The two language veterans chat about vowel change
Sociolinguistics combines many disciplines
Language is more than just words
Understanding language is a key component in community building
How I got into
what I got out of it ....
Noted sociolinguist William Labov of the University of Pennsylvania shares this personal reflection: “The following is an essay I first wrote for a 1987 publication addressed to undergraduates, which contained various answers to the question, “How did you get into your chosen field of work?” I recently revised it to answer the same question that I got in email messages from undergraduates in different parts of the world.” -- W.L, October 1, 1997
When I first went to college (it was in 1944, while the war was still on), I spent a fair amount of time trying to figure out what I wanted to do, and even more time trying to guess if I could do it. Some people say I’m a quick study, but it took me a good fifteen years to work up the answers. If you are in your sophomore year and don’t have your own solutions yet, I’d encourage you to reflect that it doesn’t always pay to be too fast in replying to important problems. The kids who sit at their desks with their hands in the air often don’t know what the question is all about.
“What is success?” That’s one of the questions that I asked people in the first linguistic interviews I put together. One man told me that it’s figuring out what you want to do, and then getting someone to pay you to do it. Another man said it’s making use of everything that ever happened to you. I like both ways of defining it, but I usually look at it another way: if you get to be 70 years old, and you can look back without feeling that you've wasted your time, you’ve been successful. Reflecting on how I got into the field of linguistics, and what I’ve been doing since, I seem to have been following all three ideas the same time, so they may turn out to be the same idea after all.
I pronounce all my final r’s without thinking about it…
About this time, I must have seen Leslie Howard as Henry Higgins in the film version of Pymalion. I remember him leaning against a stone column and writing down every sound coming out of the mouth of Eliza Doolittle. I thought that was amazing: how could he do it? Now I know that he was only writing down a few of the sounds that interested him. It was a lot easier for me twenty years later, when I was doing field work in Battersea Park and Chelsea, London, because I had a tape recorder at my side instead of a pencil in my hand. Henry Higgins was explicitly modelled on Henry Sweet, the great English phonetician, whom I have since come to admire intensely: some of my own findings about the general principles of language change are a modern version of what Sweet suggested in 1888.
I never thought of becoming a linguist in my four years at Harvard, where I majored in English and philosophy and spent most of my time talking. But I remember a conference with my freshman advisor, John Wild, a philosopher with a strong leaning towards the Middle Ages. When he learned that I was taking one course in chemistry (inorganic), he sucked on his pipe, smoothed out his cord trousers, and said, "Just where did you get this idolatry of science?"
I've thought about that quite a bit since. Wild was perfectly right. I did have an idolatry of science then, and I never lost it since. But how did he know that when I didn't even know it myself?
After I got out of college, I had an idea that I wanted to write, like many other people who don’t know what they want to do. I lost several jobs in rapid succession: writing blurbs for Alfred Knopf, writing boiler plate for Drug Trade News, writing down what people said for market surveys. But after a few years I wound up in something more practical, using my little knowledge of chemistry in the laboratory of a small company. I was an inkmaker. I specialized in formulating inks for silk-screen printing: on cardboards, on T-shirts, on bottles, on printed circuit boards. I really liked it. I was a good color matcher; I had a feel for how to do research; and I liked the men who made the ink. We ate lunch together, we argued about how long it took to get from New York to Miami, and everything else under the sun. Working with pressmen and mill hands and truck drivers every day, I learned that there were a lot of people in the world who know what they were doing, but that salesmen earned most of the money.
I picked up from industrial work a firm belief in the existence of the real world
In 1961, I left the world of printing ink and re-entered the world of the university. I had found that small business was interesting and entertaining, but also agonizing and restricting. There are economic constraints that keep you from using all of your knowledge, and making the best ink you can; if you want to have an advantage over the competition, you can’t very well generalize your knowledge and publish it.
When I decided to return to the university, I had in mind some research on the English language. From what I learned about the small, new field of linguistics, it seemed to be an exciting one, consisting mostly of young people with strong opinions who spent most of their time arguing with each other. When I found that they were also drawing most of their data out of their heads, I thought that I could do better. I would make good capital of the resources I had gained in industry. I would develop an empirical linguistics, based on what people actually say, and tested by the experimental techniques of the laboratory. I didn’t realize it then, but I was also bringing to linguistics two other resources that were missing in the university: the belief that working class people have a lot to say, and that there is such a thing as being right or being wrong.
The small, new field of linguistics seemed to be an exciting one, consisting mostly of young people who spent time arguing with each other...
There were (and still are) two major branches of linguistics. One deals with the description of languages as they are now; the other deals with their history, how they came to be. On both sides, I saw that there were some big problems to be solved if linguistics were to make contact with what people said. Linguists wanted to describe languages, like English or French, but their methods only brought them in contact with a few individuals, mostly highly educated. Whenever someone raised a question about the data, they would answer, “I'm talking about my dialect.” The current theories held that every individual had a different system, and they weren't making much progress in describing the English language and the speech community that owned it. Even more mysterious was the problem of accounting for language change. If language is a system for transmitting information from one person to another, it would work best if it stayed put. How do people manage to understand each other if the language keeps changing under their feet?
