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William Labov Bibliography Definition

William Labov
Born(1927-12-04) December 4, 1927 (age 90)
Rutherford, New Jersey, U.S.
ResidenceRittenhouse Square, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.
EducationHarvard College, B.A. (1948)
Columbia University, M.A. (1963), Ph.D. (1964)
OccupationIndustrial chemist (1949–60), Associate professor (1971–present)
EmployerUniversity of Pennsylvania
Known forVariationist sociolinguistics
Spouse(s)Gillian Sankoff (m. 1993)

Labov's Curriculum vitae

William "Bill"[1] Labov (lə-BOHV;[2][3] born December 4, 1927) is an American linguist, widely regarded as the founder of the discipline of variationist sociolinguistics.[4] He has been described as "an enormously original and influential figure who has created much of the methodology" of sociolinguistics.[5] He is employed as a professor in the linguistics department of the University of Pennsylvania, and pursues research in sociolinguistics, language change, and dialectology. He semi-retired at the end of spring 2014.[citation needed]


Born in Rutherford, New Jersey, he studied at Harvard (1948) and worked as an industrial chemist (1949–61) before turning to linguistics. For his MA thesis (1963) he completed a study of change in the dialect of Martha's Vineyard, which was presented before the Linguistic Society of America. Labov took his PhD (1964) at Columbia University studying under Uriel Weinreich. He taught at Columbia (1964–70) before becoming a professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania (1971), and then became director of the university's Linguistics Laboratory (1977).

He has been married to fellow sociolinguist Gillian Sankoff since 1993.[6] Prior to his marriage to Sankoff, he was married to sociologist Teresa Gnasso Labov.


The methods he used to collect data for his study of the varieties of English spoken in New York City, published as The Social Stratification of English in New York City (1966), have been influential in social dialectology. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, his studies of the linguistic features of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) were also influential: he argued that AAVE should not be stigmatized as substandard, but respected as a variety of English with its own grammatical rules.[7] He has also pursued research in referential indeterminacy, and he is noted for his seminal studies of the way ordinary people structure narrative stories of their own lives. In addition, several of his classes are service-based with students going out into the West Philadelphia region to help tutor young children while simultaneously learning linguistics from different dialects such as AAVE.

More recently he has studied changes in the phonology of English as spoken in the United States today, and studied the origins and patterns of chain shifts of vowels (one sound replacing a second, replacing a third, in a complete chain). In the Atlas of North American English (2006), he and his co-authors find three major divergent chain shifts taking place today: a Southern Shift (in Appalachia and southern coastal regions), a Northern Cities Vowel Shift affecting a region from Madison, Wisconsin, east to Utica, New York, and a Canadian Shift affecting most of Canada, as well as some areas in the Western and Midwestern (Midland) United States, in addition to several minor chain shifts in smaller regions.

Among Labov's well-known students are Anne H. Charity Hudley, Penelope Eckert, Gregory Guy, Geoffrey Nunberg, Shana Poplack, and John Rickford. His methods were adopted in England by Peter Trudgill for Norwich speech and K. M. Petyt for West Yorkshire speech.

Labov's works include The Study of Nonstandard English (1969), Language in the Inner City: Studies in Black English Vernacular (1972), Sociolinguistic Patterns (1972), Principles of Linguistic Change (vol.I Internal Factors, 1994; vol.II Social Factors, 2001, vol.III Cognitive and Cultural factors, 2010), and, together with Sharon Ash and Charles Boberg, The Atlas of North American English (2006).

Labov was awarded the 2013 Benjamin Franklin Medal in Computer and Cognitive Science by the Franklin Institute with the citation "[f]or establishing the cognitive basis of language variation and change through rigorous analysis of linguistic data, and for the study of non-standard dialects with significant social and cultural implications."[3][8]

Language in use[edit]

In "Narrative Analysis: Oral Versions of Personal Experience",[9] Labov, with Joshua Waletzky, takes a sociolinguistic approach to examining how language works between people. This is significant because it contextualizes the study of structure and form, connecting purpose to method. His stated purpose is to "isolate the elements of narrative".[10] This work focuses exclusively on oral narratives.

