Diversity of Dialect book cover and William Labov headshot

Dialect Diversity in America: notes from William Labov’s 2012 book on language change

Language variation is becoming more distinct, not less, in the United States.

So argues the 2012 book “Dialect Diversity in America: The Politics of Language Change” by influential linguist and academic William Labov.

One major divergence in dialects is between African American Vernacular English (AAVE) and white dialects but differences go wider too. According to Labov, people from cities such as Los Angeles, Chicago, Toronto, Philadelphia, and New York now speak more differently from each other than they did in the 1950s. This seems counterintuitive given the ubiquity of mass media, but academic linguists have shown that one-way communication does less to influence how we talk than our peers.

The book is insightful and compelling Get yourself a copy. My notes for future research are below.

My notes:

  • In thousands of sociolinguistic interviews, no one has ever been heard to say “I really like the way that young people talk today; it’s so much better than the way we talk when I was young” it is “golden age syndrome”
  • One big divergence that continues to grow is between AAVE and white dialects
  • “People from Los Angeles, Chicago, Toronto, Philadelphia and New York speak more differently from each other now than they did in the middle of the 20th century.”
  • If a child moves before age 9, she will have the dialect of where she moves to, not the dialect of her parents or earlier years
  • Use of variable -ing or -in ending is predictably correlated to style and speaker status
  • English speakers vary by vowel systems not grammar which are stable
  • Northern cities shift: “an American English dialect spoken primarily by White Americans in a geographic band reaching from the major urban areas of Upstate New York westward along the Erie Canal and through much of the U.S. Great Lakes region.”
  • Among big old U.S. cities, only Philadelphia resisted the r-less word endings (unless followed by vowel sound) that became in vogue by FDR, but fell out after WW2. Author argues this is because Philadelphia was culturally different as hub of British resistance, especially more than Boston and New York.
  • In the United States, there are fewer local dialects (ie St. Louis and Charleston are today less distinctive than 50 years ago) but more unique regional dialects
  • “It is often said that AAVE is the most closely studied nonstandard dialect in the world.”
  • Example AAVE studies: Labov 1966 in Harlem, Philadelphia in 1980s Labov and Harris 1986, Ash and Myhill 1986), among many other AAVE studies ; Labov 2010 philadelphia
  • “AAVE shows remarkably little variation across the great cities where it is spoken” (more to grammar than pronunciation, ie Chingy’s “Right Thurr”)
  • “In the north, the speech of most African-Americans is marked by the merger of ‘pin’ and pen, him and hem, a reflection of their southern heritage”
  • Philadelphia AAVE also has way more /r/ pronunciation than NYC (myhilll 1988)
  • “One of the characteristic sounds Philadelphia may be heard in the vowel sounds: out, about, now. A conservative Philadelphian version of the word ‘out’ begins with the vowel of ‘at’ and moves toward the sound of ‘oats’. A more advanced Philadelphian form of ‘out’ begins with the sound of the letter ‘a’ quickly follow by the vowel of ‘art’. The word ‘down’ is start out as ‘day’ quickly follow by a WN. In Philadelphia the word ‘crown’ then turns out to be exact with the same as ‘crayon.’ But African-Americans in Philadelphia use none of these forms.”
  • AAVE origins are disputed but linguists largely agree about a clear West African slave dialect influence
  • Gullah dialect from sea islands near Georgia developed in the 17th century, the earliest and largest concentration of slaves, but only passing influence to AAVE, it is “clear” AAVE is a dialect of English and not a creole like Gullah
  • “Vernacular is the basic linguistic system that a child learns first, masters perfectly and uses with unerring skill in later life with family friends and peers and intimate situation where a minimal attention is given to speech. As speakers grow older they require superposed dialect appropriate for more formal situations”
  • In Guy Bailey’s 1993 report on Springville Texas he showed that the AAV the use of “habitual be“ was rare among those born from 1844 to 1944: only 4% of the uses of “be” had this habitual meaning. Among those born between 1945 1962, it was 52% and for those born between 1970 and 1976 the percentage with 80%” look at the screenshot I have of common signals of a AVE

