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The 2009 Charles Homer Haskins Prize Lecture

A Life of Learning: Six People I Have Learned From



William Labov

Professor of Linguistics and
Director of the Linguistics Laboratory
University of Pennsylvania

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In the tradition of these Haskins Prize Lectures, I will be presenting a history of some 80-odd years of learning, summing up what I have discovered along the way and weighing the profits from spending a lifetime in this kind of activity. [1] I am not going to be talking very much about myself. Instead, I’m going to introduce you to six people I have met in the course of this work, getting you to know them in their own words and then trying to sum up what I’ve learned from them. They are all great speakers of the English language, gifted with an uncommon eloquence—people larger than life, and I think that you will remember them as vividly as anything I have to say about them.

First, a little something about my upbringing and the people I knew early in life. I was born in Rutherford, New Jersey in 1927, far enough from New York City so that I always viewed that great metropolis from a distance. My high school years were spent in Fort Lee, a town with a high proportion of working-class German and Italian Americans just across the Hudson River from New York. They were the people I knew best—some the closest of friends, others in frequent conflict—but when we met in later years we recognized a common ground. I left that community behind when I attended Harvard College from 1944 to 1948. My degree was in English and philosophy, but I studied enough chemistry to serve me well when I began work in the laboratory of a family business. For the next 11 years I made printing inks and silk-screen inks, in intimate association with the men of the factory.

As much as I enjoyed this life, there were limitations to it. No matter how clever your formulation, no matter how deep your insights into the workings of your complex product, you could not publish your ideas—these were trade secrets. In 1961, I returned to the more general perspective of academic life and took up the study of linguistics at Columbia. This was an attractive world of intense debate on the structure of language and its history of constant change. However, I discovered that the activity was remote from the procedures I was used to. Most of the linguists I met were gathering data by introspection, asking themselves, “Can I say this?” and, “Can I say that?” It occurred to me that I might start a new way of doing linguistics by building the study of language on what people actually said in everyday life.

In this enterprise, I found that my years as an industrial chemist weren’t wasted. I drew from them three assets. One was a firm conviction that the real world would prove you right or wrong when the products of your work were put to the test (perhaps by harsh weather, or under the pressure of high-speed printing presses). Second was that this result depended on a certain precision of method: you could never know if you were right or wrong unless you had carefully entered in your notebook each step you had taken. The third asset was a lasting acquaintance with working-class styles of speech—ways of arguing, joking, telling stories, and passing the time during the noon-hour break. These were the elements that I put to work in a field that came to be called sociolinguistics, or later on, the study of linguistic change and variation.

1. Donald Poole, Martha's Vineyard

My first chance to test this approach was on a visit to a friend, the filmmaker Murray Lerner, on the island of Martha's Vineyard. I noticed a particular way of speaking that had not been reported before. It is not easy to describe in print without phonetic notation, but it may best be characterized as a close-mouthed style of articulation. The vowels of right and out, which are diphthongs beginning with the sound of “ah” for most dialects, began with the jaw half closed, with a sound like the first vowel of about. It was particularly interesting because a generation before, The Linguistic Atlas of New England (Kurath et al. 1941) had reported a very different pronunciation for Vineyarders, and the change was actually reversing the direction of history.

I began to trace this sound change by recording people in many parts of the island. The first interviews I did reflected the traditional methods of dialect geography, posing questions about New England regional words and expressions. One of the first people I talked to was Donald Poole, an eighth-generation descendant of Yankee whalers and fishermen. He was one of the key figures in the little fishing town of Menemsha; in fact, I was later told that long-term summer people counted themselves as having arrived if Donald Poole said hello to them on the dock. And Donald Poole was a great speaker. You couldn’t talk to him for five minutes without being drawn into the major issues of living and the struggle to earn a living. As I listened to him, I became more and more immersed in what he was saying as well as how he was saying it.


You see you people who come down here t' Martha's Vineyard don't understand the background of the old families on the island, strictly a maritime background, and tradition. Our interests run that way, our thoughts still run that way, I'm speaking now of the descendants of the old families. Now what we're interested in the rest of America, this part over here across the water that belongs to you and we don't have anything to do with, has forgotten all about the maritime tradition and the fact that if it hadn't been for the interest that the early settlers of this country took in the ocean, both as whalemen, fisherman, and as seamen and merchant sailors, this country couldn't have existed, the Plymouth Colony would've been a failure.

