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.
Edgar W. Schneider
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics. Please check back later for the full article.
English clearly is the world’s leading language today: the language of formal and other interactions in many countries, the main tool of globalization, and the default choice for transnational communication. Initially, the expansion of the British Empire, beginning in the 17th century and driven by various motives for colonization, brought it to all continents: North America and the Caribbean, the southern hemisphere (including Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and other territories), and also Asia, Africa, and the Pacific region. In contact with indigenous languages new, increasingly stable and localized varieties of English with properties and functions of their own have grown in many countries. These varieties have come to be summarily labeled as “World Englishes,” and a new sub-discipline in linguistics has emerged since the 1980s, investigating their features and conditions of use. They have conventionally been classified according to their status in specific countries and territories, as native, second, or foreign languages, respectively, and several theoretical models have been proposed to account for their status, developments, and mutual relationships. Vibrant changes of the recent past, broadly associated with a sociolinguistics of globalization and increasing super-diversity, have continued to push the dissemination of English to new contexts, both socially and individually, and a “post-varieties approach” is now being envisaged.
A wide range of facts and issues can be discussed and investigated when addressing World Englishes. The basic perspective, obviously, concerns the sociohistorical diffusion of the language: who brought English to which territories, when and why? And how has the language been transformed in different places? It has been argued convincingly (in the “Dynamic Model” of the evolution of Postcolonial Englishes) that, despite all geographical, historical, and social differences amazing similarities in the emergence of these new varieties, grounded in principles of sociolinguistic accommodation and identity transformations, can be identified. In all contexts and territories, contact with local and other languages has been determinative, usually via the process of second-language acquisition of English by indigenous people. Language policies and their implementation by means of strategies of language pedagogy have played a major role, and all of this is shaped decisively by linguistic attitudes—the question of what speakers and authorities believe about such emerging varieties and their relationship to norms of correctness. Also, specific structural patterns and types of linguistic phenomena can be observed in all these varieties on all levels of language organization.
Consequently, the notion of “English” today needs to be retuned from thinking of it as a single, monolithic entity, a linguistic “standard,” and a reference system, to understanding it as a set of related, structurally overlapping, but also distinct varieties, the products of a fundamental “glocalization” process with variable, context-dependent outcomes.