  • The remote present perfect “BIN” in AAVE is commonly confused to assume it is the dropping of the contracted auxiliary in “she has been married,” but it something else . It says that the statement is true, it has been true for a long time and it is still true (Rickford 1975)
  • Why then is Black and white language differences increasing? “Residential segregation as reinforced and maintained by institutional racism”
  • Hershberg 1981: “Philadelphia: work, space, family and group experience in the 19th century“ showed unlike other immigrant groups, segregation declined over decades. This also showed in American Apartheid (1993; massey)
  • But don’t Black Americans see as much mass media as any other American? “It is well established that this one way form of communication has little effect on the language of those on the receiving end.”
  • “Pygmalion effect” Rosenthal Jacobson 1968: AAVE was culturally judged and so it effected access to reading comprehension, reinforcing inequality
  • “Our sociolinguistic studies find the strongest prejudices against minority groups among those people who haven’t had the least contact with (and the least knowledge of) them.” 73
  • In the October 12, 1979 edition of the Philadelphia Daily News black columnist Chuck Stone criticized an experiment with using black vernacular in public schools in a controversial column titled “Black English be bad; teaching it is way worse.” A quote: “Black English is neither dialect or language. It is a people’s cognitive surrender to fear… It is the dismal inheritance from lazy minded parents who don’t care enough about their children to insist that they talk with precision.” Stone wrote this in response to School District of Philadelphia dropping the use of the language experience method 77
  • This battle was rehashed in 1996 with a famous Oakland Ebonics ‘s controversy
  • “For bigots, ebonics simply served as a metaphor for their stereotypes of African-Americans“ Rickford
  • Outside of Robert Williams, who coined the term in 1973, few if any linguists ever used the word “Ebonics”
  • Educators tried less political ways to connect Black vernacular to formal classroom English studies. For example, in 1976 Houghton published Bridge, a cross cultural textbook success though sounds quaint now
  • In 1997, Arlen Specter secured $1m for University of Pennsylvania to fund a reading program Labov developed: Reading Road, which used “high text to self realization”, though politically they couldn’t use full black English in example stories. One question they confronted in curriculum development , how much should they prioritize pronunciation versus comprehension? They let educators decide
  • “It seems that some dialects do not just drift apart but are pushed apart”
  • Why do languages drift? In part it is mechanical, as different sounds bump into each other on our limited sound menu. But language lacks a natural selection tool like evolution (despite Darwin’s comparisons) that leads to simpler or convergent status. That is the sociopolitical element of language that author argues for
  • First in Martha’s Vineyard, he showed language change was strongest with those who wanted to remain there, it “emerged as a symbol of local identity“
  • “There can be little doubt that the use of language to symbolize local identities is a powerful force in the forging up linguistic diversity“ as one group follows another as a reference group.
  • A Labov paper (2001) based on hundreds of interviews with Philadelphians put forward that it is upper working class who lead language change (not the extreme poor or rich), and that there is not widespread local variation, just class distinction. (Ie Brooklynese described all working class NY). True in all cities studied, even London where Henry Higgins famously argued he could place a Londoner onto their block by accent. (No research backing that claim)
  • In white Philadelphia vernacular: the words “lane, fade and slave” become “lean, feed and sleeve” but not with no constant ending like play which stays play
  • Local identity isn’t enough to explain language uniformity (because wealthy people in local settings also follow local language trends)
  • Eckert’s 1989 ethnographic study called “Jocks and Burnout” shows that in high school some pursue conformist status (jocks in sports, arts, academics) and others do the opposite (ie. burnouts), while most are in -betweens on the spectrum
  • Erie cabal took advantage that saltwater Hudson River was ice free year round but Philadelphia’s Delaware was ice bound. That cabal skyrocketed New York to shipping importance. He argues cabal set in motion his northern cities shift
  • Bonfiglio 2002, argues NYC dropping of /r/ was because upper whites distanced from blacks
  • Young aomeb
  • Doctrine of First Effective Settlers (Zelinsky 1992) argues that original language shapes future speakers

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