It became clear that Poole was a prime exponent of Max Weber's Protestant Ethic, with its strong emphasis on the importance of work as a calling. We talked about this.


What reason do people have . . . to work . . . harder than—than they have to to earn a living?


I can answer that for you ’cause I’ve already worked it out for myself and argued the point with a good many men. It’s the satisfaction of feeling that you have accomplished something over . . . and above the bare necessities in life. You take a pride . . . of doing the best that you can according to your ability. . . . I don’t have to go fishing. I can quit right now . . . and be comfortable. But just as long as I draw the breath of life I’ll be down in my boat in the mornin', at six or half past six in the morning, bound somewhere, doing all that I can, as best as I can, to the best of my ability and knowledge . . . because I take a pride in doing that, somethin' I know, and I feel that I’m doing something . . . important. And I’m happier doin' that than I would be sittin' round t' the beach.

A man with a New England conscience can’t sit still. Does that answer your question?

The particular sound change I was focusing on was exemplified in Donald Poole's way of saying, "I take a pride in doing that." We can refer to it as "centralization," because at the beginning of the diphthong, the tongue starts closer to the center of the mouth. To track this variation across many social dimensions, I created a four-point scale of centralization, shown in Table 1.

Table 1.Index of centralization

Phonetic notation
/ay/ in right
/aw/ in now
[a ]

Using both acoustic and auditory measurement, I was able to establish a mean centralization value of the vowels /ay/ and /aw/ for each individual. The progress of the sound change on the island seemed variable in the extreme, correlated not only with age, but also by gender, occupation, neighborhood, and ethnicity. My interviewing methods shifted accordingly to a broader range of social issues. In my interviews with three generations of fishermen, farmers, and local businessmen, with Yankees, Gay Head Indians. and Portuguese, I found a connection between the sound change and the major concerns that troubled people in everyday life.

The locals were under great pressure from the wealthy summer people from the mainland, who were buying up as much of the shoreline property as they could. Some younger people left the island to earn a living on the mainland, but others stayed and resisted this outside pressure. Centralization was strongest among them. Donald Poole was archetypical for his generation. His son, Everett Poole, was even more so. He had returned from college to set up a business selling fish on the Menemsha docks, and his centralization values were the most extreme. Where his father used /ay/-2 in “I take a pride [prɐɪd] in doin’ that," his son used /ay/-3 in “He tried [trəɪd] and tried [trəɪd] until he was tired out entirely [[təɪrd] [ɐʊt] en[təɪrli]].”Reviewing the interviews as a whole, some expressed positive orientation toward remaining on and working on the island; others were neutral, and a small number were negative, indicating a strong motivation to leave the island. The clearest correlation found between centralization and social factors is shown in Table 2, which associates centralization with orientation toward the island.

Table 2.Relation of centralization to orientation toward Martha's Vineyard

Orientation to the island

Forty people with positive orientation had values of 63 and 62; 19 with a neutral position had values of 32 and 42; and 6 who were negative towards the island had centralization values of only 9 and 8.

Thus centralization emerged as a symbol of social identity, driven by an unconscious mechanism of incrementation, as the struggle to maintain local rights and privileges intensifies across generations. The finding (Labov 1963) has been generally accepted, frequently cited, and taken as paradigmatic for the social motivation of sound change. Studies of a other small communities under outside pressure have found a similar resurgence of linguistic markers of social identity. Two linguists have revisited Martha's Vineyard to see what has happened in recent years. Meredith Josey found that the phenomenon was no longer present (Blake and Josey 2003). Jennifer Pope found that it was—that it had continued vigorously for some time, but showed signs of recession among the youngest speakers. (Pope, Meyerhoff, and Ladd 2007).

2. Jacob Schissel, New York City

The Martha's Vineyard study was my master's essay. My dissertation was an attack on a larger problem, the widespread variability in the speech of New York City, which had frequently been described as chaotic and unpredictable. The problem of method became central here. New Yorkers were acutely self-conscious and consistently negative with regard to their local dialect; when any attention was paid to language, they tended to correct their pronunciation in an irregular fashion toward a form of speech as different from New York speech as possible. I had to overcome this tendency if I wanted to record the vernacular that was my target—that is, the first-learned form of language used with friends and family when no outside observer is present. For that reason, my interview method developed techniques for eliciting narratives of personal experience, where speakers were so deeply involved in what they were saying that they paid little attention to speech. I used this instrument in a survey of the Lower East Side of New York City, building on a random sample constructed for a social science project. [2]

