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Labov: Language Variation

and Change
Kirk Hazen

The full impact of a scholar like William Labov
(pronounced [l@bov]) is beyond the scope of
a handbook chapter. The entire Handbook of
Language Variation and Change (Chambers,
Trudgill and Schilling-Estes, 2002) should be seen
as part of Labovs scholarly impact, and even that
one volume does not comprehensively capture
every aspect of his work. His publications are
voluminous, their range is broad, and their effects
on current scholars continue. This chapter focuses
primarily, although not exclusively, on the early
works of Labov. At points, I also trace the connections of Labovs scholarship to that of his intellectual predecessors, illustrating his motivations for
scholarship. The chapter is divided into sections on
Labovs education and personal background, the
intellectual influences on his scholarship, the confluence of academic fields around the beginnings
of sociolinguistics, an overview of Labovs work,
and a conclusion.1


William Labov was born 4 December 1927 in
Rutherford, NJ (USA). When he was 12 years old,
he moved to Fort Lee, NJ, where he encountered
a different dialect area and all kinds of conflict
(Labov, 1997): he recounts getting into verbal and

physical fights with local kids. From these encounters, he sharpened his argumentative skills, learned
to take note of what was around him, and kept
swinging at what he was good at winning verbal
arguments. He later studied at Harvard and
majored in English and philosophy, graduating in
1948. In How I got into linguistics, Labov
(1997) writes about his advisors comments at
Harvard: When he learned that I was taking one
course in chemistry (inorganic), he sucked on his
pipe, smoothed out his cord trousers, and said,
Just where did you get this idolatry of science?
These scientific leanings fostered Labovs efforts
to make language study an empirical enterprise.
Labov (1997) reports that he held several writing jobs after college, then went to work as an
industrial chemist and ink-maker in the laboratory
of the Union Ink Co. in Ridgefield, NJ, between
1949 and 1960. There he interacted with a wide
diversity of company workers, from millhands to
truck drivers and sales crew, figuring out how
much everyone knew, learning how they argued,
and studying their narratives years before he
thought of writing about them.
In 1961, aged 34, he went back to graduate
school at Columbia University in New York City
with an idea to study English. Allen Walker Read
was Labovs first linguistics teacher, and Labov
argues (2006: 16) that Reads papers on OK
(Read, 2002) stand as a progenitor of sociohistorical work. He was intrigued with linguistics
because of the vibrancy of the field and linguists
propensity for open argument. What dismayed


Labov was that the evidence for linguistics at the

time came from the linguists self-generated sentences, which restricted both the educational and
class range of the data. He figured he could up the
ante and produce studies based on richer data.
With this turn towards more diverse data, he also
fostered study of the working class. He earned his
MA in 1963 and his PhD in 1964, both from
Columbia University. He taught at Columbia
(196470) before becoming a professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania (1971),
where he has remained ever since.


As Labov remembers (Gordon, 2006), there were
two substantial roadblocks in linguistics when he
entered graduate school to his intended field of
study. First, synchronic linguistics held that a
speakers idiolect was sufficient to account for the
qualities of a language. Second, since the methodology of the time went no further than the study of
a few idiolects, diachronic linguistics was not able
to account for how people used language if it was
continually changing. In Gordon (2006), Labov
discloses that he was never interested in categoricity (Chambers, 2003); his professional career has
focused on principles underwritten by probabilities and swayed by social pressures.
The relationship between the speech community and the individual has been in question
throughout the modern linguistic period (see also
Kerswill, this volume). Since the middle of the
twentieth century, this distinction has been cast
often in the terms idiolect2 (the grammar of an
individual) and dialect (the grammar of a speech
community). In order to position himself as a linguistic researcher, yet study speech communities,
Labov had to establish theoretically the relation
between language, the individual and the community. He writes (Labov, 1966a: 6):
It is generally considered that the most consistent
and coherent system is that of an idiolect ... . We
find an increasing number of alternations which
are due to stylistic or cultural factors, or changes in
time and these are external to language, not a
part of linguistic structure.
The present study adopts an entirely opposite
view of the relative consistency of idiolect and
dialect in the structure of New York City English.

The clearest statement Labov provides concerning

the relation of idiolects and dialects would be in the
new chapter in the second edition of his dissertation,
where Labov (2006: 380) writes: Drawing upon the


larger perspective set forth by Weinreich, Labov,

and Herzog (1968), we can say that the linguistic
behavior of individuals cannot be understood
without knowledge of the communities that they
belong to. Labov acknowledges the abstract nature
of speech communities and dialects but finds the
data provided by idiolects to be insufficient to accurately describe, let alone explain, language change:
The idea is that language is an abstract object, and
it has to be treated with abstractions. So the question is, on what database do you form your conclusions? How do you know when youre right and
how do you know when youre wrong? ... So
I thought that it was possible to move this field into
a more scientific basis by grounding it on the use
of language in everyday life (Gordon, 2006: 333).

