Doctor of dialects

Q&A/After decades of groundbreaking work, linguist William Labov remains at the forefront of his field. His most far-reaching research, a comprehensive atlas of North American English, has just been published.

“In almost every language change, there’s something going on underneath the hood.”

William Labov

Photo credit: Candace di Carlo

Widely regarded as the founder of sociolinguistics, William Labov is not one to rest on his laurels. His new book is the first ever comprehensive guide to North American speech patterns.

William Labov, a Penn professor of linguistics since the early 1970s, recently published the biggest book of his career—the Atlas of North American English, a massive and comprehensive guide to the numerous speech patterns found in the continental United States and Canada.

The book, co-authored with fellow linguists Sharon Ash (associate director of Penn’s linguistics lab) and Charles Boberg, is based on hundreds of telephone interviews with people across the country, includes a companion web site and CD-ROM and took a decade to research and write. Its release figures only to enhance Labov’s already sterling reputation in the discipline that he is largely credited with founding: Sociolinguistics.

“The main purpose of studying language change is getting a mirror of social processes,” Labov says. “Language is a very sensitive reflection of what’s going on in society.”

So what’s going on right now? According to Labov, plenty. Recent research in sociolinguistics proves that quirky local dialects in small cities are dying out, New York City speech patterns are exerting influence as far away as New Orleans and residents of Charleston, S.C. have of late taken to speaking like people in, of all places, Indiana.

Q. Your new book is the first-ever comprehensive guide to America’s dialects. Why hasn’t this been done before?

A. Well, it’s the entire continent actually, because it also includes Canada. That means nothing to you, but to Canada it’s a big deal [laughs]. The first reason, I think, is that it’s a big continent. This is expensive and time consuming. Dialects change so fast that, after 50 years go by, you’re into a new time period. So it all had to be done very quickly, and the telephone survey was the solution to that. ... The study of words has great historical significance but doesn’t raise some of the questions that we’re raising, which are questions about what makes language change. The traditional study of words was really looking to the past, but we’re looking at the present and the future. The traditional approach also concentrated on older, rural dialects. They did cover some cities, but the emphasis was always on older patterns. What we have done is look at, instead of the entire country, only about two-thirds of the country, only looking at people that live in cities of at least 50,000 or more.

Q. How localized can dialects be? Does it get down to the city level? Or maybe even to the suburb level?

A. They can be very local. Here in Norristown, for instance, there’s a very specific word for a sub sandwich or hoagie: “Zep.” But what’s happening is that the really local dialects are disappearing. The main problem you have is that language change is going on really rapidly. … It’s not the case that every little dialect is preserved in this country.

Q. Why is that?

A. Look at Charleston, South Carolina. They had a very unique dialect there. It was unique from the rest of the south. But that’s pretty well disappeared. Instead, Charleston has joined this larger region … they have a very extreme dialect now, but they’re more similar to Columbus, Ohio than the south. ... The reason that a lot of dialects are getting stronger is, where you have cities of a million or more, the dialects are in great shape. But in a city of 10,000, it’s another story.

Q. How does a quintessentially southern city such as Charleston adopt a northern accent—or, as you call it, the midland accent? And what does that tell us about the U.S. as a whole?

A. Charleston residents themselves say their culture is southern but they don’t talk southern. This north/midland rift is the deepest (language) rift in the U.S. This really marks the difference in New England speech and culture and patterns—its north vs. midland. When people say that Charleston is speaking northern, what they’re really saying is they’re talking like Columbus or Indianapolis, who of course do not think of themselves as southern. So really it’s not north vs. south, but rather, it’s north, midland and south. That midland dialect is an important distinction to make, but it’s not really a part of our national consciousness.

Q. So where does Philadelphia fall in all of this? And how about Pittsburgh, where there is a very pronounced local accent?

A. Philadelphia was originally the center of the midland, but it’s developed it’s own patterns, so it’s really no longer part of the midland. … The Western Pennsylvania dialect is probably the result of a very large Slavic migration and Polish migration—the way they saw “downtown” (“don-ton”) and “Get out of the house” (“hoss”)—and they’re very conscious of that. But they have lots of other unique features, too. We found a lot of changes in Pittsburgh that mark it as different. Western Pennsylvania is quite a unique dialect and a dialect that’s been that way a long time.

Q. Speaking of Philadelphia, is there a distinct Northeast Philly accent and a distinct South Philly accent, as some locals claim?

A. In the huge cities, you generally have uniformity. Everyone in Philadelphia is convinced there is a South Philadelphia dialect, and God knows I wouldn’t want to interfere with that belief, but what you really have is a huge ethnic identification between white and black. I should point out [this work] is about white speech, really. Blacks do no participate in this stuff.

Q. That’s quite interesting. How does an entire community—in this case, the black community—remain completely immune to these speech changes?

A. It’s quite profound. Residential segregation is the major reason. This [book] is a map of the development of the main majority of speech patterns, but in every one of these big cities, there’s a gulf—a racial divide. And black speech is pretty uniform across the country, in some mysterious way. If the black community became standard speakers, they would sound like everyone else, but blacks as a rule do not pick up the local white dialects. That’s strikingly true in Philadelphia. … You have kids in the city, in public schools, with a teacher who has an extreme Philadelphia dialect, but it doesn’t take with them. So that’s another aspect of this situation. The biggest gulf is really black vs. white.

Q. Erie, you say, is also a unique case. Tell me about that.

A. Erie in the 1930s and 1940s was strictly northern, but now it’s shifted over and it’s now part of the Western Pennsylvania dialect. That’s very interesting and there are some people working on that now. It’s the only city we know of that has actually changed its status like that. As for why, you obviously think of Pittsburgh residents maybe taking their vacation time there at the beach, but people in Buffalo and Cleveland go there, too. So we don’t have an answer for that.

Q. Just looking at the book, it looks like a huge undertaking—and since it took 10 years to finish, I assume this is a field that requires some patience.

A. No, it doesn’t really take patience, because along the way you’re discovering many new and exciting things and producing lots of new papers and findings based on the atlas research. And for every one of these findings, there’s a new question: How did it happen? What are the effects? There’s a lot of interesting questions. In almost every language change there’s something going on underneath the hood.

Originally published on January 12, 2006