Illustration by Walter Vasconcelos

Sixty-one-year-old Isaac is reminiscing about a “tar far” near his hometown of Winston Salem, North Carolina. The smoke from it was so heavy, he claims, “some congestion I had, it came lewse!”

April, a college student, describes the “dawntawn” of Rochester as “pretty bee-ad” in some areas. That’s why she goes shopping in the suburbs.

Arnold from Arnprior, Ontario, frets over the cost of buying a “hose” in the capital city of Ottawa.

Thanks to William Labov, I can hear their distinctive dialects without leaving my computer.

Labov, the John H. and Margaret B. Fassitt Professor and director of the linguistics laboratory at Penn, has just released The North American Atlas of American English, a book and CD-Rom that take their users on a linguistic journey across the continent. Instead of mapping highways or state parks, the atlas (published by Mouton de Gruyter) defines the boundaries of how people talk and charts sound changes in progress throughout the United States and Canada. The data comes from phone interviews with 762 subjects in dozens of North American cities between 1992 and 1999. Though linguistic atlases have been created before, this one—co-written with Sharon Ash G’74 Gr’82 and Charles Boberg Gr’97—represents the most comprehensive record of the phonology—the actual sounds—of North American speech.

“It’s been a terrific resource for everybody in the field; it’s a formidable piece of scholarship,” says Gregory Guy G’75 Gr’81, a sociolinguist at New York University who, like perhaps half the scholars in his field, studied under Labov. “I look at this and think, ‘How can anybody have the energy to do anything this comprehensive?’”

“There are language changes all around us, and you can see it in our atlas,” Labov says, flipping through its dozens of color-coded maps during a recent visit to the linguistics lab. “The first thing it does is show people that the notion that [regional] dialects are disappearing is wrong, and secondly, that deep divisions in American life are still there, reflected in linguistic patterns.”

Labov points out that there is “no continuum” linking the major regional dialects. “There is the north, there is the midland and the inland south, and there is just an absolutely sharp line between them.”

Even more pronounced than the regional boundaries marked in the atlas, he points out, is the fact that African Americans—and, to some extent, Latinos—living in cities throughout the country are not participating in the sound changes of their regions. “Language is a very sensitive reflector of social reality and what’s happening around us.”

Labov has been teasing apart linguistic patterns for four decades, studying sound change on Martha’s Vineyard, the social stratification of r-pronunciation among New Yorkers, the complexity of African American Vernacular English (AAVE), and how people monitor clues about social class in each other’s speech, to name just a few lines of research. For the past decade he’s been using sociolinguistic principles and an understanding of AAVE to try to raise reading levels among students in inner-city schools.

Crucial to all of the work of his lab, he says, is going beyond its walls and crossing the barriers between the University and the speech community. “When we meet people and sit down and talk with them, the understanding is that we have something to learn from them and we are really interested in what they have to say.

“Like everyone else,” he adds, linguists “are fascinated with language differences because deep down we believe that there is a right way to say something, and if someone has a different way of doing it, why there’s something strange going on.”

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©2006 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 03/08/06

Continental Drift
By Susan Frith

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