Labov has stated his argument on this issue

repeatedly for over four decades: We study individuals because they give us the data to describe
the community, but the individual is not really a
linguistic unit (Gordon, 2006: 341). Labov realizes that many people in sociolinguistics disagree
with him on this point; they argue instead that the
reality is best found in the individual speaker. He
takes the inverse position, that there are no individuals from the linguistic point of view (Gordon,
2006: 341).
Although he did not accept the linguistics of
idiolects, Labov did not forsake all theoretical
linguistic concerns of the 1960s. Instead, he developed them as part of the foundation of his studies.
For example, he writes (1966a: 5): The one point
of view which would probably meet with general
approval from all linguists today, is that the prime
object of linguistics is the structure of language,
not its elements ... . However, despite such points
of agreement, Labov did critique contemporary
linguistics on several grounds.
To establish where his own work fell in linguistic
history and to emphasize the theoretical issues he
was critiquing, in the publication of his dissertation, Labov (1966a) lists four assumptions of linguistics which he found problematic: synchronic
language systems must be studied separately
from diachronic systems; sound change cannot be
directly observed; feelings about language are
inaccessible; and the use of non-linguistic data
to explain linguistic change is prohibited. Labov
lays the theoretical foundation for his empirical
work by attacking the first two assumptions. He
attributes the privileging of synchronic systems
over diachronic systems to Saussure and instead
argues that each synchronic state is marked as to
its direction and rate of change, and thus the two
areas of study are not so cleanly separable.
As for the second assumption, Labov deemed
Bloomfields statement about the unobservability



of language change (1933: 347) as supporting the

Neo-Grammarian argument for the absolute regularity of sound change (see also Labov, 1994).
Bloomfield supposed that irregular linguistic processes, such as borrowing or analogy, would always
disrupt, in the synchronic view, any possible
observation of sound change. The data would
always be too messy to draw reasonable conclusions about directions and rates of change. Labov
viewed this intellectual step as ... remov[ing] the
empirical study of linguistic change from the
program of twentieth-century linguistics (Labov,
1966a: 11). Labov put empirical study back on the
programme for the study of language change.
Labov found the explanatory power of empirical
synchronic observations in the correlations between
social structures and linguistic structures.3
With regard to the third assumption, Bloch and
Trager (1942) argued that the speakers feelings
about sounds should remain off limits to linguists
because that is not what linguists do, and although
such psychological correlates may be important,
the linguist (as linguist) has no methodology for
assessing them. Labov counters (1966a: 12) that
such purism gets in the way of ... ones view of
language as it is spoken. The fourth basic assumption in linguistics at the time was that linguists
should not use non-linguistic information to solve
linguistic problems. The intent was to strengthen
linguistic argument by excluding such explanations for language change as climate or inherited
differences in physiology (cf. Hock and Joseph,
1996; Labov, 2001). Labov critiques Antoine
Martinets stringent adherence to this prohibition,
especially since Martinet himself had identified the
potential for the study of language in social context.
Martinet argued that the linguist could be excused
... if, in his capacity as a linguist, he declines the
invitation to investigate sociological conditioning
(Labov 1966a: 13). Labov argues instead that the
role of language in self-identification4 is important
for phonological change.
Labov was not alone in his critiques of the
canonical linguistics of the late 1950s and 1960s.
William Bright (1966) had criticized linguists
classifications of intralanguage diversity as free
variation. Labov successfully argued that most
free variation has systematic linguistic and social
constraints. In the same vein, Labov (1969c: 15)
cites Edward Klimas (1964) analysis of differences between dialects and asserts that underlying grammatical differences, such as the ordering
of rules, cannot account for the differences
between standard and nonstandard dialects in a
systematic manner. Labov has argued that much
of modern linguistics, since the Chomskyan revolution (e.g. Chomsky, 1965), concerns those
aspects of language which are stable. In contrast,
Weve been involved in a complementary study

of everything that does and can change (Gordon,

2006: 338).
To describe correlations between patterns of
linguistic behaviour and social identities in as
objective a way as possible, Labov focuses on
phonological variation involving variants that are
(or are treated as) discrete and thus quantifiable,
and borrows from Parsonian sociology a way of
describing social facts about speakers in quantifiable terms. In a pioneering study of variation from
classroom to playground, Fischer (1958) had introduced the quantification of language data and the
range of social variation to be found in that data.
Fischer studied a variable the velar vs alveolar
pronunciations of the English suffix ing which
sociolinguistics have continued to study for 50
years, in part because its variants are discrete
rather than scalar (Campbell-Kibler, 2007; Hazen,
2008). However, not all language traits are as open
to quantification. As Labov notes:
In many areas of generative syntax, quantifications
of everyday speech may not be appropriate the
data are not frequent enough. Its not as if every
aspect of our field is open to quantification. Your
concepts have to become clear and solid and
countable. There are areas, not only abstract
arenas of grammar but areas of discourse analysis,
where the attempts at quantification may be quite
premature (Gordon, 2006: 334).

