Thursday, April 5, 2007

William Labov

I had the great opportunity last night to hear a talk by the sociolinguist William Labov, "The Growing Divergence of English Dialects in North America." Labov's thesis is that North American English is becoming more not less heterogeneous, that regional dialects are becoming increasingly different from each other. The "action," as he called it, is almost all in the vowels. He offered numerous examples (with audio clips) of chain shifts (vowel sounds trading places: for instance, busses pronounced bosses) and mergers (different vowel sounds pronounced in the same way: for instance, Dawn pronounced Don). Both trends lead to greater possibilities of misunderstanding in speech. One sample exchange:

"I started sneezing in Greek Meter -- that's a class. Dawn's dog must have heard it."

"Don's dog?"
I loved the fleeting thought of someone sneezing in, say, dactylic hexameter. Epic sneezes! Kchaou!

Here's a observation Labov made on language and its relation to matters of communication and truthfulness:
A parrot can say "I will meet you downtown at 8:00" -- but he won't be there.
Labov's words reminded me of the motto of the London Stock Exchange, "Dictum meum pactum," "My word is my bond." I know nothing of the London Stock Exchange, but the philosopher J.L. Austin and the poet Geoffrey Hill both make use of this motto in their work (misquoted, it would seem, as "Our word is our bond").

A few links if you'd like to know more about William Labov:
William Labov's homepage (University of Pennsylvania)

How I got into linguistics, and what I got out of it Essay by William Labov

A Linguist's Journey (PBS) The above essay and other materials

American Accent Undergoing Great Vowel Shift (NPR)

Talking the Tawk (New Yorker) On Labov and Brooklynese

The Atlas of North American English: Phonetics, Phonology, and Sound Change (Mouton de Gruyter) Demo of the online resource

The Atlas of North American English: Phonetics, Phonology, and Sound Change (Amazon) The print version ($749)
(Thanks, Elaine and Rachel!)

comments: 0