Labov describes narrative as having two functions: referential and evaluative, with its referential functions orienting and grounding a story in its contextual world by referencing events in sequential order as they originally occurred,[11] and its evaluative functions describing the storyteller’s purpose in telling the story.[12] Formally analyzing data from orally-generated texts obtained via observed group interaction and interview (600 interviews were taken from several studies whose participants included ethnically diverse groups of children and adults from various backgrounds[13]), Labov divides narrative into five or six sections:

  • Abstract – gives an overview of the story.
  • Orientation – Labov describes this as "referential [free clauses which] serve to orient the listener in respect to person, place, time, and behavioral situation".[11] He specifies that these are contextual clues which precede the main story.
  • Complication – the main story, during which the narrative unfolds. A story may consist of multiple complication sections.
  • Evaluation – author evinces self-awareness, giving explicit or implicit purpose to the retelling of the story. Thus evaluation gives some indication of the significance the author attributes to his/her story. But evaluation can be done subtly: for instance, "lexical intensifiers [are a type of] semantically defined evaluation".[14]
  • Resolution – occurs sequentially following the evaluation. The resolution may give the story a sense of completion.
  • Coda – returns listener to the present, drawing them back out of the world of the story into the world of the storytelling event. A coda is not essential to a narrative, and some narratives do not have a coda.

While not every narrative includes all of these elements, the purpose of this subdivision is to show that narratives have inherent structural order. Labov argues that narrative units must retell events in the order that they were experienced because narrative is temporally sequenced. In other words, events do not occur at random, but are connected to one another; thus "the original semantic interpretation" depends on their original order.[15] To demonstrate this sequence, he breaks a story down into its basic parts. He defines narrative clause as the "basic unit of narrative"[16] around which everything else is built. Clauses can be distinguished from one another by temporal junctures,[17] which indicate a shift in time and which separate narrative clauses. Temporal junctures mark temporal sequencing because clauses cannot be rearranged without disrupting their meaning.

Labov and Waletzky’s findings are important because they derived them from actual data rather than abstract theorization (a descriptive rather than a prescriptive approach). Labov, Waletzky, &c., set up interview situations and documented speech patterns in storytelling, keeping with the ethnographic tradition of tape recording oral text so it can be referenced exactly. This inductive method creates a new system through which to understand story text.

Golden Age Principle[edit]

One of Labov’s most quoted contributions to theories of language change is his Golden Age Principle (or Golden Age Theory). It claims that any changes in the sounds or the grammar that have come to conscious awareness in a speech community trigger a uniformly negative reaction.

Communities differ in the extent to which they stigmatize the newer forms of language, but I have never yet met anyone who greeted them with applause. Some older citizens welcome the new music and dances, the new electronic devices and computers. But no one has ever been heard to say, "It's wonderful the way young people talk today. It's so much better than the way we talked when I was a kid." [...] The most general and most deeply held belief about language is the Golden Age Principle: At some time in the past, language was in a state of perfection. It is understood that in such a state, every sound was correct and beautiful, and every word and expression was proper, accurate, and appropriate. Furthermore, the decline from that state has been regular and persistent, so that every change represents a falling away from the golden age, rather than a return to it. Every new sound will be heard as ugly, and every new expression will be heard as improper, inaccurate, and inappropriate. Given this principle it is obvious that language change must be interpreted as nonconformity to established norms, and that people will reject changes in the structure of language when they become aware of them.

— William Labov, Principles of Linguistic Change, Vol. 2: Social Factors (2001), p. 514

Scholarly influence and criticism[edit]