Some syntactic variables are open to Labovian

exploration, however, and Labov has also been part
of the effort to quantify previously unquantifiable
areas of grammar. For example, Labov directed
Lavanderas 1975 University of Pennsylvania dissertation on si-clauses in Buenos Aires, which
employed a database of 1587 tokens gathered
from spontaneous speech.5 Lavandera was able to
elicit this many tokens through carefully directing
the casual conversation towards the syntactic contexts most favourable to producing the si-clauses.
Another previous assumption Labov reassessed
is the independence of variation based on social
stratification and variation based on situational
style. Labov (1969c: 22) draws upon John
Kenyons (1948) ... distinction between cultural
levels and functional varieties of English. Kenyon
argued that ... style and class stratification of language are actually independent. Labov counters
that this arrangement would be convenient for
identifying speakers, but it is not true, since the
same variables are used for both style and social
stratification, as demonstrated in his work in
New York City. This issue would recur in Labovs
work and that of other sociolinguists (Rickford
and Eckert, 2001). Such research topics have been
investigated repeatedly over the last four decades,
including by Labov himself. Labov demonstrates


consistency in his research topics over the decades

of his work: for example, Labov (2008) is an
enhanced and revised version of the questions first
raised and explored in Labov (1966a, 1966b).
Along with these critiques of basic assumptions, Labov took note of the changing theoretical
positions motivating linguistic study. In The Study
of Nonstandard English, he writes (1969c: 40):
Not many years ago, linguists tended to emphasize
the differences among the languages of the world
and to assert that there was almost no limit to the
ways in which languages could differ from each
other. Dialectologists concentrated upon the features which differentiated their dialects naturally,
for these are the features which define their object
of study.
However, the opposing trend is strong in linguistics today there is a greater interest in the ways
in which languages resemble each other and how
they carry out the same functions with similar

In line with this trend, in his outreach work with

minority dialects in schools, Labov emphasized
the similarities between vernacular varieties and
standard varieties. He intended to convince educational professionals to accept the legitimacy of the
vernacular varieties. But Labovs underlying interest in diversity resonates with the work of anthropological linguists in the earlier periods of the
twentieth century, when descriptive work on
Native American languages revealed tremendous
diversity, and scholars celebrated this diversity.
With increasing awareness of diversity in language, scholars throughout the twentieth century
had noted social correlates of language usage.
Studies working towards the aims of sociolinguistics
existed decades before the term sociolinguistics
appeared.6 For example, Gesinus Gerardus
Kloecke published De Hollandsche Expansie in
1927 where he combines language geography,
sociology and history. Leonard Bloomfield (1933)
relied on this work when crafting his chapter on
dialectology. Koerner (1991) presents several
other early works that touch upon both language
change and society (e.g. Joseph Vendryes, 1925).
But while knowledge from anthropological
linguistics has certainly influenced the field of
linguistics, and sociolinguistics in particular,
Labov does not describe anthropological linguistics as one of the sources of his approach to language change. Labov recognizes the impact and
influence of anthropologists like John J. Gumperz
(1958) and Dell Hymes (1962), but he identifies
his work with linguistics proper.
Clearly, William Labov has worked as a linguist in linguistics. In his publications, he did not
attempt to forge a new field. Rather, a new field


emerged around him as a result of the political

pressures internal to the linguistics at that time.
The formalist methodology of syntacticians led to
ever more esoteric writings and a continued reliance on extremely small data sets, mostly drawn
from data derived by intuitions (Labov, 1996a).
These data sets were subject to a linguistic calculus (cf. Port and Leary, 2005) that did not allow
for discussion about changes to methodology in
data collection or analysis. For this reason, Labovs
approach to language change long a key component of disciplinary linguistics has come to be
known as sociolinguistics rather than simply
linguistics, as Labov would have preferred.


The debate about sociolinguistics as a term was
not about the label, but rather about the data,
theory and goals to be reached. In the preface to
Labov (1966a: vvi), he writes:
In the past few years, there has been considerable
programmatic discussion of sociolinguistics at various meetings and symposia. If this term refers to
the use of data from the speech community to
solve problems of linguistic theory, then I would
agree that it applies to the research described
here. But sociolinguistics is more frequently used
to suggest a new interdisciplinary field the comprehensive description of the relations of language
and society. This seems to me an unfortunate
notion, foreshadowing a long series of purely
descriptive studies with little bearing on the central
theoretical problems of linguistics or of sociology.
My own intention was to solve linguistic problems,
bearing in mind that these are ultimately problems
in the analysis of social behavior: the description of
continuous variation, of overlapping and multilayered phonemic systems; the subjective correlates of linguistic variation; the causes of linguistic
differentiation and the mechanism of linguistic

