Labov bounds into the classroom wearing sneakers, a leather jacket, and jeans fraying slightly near one ankle. He’s 78, and though the lines on his face shows his age, his energetic manner belies it. (He can run a respectable three to five miles at a slow clip.)

The students in his Social Linguistics of Reading class are sitting around a table in the linguistics lab overlooking 35th and Market streets. Just a few blocks away stands the Drew School, where the students tutor second- and third-graders each week.

Posters on the walls chart the young readers’ progress, noting “trouble spots” such as “still struggles with silent e at times.” But as Labov makes clear, the tutoring sessions are only part of the story.

“We’re all faced with a difficult situation,” he says, perched at the edge of his chair and peering at his students. “A lot of our kids are being thrown out of school for fighting … The first thing we have to think about is why kids are getting into so much trouble. What alienates them from school?”

Labov mentions a recent conference on endangered dialects where he gave a talk titled “Unendangered Dialect, Endangered People.” As residential segregation increases in American cities, he says, African American Vernacular English has diverged from other dialects, and that divergence correlates with a host of social, economic, and educational problems. According to Labov, students’ use of AAVE leads teachers to predict behavioral problems and reading failure. “By continually telling children that they are not speaking English, teachers may alienate children from engagement in learning to read,” he adds. Inadequate instruction, combined with under-funded schools, means that “a majority of children in inner-city schools are failing to learn to read, with a developing cycle of poverty, crime, and shorter life-span.”

Labov tells the story of a girl who came to school wearing a necklace with two photographs—a little boy on each side. When the tutor asked who was in the photos, the girl replied, “My two brothers, who were shot to death last year.”

“This,” he says, “is not uncommon.”

With students’ input he has spent the past 10 years developing a reading program that he hopes to spread around the country. It has already been used in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Chester, Pennsylvania.

“We use linguistics to find out what children know about the alphabet; we use our knowledge of African-American English to attack the problems that are particularly difficult for the kids involved; and we use our knowledge of kids to know what they’re really interested in,” Labov says. The reading materials he’s developed are full of wizards and monsters as well as plotlines that reflect real-life conflicts. When a Penn tutor pointed out that the students they worked with hated tests, Labov transformed a word test into the Tower Game: “Every time they read a word, they get a chance to pull a domino off the stack in front of the tutor and build their own tower. So when the tutor doesn’t have any left, they win.”

The program has had some success. In the 2003-04 school year, participants’ scores on Word Attack standardized tests, which are designed to measure the ability to analyze unfamiliar words, rose from the 21st to the 30th percentile. Early results from this year’s testing are promising, says Labov.

“But the major thing we’ve done is to teach a lot of kids who say, ‘I hate to read, I refuse to read’ … to turn them around to the point where they actually like what they’re doing.”


With a voice as elastic as Jim Carrey’s face, Labov can summon a dialect like old Charleston’s faded “It wouldn’t be fayuh to go theyah” in a heartbeat. But he can’t necessarily guess your hometown. And forget about telling which neighborhood you live in.

“The notion that you can tell what block a person is from—that comes from Henry Higgins and is a myth,” says Labov, whose own Rutherford, New Jersey, accent often leads him to be mistaken for a New Yorker. “If a working-class New Yorker comes from the Bronx or Brooklyn, there’s no way I’d be able to tell that. There are those dialects I know well, like New York and Philadelphia and Chicago, but I could not place someone from Chicago as opposed to Rochester.”

His linguistic acumen has had some remarkably liberating effects, however.

Some years ago, a man named Paul Prinzivalli was accused of phoning in bomb threats to an airline at the Los Angeles airport. The airline executives fingered him for the crime, claiming the voice on the tape sounded like his. But the accused came from New York City, and to Labov, the accent on tape was obviously Bostonian.

“I was able to show by acoustic measurements and experiments of various kinds that it was actually impossible for Paul Prinzivalli to have made that recording.” Labov recalls. “The judge said, ‘I find this man innocent on the basis of the linguistic testimony, because it’s the most objective testimony I’ve heard in years.’ So it was quite a compliment.”

 Though their own freedom may not depend upon it, New Yorkers tend to be the most self-conscious about their speech, closely followed by Southerners, Labov says. Wherever they are from, most people were eager to talk to the interviewers who worked on the North American atlas.

It also appears that most people are equally fascinated with the way that others talk: Labov has been asked to convert his atlas into a book for a popular audience.

Though its major features have been mapped, Labov continues to explore the linguistic landscape. He cites a number of regional studies growing out of questions raised by the atlas. “The United States as a whole is a puzzle,” he says, “and we’re still putting the pieces together.”

For a demonstration of how the atlas works, see the publisher’s website,

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

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FEATURE: Continental Drift
By Susan Frith