Labov’s seminal work has been referenced and critically examined by a number of scholars, mainly for its structural rigidity. Kristin Langellier explains that "the purpose of Labovian analysis is to relate the formal properties of the narrative to their functions":[18] clause-level analysis of how text affects transmission of message. This model has several flaws, which Langellier points out: it examines textual structure to the exclusion of context and audience, which often act to shape a text in real-time; it’s relevant to a specific demographic (may be difficult to extrapolate); and, by categorizing the text at a clausal level, it burdens analysis with theoretical distinctions that may not be illuminating in practice.[19]Anna De Fina remarks that [within Labov’s model] "the defining property of narrative is temporal sequence, since the order in which the events are presented in the narrative is expected to match the original events as they occurred…",[20] which differs from more contemporary notions of storytelling, in which a naturally time-conscious flow would include jumping forward and back through time as mandated by, for example, anxieties felt concerning futures and their interplay with subsequent decisions. De Fina and Langellier both note that, though wonderfully descriptive, Labov’s model is nevertheless difficult to code, thus potentially limited in application/practice.[21] De Fina also agrees with Langellier that Labov’s model ignores the complex and often quite relevant subject of intertextuality in narrative.[22] To an extent, Labov evinces awareness of these concerns, saying "it is clear that these conclusions are restricted to the speech communities that we have examined",[12] and "the overall structure of the narratives we’ve examined is not uniform".[23] In "Rethinking Ventriloquism," Diane Goldstein uses Labovian notions of tellability—internal coherence in narrative—to inform her concept of untellability.[24]


In 1985 Labov received an honorary doctorate from the Faculty of Humanities at Uppsala University, Sweden.[25]

In 2015 he was awarded the Neil and Saras Smith Medal for Linguistics by the British Academy "for his significant contribution to linguistics and the language sciences".[26]


  1. ^Macaulay, Ronald (2009). Quantitative Methods in Sociolinguistics. Palgrave Macmillan. p. vii.
  2. ^Gordon, Matthew J. (2006). "Interview with William Labov". Journal of English Linguistics. 34 (4): 332–51. doi:10.1177/0075424206294308. 
  3. ^ abTom Avril (October 22, 2012). "Penn linguist Labov wins Franklin Institute award". The Philadelphia Inquirer. Retrieved October 23, 2012. 
  4. ^E.g., in the opening chapter of The Handbook of Language Variation and Change (ed. Chambers et al., Blackwell 2002), J.K. Chambers writes that "variationist sociolinguistics had its effective beginnings only in 1963, the year in which William Labov presented the first sociolinguistic research report"; the dedication page of the Handbook says that Labov's "ideas imbue every page".
  5. ^Trask, R.L. (1997). A Student's Dictionary of Language and Linguistics. London: Arnold. p. 124. ISBN 0-340-65266-7. 
  6. ^Meyerhoff, Miriam; Nagy, Naomi, eds. (2008). Social Lives in Language. John Benjamins. p. 21. ISBN 90-272-1863-3. 
  7. ^Labov, William (June 1972). "Academic Ignorance and Black Intelligence". The Atlantic. Retrieved March 28, 2015. 
  8. ^"Benjamin Franklin Medal in Computer and Cognitive Science". Franklin Institute. Retrieved September 9, 2014. 
  9. ^Labov, W., & Waletzky, J. (1997). "Narrative analysis: Oral versions of personal experience."
  10. ^Labov, W., & Waletzky, J. (1997). "Narrative analysis: Oral versions of personal experience." p. 12.
  11. ^ abLabov, W., & Waletzky, J. (1997). "Narrative analysis: Oral versions of personal experience." p. 32.
  12. ^ abLabov, W., & Waletzky, J. (1997). "Narrative analysis: Oral versions of personal experience." p. 41.
  13. ^Labov, W., & Waletzky, J. (1997). "Narrative analysis: Oral versions of personal experience." p. 13.
  14. ^Labov, W., & Waletzky, J. (1997). "Narrative analysis: Oral versions of personal experience." p. 37.
  15. ^Labov, W., & Waletzky, J. (1997). "Narrative analysis: Oral versions of personal experience." p. 21.
  16. ^Labov, W., & Waletzky, J. (1997). "Narrative analysis: Oral versions of personal experience." p. 22.
  17. ^Labov, W., & Waletzky, J. (1997). "Narrative analysis: Oral versions of personal experience." p. 25.
  18. ^Langellier, Kristin M. "Personal narratives: Perspectives on theory and research." Text and Performance Quarterly 9.4 (1989): 243-276. p. 245.
  19. ^Langellier, Kristin M. "Personal narratives: Perspectives on theory and research." Text and Performance Quarterly 9.4 (1989): 243-276. p. 246-8.
  20. ^De Fina, Anna, and Alexandra Georgakopoulou. Analyzing narrative: Discourse and sociolinguistic perspectives. Cambridge University Press, 2011. p. 27.
  21. ^De Fina, Anna, and Alexandra Georgakopoulou. Analyzing narrative: Discourse and sociolinguistic perspectives. Cambridge University Press, 2011. p. 32.
  22. ^De Fina, Anna, and Alexandra Georgakopoulou. Analyzing narrative: Discourse and sociolinguistic perspectives. Cambridge University Press, 2011. p. 35.
  23. ^Labov, W., & Waletzky, J. (1997). "Narrative analysis: Oral versions of personal experience." p. 40.
  24. ^Goldstein, Diane E. "Rethinking Ventriloquism: Untellability, Chaotic Narratives, Social Justice, and the Choice to Speak For, About, and Without." Journal of Folklore Research 49.2 (2012): 179-198.
  25. ^"Honorary doctorates - Uppsala University, Sweden". www.uu.se. 
  26. ^"William Labov receives the Neil and Saras Smith Medal for Linguistics from the British Academy". Department of Linguistics. University of Pennsylvania. Retrieved July 30, 2017. 

