William F. Hanks
Deictic expressions, like English ‘this, that, here, and there’ occur in all known human languages. They are typically used to individuate objects in the immediate context in which they are uttered, by pointing at them so as to direct attention to them. The object, or demonstratum is singled out as a focus, and a successful act of deictic reference is one that results in the Speaker (Spr) and Addressee (Adr) attending to the same referential object. Thus,
In an exchange like (1), A’s utterance spotlights the individual guy, directing B’s attention to him, and B’s response (both verbal and ocular) displays that he has recognized him. In (2) A’s utterance individuates one pastry among several, B’s response makes sure he’s attending to the right one, A reconfirms and B completes by presenting the pastry to him. If we compare the two examples, it is clear that the underscored deictics can pick out or present individuals without describing them. In a similar way, “I, you, he/she, we, now, (back) then,” and their analogues are all used to pick out individuals (persons, objects, or time frames), apparently without describing them. As a corollary of this semantic paucity, individual deictics vary extremely widely in the kinds of object they may properly denote: ‘here’ can denote anything from the tip of your nose to planet Earth, and ‘this’ can denote anything from a pastry to an upcoming day (this Tuesday). Under the same circumstance, ‘this’ and ‘that’ can refer appropriately to the same object, depending upon who is speaking, as in (2). How can forms that are so abstract and variable over contexts be so specific and rigid in a given context? On what parameters do deictics and deictic systems in human languages vary, and how do they relate to grammar and semantics more generally?
Matthew J. Gordon
William Labov (b. 1927) is an American linguist who pioneered the study of variationist sociolinguistics. Born and raised in northern New Jersey, Labov studied English and philosophy at Harvard University (BA, 1948) and worked as an industrial chemist for several years before entering graduate school in linguistics at Columbia University in 1961. He completed his PhD in 1964, under the direction of Uriel Weinreich. He worked at Columbia until 1971, when he joined the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania, where he taught until his retirement in 2014.
Labov’s influence on the field began with research he conducted in graduate school. His study of changing pronunciations on Martha’s Vineyard, the subject of his master’s thesis, introduced a method for observing sound change in progress and broke with tradition by exploring social motivations for linguistic innovations. For his PhD dissertation, Labov carried out a study of dialect patterns on the Lower East Side of New York City. Using a systematic, quantitative methodology, he demonstrated that linguistic variation is socially stratified, such that the use of pronunciation features (e.g., dropping of post-vocalic /r/) correlates with social class, ethnicity, etc. in regular patterns. Labov’s early research was greatly influential and inspired many scholars to carry out similar projects in other communities. The paradigm came to be known as variationist sociolinguistics.
Much of Labov’s scholarship seeks to advance our understanding of language change. Historical linguists traditionally study completed linguistic changes, often long after they occurred, but Labov developed a method for examining active changes through a quantitative comparison of speakers representing several generations. This approach produces a new perspective on the change process by revealing intermediate stages. Labov has brought insights from this research to bear on theoretical debates within historical linguistics and the field more broadly. His work in this area has also documented many active sound changes in American English. Among these changes are innovations underway in particular dialects, such as the vowel changes in Philadelphia, as well as broader regional patterns, such as the Northern Cities Shift heard in the Great Lakes states.
Throughout his career, social justice concerns have fueled Labov’s research. He has sought to demonstrate that the speech of stigmatized groups is as systematic and rule-governed as any other. He led a pioneering study in Harlem in the late 1960s that shone new light on African American English, demonstrating, for example, that grammatical usages like the deletion of the copula (e.g., He fast) are subject to regular constraints. Labov has served as an expert witness in court and before the U.S. Congress to share insights from his study of African American English. He has also worked to promote literacy for speakers of non-standard dialects, carrying out research on reading and developing material for the teaching of reading to these populations.