Two problems arose in the 1960s related to the

term sociolinguistics. First, scholars debated
whether the study of language and society should
be primarily cast as a field of anthropology, sociology or linguistics. Labov took a clear and unequivocal stance: he studied linguistics, and the
term sociolinguistics was not necessary to label
the kind of work he did. The second issue with
sociolinguistics in the 1960s was that, if it were to
be an interdisciplinary field, then how would future
students be trained for it? Would anthropology and
sociology departments be willing to sacrifice the



graduate hours needed to train students in linguistics to produce the scholars required to follow in
the footsteps of Dell Hymes, John Gumperz,
Emmanuel Schegloff and Erving Goffman (Shuy,
1990: 187)? The divide between academic disciplines can be seen in the names the sociology of
language and sociolinguistics, where the sociology of language denoted sociology done through
the means of language and sociolinguistics
denoted linguistics done while maintaining a
focus on social factors. Such distinctions were
present at the time Labov was entering graduate
school: For example, Shuy (1990: 188) reports
that Joshua Fishman first taught a Sociology of
Language course in 1956 at the University of
Labov originally argued against the name
sociolinguistics, but he recognizes the utility of
the term today (Gordon, 2006: 335): ... it turns
out that its useful to approach the field through a
subfield; most linguists want to have some form of
sociolinguistics taught in their department.
Although the term sociolinguistics is no longer a
point of objection for Labov, he reserves the label
variation and change for the type of linguistics
he practices:
But today, it seems the actual field were talking
about is best called the study of variation and
change. Sociolinguistics is a large and unformed
area with many different ways of approaching the
subject that arent necessarily linguistic, whereas
the study of variation and change describes pretty
well the enterprise were engaged in.

This differentiation can at times be seen in the

subjects of study for summary reference works:
the contrast between Blackwells The Handbook
of Sociolinguistics and Blackwells The Handbook
of Language Variation and Change reveals not
only different authors but also different topics and
different foci, even within the same topics.
Trudgill (1978: 1) takes the opinion that
whether you call something sociolinguistics or not
does not, in the last analysis, matter very much.
He notes that sociolinguistics ... means many different things to many different people. For
Trudgill, the term sociolinguistics applies to three
different disciplines, each containing different
methodologies and objectives (1978: 2): ... those
where the objectives are purely sociological or
social-scientific; those where they are partly sociological and partly linguistic; and those where the
objectives are wholly linguistic. For Labov and
Trudgill (1978: 11), sociolinguistics is ... a way
of doing linguistics.
Shuy (1990: 195) pinpoints the creation of
sociolinguistics as a scholarly field to 1964
(see, e.g., Bright, 1966; Spolsky this volume).

However, Malkiel (1976: 80 fn. 11) puts the date

a decade earlier, arguing for the early 1950s. In
any case, the confluence of sociology, anthropology and linguistics, along with realms such as
language and education (Hazen, 2007a), developed the topics and methodologies which have
now become common for sociolinguistics. For
modern sociolinguists who might be dismayed by
the unreconciling diversity of sociolinguistic goals,
methodologies and cliques, the intellectual atmosphere of this earlier time should be juxtaposed
with the scholarly background of the participants.
These were scholars from distinct fields who
wanted to learn from each other but not become
each other. From the beginning of the term sociolinguistics, the field has not been unified and was
mostly likely at the time not a single field but
instead a set of subfields of separate disciplines.
As a named discipline, sociolinguistics was new
at the time Labov was conducting his dissertation
as a linguist on language change in New York City.
The selected proceedings and discussions from a
1964 Conference on Sociolinguistics were published with William Bright as editor (1966). In it,
a wide range of language scholars came together
from fields including folklore, anthropology, linguistics, dialectology and sociology. The conference showcased renowned scholars such as Henry
Hoenigswald, John J. Gumperz, Raven I. McDavid
Jr., Dell Hymes, John L. Fischer, William Samarin
and Charles Ferguson. Included in this august
group was one graduate student, a linguist, William
Labov. In editing the proceedings, and as a conference participant, William Bright sets the scene
for sociolinguistic research and characterizes several areas still relevant today. Bright (1966: 11)
remarks that the term sociolinguistics is not new
and that it is hard to precisely define. Bright
argues that it is excessively vague to cast the
field as dealing with language and society, but that
in light of modern linguistics, researchers do
view language as well as society to be a structure:
The sociolinguists task is then to show the systematic covariance of linguistic structure and
social structure and perhaps even to show a
causal relationship in one direction or the other.
Bright also cites as pernicious the traditional
linguistic emphasis on the homogeneity of language, opting instead for diversity as the subject
matter of sociolinguistics. He reflects on the applications of sociolinguistic work, one of these being
within historical linguistics, which is where Bright
put Labovs work (Labov, 1966b). Hence, Bright
sees Labovs earliest work as the study of language variation and change drawn from descriptive sociolinguistic accounts. At the conclusion of
his introduction, Bright (1966: 15) optimistically
forecasts that, It seems likely that sociolinguistics
is entering an era of rapid developments; we may


