Years ago, at the end of a dialectology conference in Victoria, British Columbia, Labov offered his friend and colleague Dennis Preston a ride to the airport. On the way there Labov got a bit distracted.

“He said, ‘Dennis, did you know that in African-American English you can say nasty to refer to the way things taste? Isn’t that an amazing fact?’”

In his Louisville lilt Preston informed him that it was a Southern expression. In the South, he said, “I guarantee you that white people and black people alike think something tastes nasty.”

“Bill loves to get that kind of information,” recalls Preston, now a linguistics professor at Michigan State University. “He said, ‘What do you mean, “all Southerners can say that?!”’ I almost missed my plane because we got so engrossed in talking about specialized lexical items for different groups that he overshot the airport by several miles.”

Walt Wolfram, a sociolinguist at North Carolina State University who studies “endangered dialects” such as Outer Banks English, laughs knowingly when he hears this story. “The thing about Bill is he’s totally obsessed with his current research thoughts. For example, a cab ride with Bill is like a classroom lecture. At times his wife, Gillian (Sankoff, a professor of linguistics at Penn) will even say to him, ‘OK now, Bill. We’re socializing.’ You take it as a token of his sort of immersion in and enthusiasm for what he does.”

The teasing by Labov’s colleagues comes with a heaping helping of admiration.

“Bill Labov is the indisputable architect of contemporary sociolinguistics,” Wolfram says. “Furthermore, a half-century after its inception, he remains its more foremost researcher. I can’t imagine any scholar having a more significant and sustained impact on any field of social-science inquiry than Labov has had on sociolinguistics and dialectology. He is without peer—it is that simple.”

Preston says Labov’s belief in the value of dialect studies has helped to bring the field of dialectology out of its “doldrums.” The new atlas “employs the kind of techniques in collecting data that you would typically use in sociolinguistics, but it answers such enormous old-fashioned questions as: how many dialect areas are there in the United States and where does one thing stop and another begin? By doing that he lent some respectability to the field.”

“He really is one of the most influential people in higher education in the 21st century,” adds Guy Bailey, a linguistics professor and the chancellor of the University of Missouri-Kansas City who considers a conversation he had with Labov when he was a young doctoral student as the turning point of his career. “The thing that amazes me is that most of us reach a point where we kind of slow down, if not in the amount of work we do, at least in creativity,” Bailey adds. “But even as Bill moved into his seventies, he was a step ahead of everybody. He has not slowed down, and he’s still running faster than the rest of us.”

Before he cultivated an obsession with glides and diphthongs, Labov worked as an ink maker. “The first thing you learn [in that business] is that there is an objective world out there which quickly proves if you’re wrong or right,” he says. “So if you spray a panel with enamel and come back six months later and discover it’s all cracked up, you know you did something wrong.”

When he returned to graduate school to study the new field of linguistics, Labov applied a similar set of principles. “I began with the notion that you can build a science of linguistics based on the data we have all around us, the way people talk in real life rather than based upon our intuitions or feelings about language or what we read in books.”

One issue that concerned him was that “people don’t always say the same thing in the same way they think they do. When you actually record their speech you need much more sophisticated tools of analysis” than had been previously used.

For his dissertation at Columbia, Labov researched class differences in the dialect of New York City and developed new interviewing techniques as well as quantitative ways to measure sound change. (In one of the studies, by asking employees of Macy’s, Saks, and Kleins for directions to the shoe department, he found that r-pronunciation varied according to age, social class, and style of speech—careful or casual.)

He next turned his attention to the youth gangs of South Central Harlem in a major study of African American Vernacular English, a dialect spoken by many African Americans across the United States. Labov asserted that this dialect contains as much complexity as Standard English, but is devalued as part of the institutionalized racism of American society [“Cool Bill,” December 1973]. “The people of Harlem back in the 1960s that we dealt with taught us a lot about African-American English, but we didn’t help them that much,” says Labov. As he later learned, most of the subjects “would be sent up to prison, shot, or dead.”

He came to Penn in 1970, finding Philadelphia a strategic site for research because “two-thirds of the vowels were changing” here. “So we did a big study in Philadelphia, where we asked who is responsible for language change, and since then we’ve had many other projects, which culminated in the study of the whole continent.”

According to Labov, the leader of language change tends to be a “high-prestige local person”—most often a woman—who has many interactions with neighbors as well as connections outside the neighborhood. A block captain, perhaps.

Television and the radio don’t carry much influence—at least not at the level of sound change. “People seem to be influenced almost entirely by whom they speak with face to face,” he says. African Americans, for example, “don’t participate in any of the sound changes and they’re exposed to the same radio and television as everybody else.” Due to residential segregation in the big cities, “African Americans don’t deal face to face with speakers of other dialects” in a meaningful way.

“The mysterious thing is that most of the changes we’re talking about are quite unconscious,” he says. For example, the Northern Cities Shift is “absolutely invisible and inaudible to the people who are doing it.”

Another issue that intrigues Labov is why sound changes seem to travel from one city to the next largest city. “Is it the salesmen and wholesalers who come out from the big cities to the small cities?” he wonders. “Or is it the people from the small cities who come out to the big cities to see the ball game and go shopping?

“But the biggest mystery of all in our studies of transmission is this: Language change is a process that occurs over many generations, where the children learn to speak from the parents and then to speak differently from their parents—and in every generation they learn to speak differently in the same direction,” Labov says. “How this happens we don’t know … yet somehow, after a decade goes by, they are pushing the language change further.”

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©2006 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 05/08/06

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FEATURE: Continental Drift
By Susan Frith