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Studying the changes in how we speak

A look at the achievements of linguist William Labov, who is a pioneer in the study of the sociocultural aspects of language.

A harbor in Martha's Vineyard is seen in this undated file photo. In 1961, linguist William Labov noticed something happening with the English spoken on Martha’s Vineyard, especially among young men in traditional occupations such as fishing.

In 1961, linguist William Labov noticed something happening with the English spoken on Martha’s Vineyard. A sound change was in progress: some younger residents were reverting to older, “closed-mouth” ways of pronouncing certain vowels (“seund” and “beut” for “sound” and “bout,” for example). Dr. Labov discovered that the heaviest users of this pronunciation were young men in traditional occupations such as fishing. This new-again pronunciation was one way they unconsciously differentiated themselves linguistically from the tourists who overwhelmed the Vineyard in the summer.

Labov turns 91 Dec. 4. He is a pioneer in the field of sociolinguistics, the study of the sociocultural aspects of language. Much of what strikes us as common sense about the relationships between language and culture actually comes from his work or the work of students he inspired.

His two great insights were that changes in language can be identified and studied as they occur and that these changes are bound up with and often driven by social factors. Previously, linguists had thought that years, perhaps centuries, had to pass before it was possible to identify the ways a language had evolved and that innovation resulted from factors such as “ease of articulation” – sounds that are easier to say will replace those that are more difficult.

His most famous study involved social class, language, and New York department stores. He visited three stores with different price points and customer bases, Saks (most expensive), Macy’s (mid-range), and S. Klein (least expensive; now closed), and asked various workers where to find an item that he knew was on the fourth floor. He found that at S. Klein, salespeople tended to “drop the post-vocalic /r/” (“fawt flaw”), at Saks they pronounced it, as is the norm in standard American English (“fouRth flooR”), and at Macy’s they were somewhere in the middle. Thus he established that language use varied with social class, with lower-class speakers employing more nonstandard forms. 

Language use could also be aspirational. The salespeople at Saks and S. Klein came from similar, lower- to middle-class, backgrounds. Yet the workers at the high-end department store strove to sound like their customers, making sure their R’s were heard loud and clear.

This column is too short to talk about all the ways Labov influenced our understanding of the relationships between language and social class, gender, and ethnicity. Happy birthday, William Labov!

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