expect that linguistics, sociology, and anthropology will all show the effects. It is a safe assessment to note that linguistics has had significant
programmatic effects from this rapid development. For example, it is now common for major
review panels to include a sociolinguist: the advisory panel for the National Science Foundation
linguistics programme has a sociolinguistic seat,
as does the editorial panel for the Linguistic
Society of Americas journal Language.
At the 1964 Sociolinguistics Conference,
McDavid also presented on dialect differences in
urban society in general, and Greenville, SC, and
Chicago, IL, specifically. A perusal of McDavids
paper and Labovs paper of the same volume provides a succinct comparison of the methodological and rhetorical changes made in the transition
from traditional dialectology to variationist sociolinguistics. McDavids paper is a dialectological
narrative, highlighting his own personal judgments of the varieties in question; Labovs paper
is based on an empirically-driven statistical analysis. Even though they appear adjacent to each
other in print, the two papers seem to be from different decades. Like McDavid, others were concerned with urban dialects before Labov. Pederson
(1964) had investigated Chicago using dialectologist methods as used by Kurath and McDavid, but
Labovs method for integrating social information
and linguistic analysis ultimately resonated more
deeply with a wider scholarly audience.
Early commentators noted that Labovs
approaches covered numerous fields. In regard to
his work with English in the schools, A. Hood
Roberts comments that his work combines the
insights offered by linguistics as well as sociology, pedagogy, and psychology (Labov, 1969c:
iii). Linguists interested in the language of real
people and the accountability of theory to data
hailed Labovs work and followed suit. The intellectual environment in which Labov presented his
version of linguistics was ready for change. Labov
I found that there were many people who were
ready for this approach, not only the quantitative
approach but were ready to take social context
into effect. That doesnt mean that it suddenly
became the mainstream of linguistics, far from it.
The approach that we follow in NWAV is still only
a part and not at all the dominant part of linguistic
studies (Gordon, 2006: 335).

In 1972, the first NWAVE (New Ways of

Analyzing Variation in English) colloquium was
held at Georgetown University, in conjunction
with the eighth Southeastern Conference on
Linguistics, and 64 papers were presented. The
resulting volume is dedicated to William Labov:


who freed us from static analysis (Bailey and

Shuy, 1973). From the early NWAVE proceedings
(later changed to NWAV as languages other than
English came to be studied), it is clear the variationist enterprise was a call for all linguists interested in variation to come together around a
common approach to empirical data, and not necessarily a common area of linguistics. These linguists
included semanticians, syntacticians, phonologists,
creolists and dialectologists. A separate linguistic
profession of variationist does not appear to have
been a goal, although it was a term from the
Modern students in linguistics may view
Labovs early works as creating sociolinguistics. It
would be better to characterize Labov as a linguist
whose revision of the study of language change
coalesced well with the institutionalization of
sociolinguistics into academic organizations such
as journals and departments. Sociolinguistics has
never been a discrete field of study with a coherent
methodology, but instead an academic place to
meet, where scholars gather to have worthwhile
conversations about society and language. Labov
has presented numerous papers to diverse audiences where he made intriguing observations
about society. However, for Labov himself, these
were by-products of his research on language


Labovs connection to past scholars who studied
language change is strong since he views the
problems and solutions of his work as being an
organic component of this scholarly history (2001:
10). When he cites Edward Sapir, Franz Bopp and
Max Mller, Labov places himself in the tradition
of the scholarship they established. In a more connected genealogy, Konrad Koerner (1991) elucidates a lineage between William Dwight Whitney
(18271894) who influenced Ferdinand de
Saussure (18571913), who taught Antoine
Meillet (18661936), who taught Andr Martinet
(19081999), who directed at Columbia the MA
and PhD theses of Uriel Weinreich (19261967),
who did the same for William Labov (1927) at
Although Whitney may seem far removed from
Labov, Whitney became the major proponent of
the uniformitarian principle in linguistics.
Borrowed from geology, where it had been influential since 1833, the uniformitarian principle
basically states that knowledge of processes that
operated in the past can be inferred by observing



ongoing processes in the present (from Christy,

1983 cited in Labov, 2001: 21). Whitney, whose
brother was a geologist, had argued for the principle in Language and the Study of Language
(1867), and it is this principle which allowed
Labov to study language synchronically and derive
diachronic inferences from the data.
Perhaps the best scholarly work to explore
Labovs academic roots openly is the coauthored
work by Uriel Weinreich, William Labov and
Marvin Herzog (1968), Empirical Foundations
for a Theory of Language Change. In it, the
authors project the foundational problems of
constraints on language change, transitions of
the change through older to younger speakers,
embedding of the change in linguistic and social
structure, evaluation of social awareness of the
change, and the actuation of the change. To tackle
language change and move its study towards
scientifically-processed empirical foundations,
Weinreich, Labov and Herzog had to overthrow
revered assumptions of renowned linguists, such
as Hermann Paul (1891) and Ferdinand de
Saussure (1916 [1972]). Paul had argued for the
language of the individual to be the basis for
analysis;7 Paul himself was reacting against
Vlkerpsychologie which took up an ethos of community to be the controlling entity for social
action, including language change. Saussure
argued for a strict dichotomy between synchronic
and diachronic linguistics, with the purpose of
establishing synchronic study as the centrepiece
of language scholarship. Saussure was reacting
against his Neogrammarian predecessors, such as
Paul, in an attempt to turn the focus of scholars to
language structures as exemplified in the community of speakers. Weinreich, Labov and Herzog
argued that these assumptions, especially Pauls
isolation of the individual from the group, created
paradoxes in the twentieth century about language
In this foundational essay, Weinreich, Labov
and Herzog also react against the foundational
work of generative phonology, e.g. Morris Halle
(1962), and argue that ... the generative model for
the description of language as a homogenous
object is needlessly unrealistic, and we contend
that it is quite pointless to construct a theory of
change which accepts as input descriptions of
language states that are contrary to fact and
unnecessarily idealized. While Noam Chomsky
and Halle were publishing The Sound Pattern of
English in 1968, the branches of linguistics were
advancingly rapidly and in quantum leaps; however, the expanding technical machinery of
Chomsky and Halles work did not address the
arguments of Weinreich, Labov and Herzog.
Scholars in these branches of linguistics made
little attempt to reconcile for years to come.