My first research was on the little island of Martha’s Vineyard off Cape Cod. My friend Murray Lerner, the film maker, invited me up there. There I noticed a peculiar way of pronouncing the words right, ice, sight, with the vowel in the middle of the mouth, that was stronger among young people, but varied a great deal by occupation, by island locale, or by the speaker's background--Yankee, Portuguese, or Indian. I interviewed people all over the Vineyard, and among them I found some of the finest users of the English language I had ever known.
As I finally figured out, the Martha’s Vineyard sound change was serving as a symbolic claim to local rights and privileges, and the more someone tried to exercise that claim, the stronger was the change. This became my M.A. essay, and I gave it as a paper before the Linguistic Society of America. In those days, there was only a single session, and you practically addressed the entire profession when you advanced to the podium. I had imagined a long and bitter struggle for my ideas, where I would push the social conditioning of language against hopeless odds, and finally win belated recognition as my hair was turning gray. But my romantic imagination was cut short. They ate it up!
My dissertation was a survey of the class differences in the dialect of New York City, where I introduced a batch of new techniques of interviewing, quantitative techniques for measuring change, and field experiments to pin down just which sounds triggered the linguistic self-hatred of New Yorkers. Since then, these techniques have been used to study several hundred other cities throughout the world. We’ve introduced the use of acoustic phonetics into the study of everyday language, and linguistics has begun to make the slow move from a qualitative to a quantitative science. The variation across individuals, and across time, that seemed so chaotic and so puzzling, was beginning to take on a systematic shape that could be described mathematically.
Did the dialect spoken by black children in Harlem have anything to do with the failure of the schools to teach them to read?
In 1970, I moved from Columbia to Penn, mostly because the Philadelphia dialect offers an ideal laboratory for the study of changes in sounds: two thirds of the Philadelphia vowels are involved in a complex game of musical chairs.
We work with one foot in the university, and one in the community
If this empirical approach were the dominant way of doing linguistics and linguistic theory, I would certainly have lost sight of the academic adventure that once inspired me. Fortunately, this is not the case. Linguists are still basking in their own ideas, still finding the answers by asking themselves questions, and most of them are frightened by any number larger than six. But the general impression in the field is that if you want to study how people actually use the language, and if you want to measure what you are studying, you should come to Penn and work with Sankoff, Kroch, Prince and Labov. We have a growing number of students who are afraid neither of people nor of mathematical symbols. The technology becomes more exciting all the time. We’ve derived equations that give some insight into why language keeps changing, and who changes it. And it’s turning out that our knowledge of dialect diversity has important applications for automatic speech recognition. If a computer is going to understand how human beings speak, it has to understand Chicago speech as well as New York speech. And we’ve now succeeded in mapping these sound changes through Telsur, the telephone survey that has produced the Phonological Atlas of North America.
All of this technology could easily carry us away from the human issues involved in the use of language. From my point of view, that might win the game but lose the match. I spend a great deal of my time in the laboratory, at the office, or in class. But the work that I really want to do, the excitement and adventure of the field, comes in meeting the speakers of the language face to face, entering their homes, hanging out on corners, porches, taverns, pubs and bars. I remember one time a fourteen-year-old in Albuquerque said to me, “Let me get this straight. Your job is going anywhere in the world, talking to anybody about anything you want?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “I want that job!”
The home languages of blacks and whites are growing more and more different from each other
This year the renewed controversy about African American English surfaced in the “Ebonics” controversy. When all the furor died down, it become clear that the African American community of Oakland has finally decided, as a whole, that it is time to stop blaming children for the failure of the schools, and time to improve our methods of teaching reading by using our knowledge of the language that children actually speak.
After thirty years of effort, there is now a distinct possibility that the knowledge we have gained can be put to work, and here at Penn we are once again putting our shoulders to the wheel.
The moment I heard the recordings I was sure that he was innocent
All of the work and all of the theory that I had developed since Martha’s Vineyard flowed into the testimony that I gave in court to establish the fact that Paul Prinzivalli did not and could not have made those telephone calls. It was almost as if my entire career had been shaped to make the most effective testimony on this one case. The next day, the judge asked the prosecuting attorney if he really wanted to continue. He refused to hear further statements from the defense. He found the defendant not guilty on the basis of the linguistic evidence, which he found “objective” and “powerful.”
Afterwards, Prinzivalli sent me a card saying that he had spent fifteen months in jail waiting for someone to separate fact from fiction. I have had many scientific results where the convergence of evidence was so strong that I felt that I had laid my hands on the reality behind the surface, but nothing could be more satisfactory for any scientific career than to separate fact from fiction in this case. By means of linguistic evidence, one man could be freed from the corporate enemies who had assailed him, and another could sleep soundly on the conviction that he had made a just decision.
— William Labov
William and Flora Hewlett
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