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William Labov (b. 1927) has been a prominent voice in American linguistics since the early 1960s. He pioneered an approach to investigating the relationship between language and society and developed a field that has come to be known as “variationist sociolinguistics.” A central doctrine of this field holds that variation is inherent to linguistic structure. The way a language is spoken (and written) differs across individuals as well as across situations encountered by the same individual. Labov argued that such differences are not only normal but also necessary to a language’s functioning. This view challenges much of the traditionally dominant thinking and practice in linguistic theory, from Ferdinand de Saussure to Noam Chomsky. Mainstream theorists do not deny the existence of variation, rather they tend to downplay its relevance and treat it as a superficial phenomenon obscuring a fundamental uniformity that characterizes language. Labov’s research demonstrates that linguistic variation is pervasive and highly structured, revealing regular patterns of co-occurrence between language forms, such as the pronunciation of a particular vowel, and social categories, such as socioeconomic classes. Such insights derive from studying language from a socially realistic perspective that takes into account how a diverse range of speakers uses the language in everyday situations. Labov has advocated a stronger empirical grounding for linguistics, questioning the validity of analyses based on the intuitions of a native speaker and stressing the value of observing naturally produced speech. His approach is distinguished from others within sociolinguistics by its reliance on quantitative methods. Often the patterns of co-variation between linguistic forms and social variables become apparent only in the light of statistical analysis. Over the course of his career, Labov has explored a wide range of linguistic phenomena within the variationist paradigm. He has examined semantic (e.g., quantifiers like each and all) and grammatical features (e.g., contraction and deletion of the copula), though the study of phonological variation has predominated in his work. In addition to exploring synchronic patterns of sociolinguistic variation, Labov has devoted enormous attention to questions of language change. Most of his research examines English, and he has been influential in the field of American dialectology, where he has helped to turn scholarly attention away from its traditional focus on the retention of regional speech patterns. He has also been a leader in the study of African American Vernacular English and has worked to counter popular misconceptions about this and other stigmatized dialects. Related to this research, he has examined how speakers of non-standard dialects acquire reading proficiency in Standard English.

General Overviews

Labov’s career in linguistics began in 1961, when he entered graduate school at Columbia University, after having worked for several years as an industrial chemist. He quickly made a name for himself as both his Masters thesis and his doctoral dissertation became landmark studies for the burgeoning field of sociolinguistics (see Labov 1963 cited under Studies of Language Change and Labov 1966 cited under the Role of Social Variables). In the five decades since, Labov has taken up a broad array of topics in his research and has established a distinctive approach under the label “variationist sociolinguistics.” This section presents overviews of Labov’s career (Biographies, Interviews, and Tributes) and the field he has shaped (Textbooks).

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