Labov has demonstrated, since this early period,

the connection between social factors and language change, but he was not the first to propose
this link. Meillet (1905, 1921) had explicated the
idea of motivation of language change through
social factors, although he and his contemporaries
were unable to provide empirical proof of such
effects on language change. Shuy (1990: 185)
argues that the actual theoretical context of linguistics during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries hampered the investigation of
social influences. With the advent of linguistic
structuralism, the development of systems for
linguistic structure allowed for the inclusion of
social factors in linguistic analysis, as a place to
attach the social meaning found so important in
even the most casual of social studies. Labov
(1966a: 14) positions Meillet as presenting the
right goals for an empirical linguistics in 1905,
before others adopted Saussures exclusive focus
on synchronic abstractions after 1913.8 Koerner
(1991: 64) argues that
Labovs work constitutes a synthesis of earlier
attempts at a sociological approach to questions of
language change, beginning with Meillets paper
of 1905 (if not much earlier) and dialectological
research done in the United States since the 1930s,
which in turn goes back to European traditions
established during the last quarter of nineteenth

Labov also was not the first to combine dialect

geography with diachronic analysis: Yakov Malkiel
(1976) points out that Jakob Jud, in 1914, wrote of
the diffusion of the Latin lexicon, and Ramn
Menndez Pidal, in 1926, combined archivalpaleographic research with spatial analysis to investigate primarily phonological and morphological
data. Malkiel (1976: 60) also notes that a gradual
rapprochement between dialectology and ethnography occurred throughout the twentieth century.
Labov does takes his scholarship into one area
where Malkiel (1976: 61) criticizes early cultural
history language scholars: Labov avoids theoretical weakness and participates in the scholarly
... discussion of what advanced historical research
is or should be ... . Methodological topics were
debated between 19201950 and became regular
benchmarks in Labovs work: the desire for vernacular spontaneity, the value of urban dialects, the
network required to capture dialect nuances, the
value of different types of speakers (e.g. other than
pure dialect speakers), and the expectation of
gruelling and time-consuming extensive data
collection for the language scholar.
Other linguists who influenced Labov worked
on connections between dialectology and structural
linguistics. Martinet (1952, 1955) worked towards


a programme of structural dialectology. Weinreich

(1954) questioned this effort since such a system
arrayed discrete structures over an empirical base
with much more fluid data (see Port and Leary
(2005) for a modern comparison). However,
Moulton (1960, 1962) enacted this programme in
the description of the geographic distribution of
structural variations in the dialects of Swiss
German. Moultons use of structural-dialect geography employed the structures of the phonology,
such as phonological gaps, to explain language
changes. However, some scholars treated dialectology as if it were exempt from this trend in
empirical science: Labov criticizes (1966a: 27)
Herbert Pilch (1955) for his lack of empirical
data, an a-historical approach, in the historical
account of the American vowel system.
From such critiques, the range of ideas and
effort needed to drive forward the cross-sectional
study of language change became wider as the
twentieth century progressed. In reference to
Romance language scholarship, Malkiel (1976:
689) writes:
Reconciling large-scale dialectology with the
sweeping scope of a full-bodied historical
grammar ... and, at the same time, with the tenets
of structuralism would, by 1950, have involved a
three-way venture far too complex and far too
demanding to be undertaken by any individual of
lesser status than a genius. Unfortunately, no
genius from the ranks of Romance scholars appeared
on the scene when one was so desperately