In the summer of 1963, I called on the brownstone house of Jacob Schissel, 63 years old, who had recently retired from the postal service. At one point in the interview, I asked Schissel if he had ever been in a situation where he thought he was going to be killed. He said "Yes. My brother put a knife in my head." I said, "What happened?" He said that this was just:

a. . . . a few days after my father had died
b. and we were sittin' shive.  
c. And the reason the fight started—
he saw a rat out in the yard
d. this was out in Coney Island—  
e. and he started talk about it.
f. And my mother had just sat down to have a cup of coffee,  
g. and I told him to cut it out.  
h. 'Course kids, y'know, he don't hafta listen to me.  
i. So that's when I grabbed him by the arm and twisted it up behind him.  
j. When I let go his arm,  
k. there was a knife on the table,  
l. he just picked it up  
m. and he let me have it.  
n. And . . . I started bleed like—like a pig.  
o. And naturally first thing to do, run—run to the doctor,  
p. the doctor just says,
"Just about this much more," he says,
"and you'd a been dead."

I have been living with this narrative for 45 years. Whether I tell it or I play the tape, it has an extraordinary force that commands the attention of an audience, large or small, creating a profound and impressive silence. In trying to understand how this and other narratives told in our interviews can transfer the experience of the speaker to the listener in such a compelling way, I have been drawn into the study of narrative itself. There are some cultural details in Schissel's story that are specific to the Jewish community: the family sits shive (seven days of mourning for the dead), and the preference for silence at that time. But the issues of life and death, and how we deal with them, are universal. In 1967 I wrote a paper with Joshua Waletzky on narrative analysis. It provided a structural framework that is today widely used in the field of narrative studies and is actually cited in more than half of the papers published in the journal Narrative Inquiry. One of my later papers (Labov 1985) on narrative wrestles with the central question of this and many other narratives: What are the causes of the sudden escalation of violence, where words give way to action and aggression? I will be pursuing that issue further in my next project, a book on oral narratives of personal experience with the title The Language of Life and Death.

But what are the linguistic implications of Jacob Schissel’s interview? As a speaker of the New York City vernacular, he used the traditional r-less pronunciation in which guard and god, source and sauce are not distinguished. In line e, "and he started talk about it" [], the word started is heard as [stɑ:tɪd] and the word arm in lines i and j is pronounced [ɑ:m]. This is one of the variable features of New York speech that I set out to study. Figure 1 shows the percent of consonantal [r] used by Jacob Schissel in five styles in the course of the interview, arranged along the horizontal axis: casual speech, as in his narratives; careful speech, in the main body of the interview; and with increasing focus on /r/, a reading passage; word lists; and finally minimal pairs, where the person is asked to read pairs like god and guard, dock and dark, and say for each pair whether they are the same or different.

Figure 1. Use of consonantal /r/ by Jacob Schissel in five contextual styles

Figure 1

As an older, traditional user of the New York City pattern, Schissel used almost no consonantal /r/ except in reading word lists, when he pronounced /r/ 30% of the time, and in minimal pairs, 75% of the time. In itself, this tells us nothing more than that Jacob Schissel thought that he should pronounce /r/ as a consonant. But when we superimpose his pattern on the Lower East Side study as a whole (Figure 2), we see that it is a reflection of the social and stylistic stratification that unites the entire city. For each style, there is social differentiation of the use of consonantal /r/. At the same time, New Yorkers agree in their evaluation of /r/. All social class groups—middle class, upper working class, lower working class— increase consonantal /r/ as they increase the attention they pay to their own speech. This display of independent effects of style and social class changed the view of the urban speech community from chaotic unpredictability to orderly heterogeneity and created a new paradigm for sociolinguistic inquiry.

Figure 2. Stylistic and social stratification of /r/ in New York City.

Figure 2

The study of /r/ was combined with four other variables in my dissertation, which was published as The Social Stratification of English in New York City in 1966. We see in the constant slope of style shifting a community united by consensus yet in each context, differentiated by social class. Similar patterns have since been found in many other cities and many other languages. The study of such sociolinguistic variables has since yielded rich information on how sharply stratified a community is, the degree of social mobility, and how linguistic change moves through the social system. [3]

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William Labov

William Labov

William Labov, professor of linguistics and director of the Linguistics Laboratory, University of Pennsylvania, received his B.A from Harvard University (1948) and his Ph.D. from Columbia University (1964). Read more

Charles Homer Haskins Prize Lectures 

2009 ACLS Annual Meeting