA Executive Committee, participated in mid-September in a Documentary Filmmakers’ Retreat hosted by the National Academy of Sciences as part of their Science and Entertainment Exchange program. This invitation-only event, sponsored by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, brought together 15 expert scientists and engineers from across the U.S. and 15 top-level documentary filmmakers in an effort to inspire documentarians to include more science, and a wider range of scientific fields, in their films. Presentations, thought exercises, and conversational exchanges took place over the course of two-plus days of energizing interactions in the idyllic setting of the J. Erik Jonsson Center in Woods Hole, Massachusetts (photo at right).

Natalie was the only linguist in the group of scientists in fields ranging from geology, chemistry, physics, molecular biology, parasitology, neuroscience, bioethics, space systems engineering, virtual reality, communication, marine conservation, rhinoceros preservation, and traffic engineering. Projects of the attending documentarians included films on issues in gender and ethnicity, the interrelation of humans and wild animals, wrongful convictions, nature conservation, and the controversies surrounding GMOs.

Natalie’s presentation was titled ‘The case of the mystery dialect: Applying linguistic science to criminal investigation’. The presentation was positively received, and scientists and documentary filmmakers alike left with new knowledge about linguistics and dialectology, and how the regular patterning of dialect variation can enhance our understandings and make positive real-world differences. In turn, Natalie returned home with renewed inspiration for continuing efforts to bring linguistics to general audiences in engaging and meaningful ways.

Natalie looks forward to future collaborations with the National Academy of Sciences Science and Entertainment Exchange, to possible consulting work on documentaries involving linguistic science, and to otherwise continuing to help spread knowledge about and understanding of linguistics to other scientists and to audiences beyond academia. She also hopes that next time she’s in Woods Hole (harbor photo at left), she can hop on the ferry to Martha’s Vineyard, where modern sociolinguistic study began (Labov 1963).



Presentation Details

‘The case of the mystery dialect’ involves a 13-year-old girl who went missing 20-plus years ago, the recent appearance of a woman claiming to be the long-lost child, and mysterious mismatches between the woman’s story and her dialect. The missing child spent most of her formative dialect years in Upstate New York, in the Inland North dialect region, characterized by a sweeping vowel system change, the Northern Cities Vowel Shift. In contrast, the mystery woman has a dialect characterized by the presence of some the most advanced features of a very different vowel system change, the Southern Vowel Shift (Labov, Ash, and Boberg 2006). The advanced version of the shift is associated chiefly with the Inland South, or Mountain South, a Southern sub-dialect encompassing Eastern Tennessee, Western North Carolina, Northern Georgia, Western South Carolina, and Northeastern Alabama.

At the same time the mystery woman uses features of Mountain Southern speech, or Appalachian English, she almost completely lacks THE defining feature of Southern American English, the monopthongization of /ay/ in words like ‘tahm’ for ‘time’ or ‘rahd’ for ‘ride’. Instead, her /ay/ vowels are diphthongal, and they are sometimes pronounced more like /oy/, as in something like ‘moind’ for ‘mind’. The production of /ay/ with a backed, sometimes raised, nucleus is part of the Southern Vowel Shift as manifested in English varieties in other countries, for example Australia and New Zealand. And interestingly enough, it’s also found in pockets of Southern U.S. coastal speech, including some of the dialects Natalie has studied most closely, for example the ‘hoi toider’ (‘high tider’) dialect of Ocracoke Islanders in the North Carolina Outer Banks, and Smith Island English, in Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay (e.g. Schilling-Estes and Wolfram 1999).

The case remains a mystery to this day. Natalie and her team of graduate student assistants at Georgetown University were not able to pinpoint the exact regional origins of the mystery dialect. However, they were able to answer what is probably a more important question. They provided the cold case detective with a forensic linguistic report indicating that the dialect features of the mystery woman are NOT consistent with those of someone whose early dialect acquisition took place in Upstate New York. Nor could her unusual version of the Southern dialect have been acquired in all its subtlety after age 13, when the girl went missing. In addition, they were able to demonstrate to police investigators that dialect variation is intricately patterning and that knowledge of these patterns can have important applications beyond academia. (Thanks to Kirk Hazen, Bill Kretzschmar, Bill Labov, Erik Thomas, and Walt Wolfram for their input into this forensic linguistic case.)

Photo Album and Notes

The rewards of public outreach! (right)

Natalie is first and foremost a dialect tourist: She didn’t believe them when they said that traffic circles were called ‘rotaries’ in New England; now she has proof! (left)





For some motivations and practical considerations behind documentaries as part of sociolinguistic research and dissemination of findings, see Walt Wolfram's short video vignette.