When Labov began his graduate work, in 1961, he

faced the kind of triangulation of fields Malkiel
notes was so daunting. His success in concurrently tackling academic debates in dialectology,
synchronic linguistics and diachronic linguistics
is a testament to his genius and determination.
As with other early scholars associated with the
foundation of sociolinguistics, such as Roger
Shuy for the USA and John Gumperz for India,9
Labov commanded extensive knowledge of dialectology. His mentor, Uriel Weinreich, directed
the project on the Language and Culture Atlas of
Ashkenazic Jewry.10 Weinreich (1953, 1954) had
also wrestled with how to integrate traditional
dialectology with structural linguistics, where he
argued that the chasm between structural and dialectological studies was deeper than it ever had
been. Yet, Weinreich sees them both as components of linguistics. It is not clear that formal
generative grammarians in the next decade would
have made the same assumption of the shared
basis for those two fields.11 Labov adopted and
modified dialectological interview techniques for
his masters thesis about Marthas Vineyard and


his dissertation on the Lower East Side of New

York City. Labov states:
Theres no question that the sociolinguistic interview as we practice it today comes out of dialect
geography and dialectology. As I listen to the early
interviews in Marthas Vineyard, I find a lot of
emphasis upon individual words and asking people
direct questions about language which came from
dialect geography. Thats true of the New York
City study too. A lot of time was wasted asking
people about crullers and pot cheese and other
local terms (Gordon, 2006: 336).

Labovs renunciation of some dialectological

techniques, while not abandoning dialectology
overall, resulted in a changed discipline (see also
Labov, 1984). Weinreich himself (1951), in his
Columbia dissertation a decade earlier, had initiated his own set of changes in methods which
Labov adopted. These changes involved the direct
observation of synchronic language and interactions with native experts for Romance, German
and Swiss dialects, in order better to understand
language change in this area.
Milroy (1980, 1987) argues that Labovs modifications of traditional twentieth century dialectology do not go far enough to document accurately
the social influences on language variation patterns (see Vetter, this volume). Specifically, she
incorporates social network analysis to study
maintenance of vernacular features, demonstrating strong correlations of network quality and
vernacular language variation patterns. Embracing
the value of this approach, Labov (2001) incorporates these social network analyses into his
description of the effects of social factors on language variation.


Variation, social identity
and language change
Labovs 1963 publication of The social motivation
of a sound change, based on his MA thesis,
marked a turning point in the study of language
change. Labov began with Sturtevants (1907)
argument that sound change starts in a few words
and may then spread by analogy to others of the
same class. The change may progress slowly and
only end up appearing as a regular process. Labov
investigated the variation of the vowels /ay/ and
/aw/ and their raised and centralized variants, [ y]
and [ w], on Marthas Vineyard, an island off the
coast of Massachusetts, USA. Labov knew about
the history of these vowels and other features of



the area from the Linguistic Atlas of New England

(LANE), and a previous study of some families on
the island, hence incorporating dialect study into
the study of language change. On this island, the
rapidly-changing local economy, from fishing to
tourism, strengthened the differentiation of preexisting social divisions. The native up-islanders
resented the outsiders for overshadowing the
traditional industry of fishing, in contrast to
the down-islanders, who supported the tourists.
Labov implemented the apparent-time construct,
assessing the percentage of raised, centralized
vowels variants against age groups, finding that
centralization corresponded with certain age
groups. As importantly, he found that positive
orientation towards Marthas Vineyard corresponded strongly with centralization: those with
positive orientation had a rate of centralized vowel
nuclei over 50 per cent higher than those with a
negative orientation to the island.
The import from this study was at least twofold: first, Labov demonstrated that sound change,
long assumed to be either cataclysmic or glacially
slow, was observable in synchronic variation;
second, sound changes were connected to the
social forces in a community. These were conceptual turning points in the scientific study of language. These issues continue to resonate with
researchers and later studies have re-evaluated the
progress of language change on Marthas Vineyard
(Blake and Josey, 2003; Pope, Meyerhoff and
Ladd, 2007).
Because Labovs doctoral dissertation about
variation and change in the Lower East Side of
New York City (NYC) (1966a, 2006) was so well
designed, it continues to yield a series of compelling arguments about the nature of language variation and change, as well as the methodology for
studying it. It marked a turning point in the study
of dialects (Becker and Coggshall, 2009). A tremendous wealth of material unfolds from the
NYC study. For one thing, it operationalized
social categories in new ways. For example, social
class is treated in this study as a composite of
education and occupation. As a result of this
study, the bar for planning a dialect study was set
higher than it had ever been before. The NYC
study demonstrates how to research linguistic patterns rigorously through empirical observation
and analysis. It shows how social factors, such as
social class and style shifting, affect language patterns in structured ways. It is characterized by
rigorous systematicity in the definition of every
variable under study: the phonological variables
and their variants; careful delineation of socioeconomic class and the use of information from the
Mobilization For Youth survey on education,
income and occupation; and the exacting delineation of style, whereby different portions of the

interview are labelled according to channel cues

of the speakers. Labov is also concerned with the
best representation of his findings in tables and
The NYC study established the theoretical
concept of the linguistic variable (Wolfram,
1991), although the term had been used in Labov
(1963). The linguistic variable was originally conceived as a set of semantically-equivalent variants
which alternated with each other in the production
of a variable context: a variable such as (r) could
have two variants, constricted and unconstricted
[r], which would be in competition with each
other. The benefit of the linguistic variable as a
conceptual entity was that variation could be
handled in a systematic manner by quantitatively
tracking the production of variants in different
social and linguistic contexts. The linguistic variable as a theoretical innovation also permitted
multivariate quantitative models of language variation, first implemented by Cedergren (1973) (see
Tagliamonte (2006) for further discussion).
In the NYC study, Labov attended both to the
speech community and to individuals whose linguistic behaviour departed from that of the group.
In fact, Labov writes (2006: 157) that one effect
that he has hoped for from the NYC study was the
inclusion of individuals (such as Nathan B. and
Josephine P., both subjects of analysis in the
study) in other sociolinguistic analyses. However,
most sociolinguistic studies have shied away from
thorough studies of individuals. Following his
own advice, in Labov (2001) he searched for the
leaders of language change (2001: 500) as one
approach to understanding the causes and motivations for language change. Of these leaders, he
writes, The history of our leaders of linguistic
change is a history of nonconformity, and their
sociolinguistic position is a display of nonconformity (2001: 410).
The thoroughness of Labovs work is reflected
in the appendices to his published dissertation. For
most sociolinguists, if potential subjects say they
do not want to be interviewed, that is the end of
their role in the study. Labov persisted beyond
these initial rejections. Under a different guise, he
conducted telephone interviews with 33 subjects
who had refused to be interviewed in person: Out
of a total of 195 potential subjects for the American
Language Survey (ALS) study,12 122 were interviewed; of the 73 refusals, 33 were called on the
telephone and surveyed about their TV reception
in the area, gathering data on the variables in
question. Labov presents the results from an
analysis of these 33 speakers language in
Appendix D (Labov, 2006). In another appendix,
Labov presents results from 37 ALS interviews
with non-native New Yorkers. For Labov, they
were another opportunity to view the speech



community, and hence language, from a new perspective. Additionally, Labov provides the results
from experiments designed to assess the social
evaluation of language by NYC residents. Labov
emphasizes that experiments are needed to study
normative behaviour, necessary to understand the
grammar of the speech community in an effort to
study language change.

(Labov 1969). Labov (1969a: fn20; 1972b: 72)

states (small caps removed):

The linguistic variable and the

variable rule

This principle is a basic, and unquestioned, part of

variationist methodology today, but at the time,
Labov was guarding against scholars picking
and choosing data to conveniently (retro)fit their
Another significant work in this regard, and
one of the ones which placed nonstandard dialects
in the focus of linguistic analysis, was Labovs
work on negation. Labov (1972d) compares the
standard English negation of any with three kinds
of negative transfer in Black English: negative
attraction to subject any (e.g. *Anybody doesnt
Nobody goes), negative postposing to indeterminates (e.g. She doesnt like anything
likes nothing), and negative concord (e.g. They
dont like anything
They dont like nothing).
Labovs paper is an analysis of data drawn from
Labov et al. (1968),15 working from contemporary
assumptions about deep and surface structure, and
even incorporating the formal linguistic methods
of abstracted intuitions and grammaticality judgments with variationist methodology: In this and
other studies, we combine the abstract analysis of
our intuitive data with naturalistic observation of
language in use, and supplement this with experimental tests of well-defined variables (Labov,
1972d: 775). Although he does bring some diachronic concerns into play, his main focus is the
morphological realm of the synchronic state of
Black English. Buchstaller (2009) discusses
updates and current debates about Labovs methods for quantifying the variable with variation
beyond phonology: In variationist sociolinguistics, this procedure is referred to as clos[ing] the
set that defines the variable (Labov 1996a: 78),
which is especially important when working with
more complex variables, which (morpho-) syntactic variables and discourse variables often are.
After Labov (1966a), scholars empirically
studying language variation and change have conceptualized variation in terms of sociolinguistic
variables. For Labov, the search for variables was
not the cumulative goal, however. Labov (2006:
32) decries the peculiar practice of dissertating
students searching for a variable to study, rather
than attempting to study the synchronic variation
and ongoing diachronic variation of a speech
community. For Labov, the exacting empirical
description of the speech communitys linguistic

The variable rule was officially introduced in

Labov (1969a), but the machinery for it, the linguistic variable,13 was theoretically integrated into
the study of language in Weinreich, Labov and
Herzog (1968: 167).14 Earlier scholars (e.g. Harris,
1951) had discussed variants, but these were not
seen as part of a coherent system regulated by a
linguistic module in the mental grammar (i.e. a
variable). In the NYC study, Labov (1966a) analyzed five variables, orthographically distinguished
from phonemes via parentheses: (r), (h), (oh),
(th), (dh). Although the term linguistic variable
was used in Labov (1963), the notations for it
were still represented as phonemes (e.g. /ay/) and
the variants as allophones [ay].
Labovs 1969a article on copula deletion used
the formal logic of contemporary generative grammar and helped to bring variable rules into mainstream linguistics. Labov (1969a: 737 fn. 20)
describes the advantage of variable rules over the
concept of free variation. Hazen (2007b), Green
(2007) and Guy (2007) highlight a few of the
areas of more traditional linguistic fields where
quantitative formalizations of empirical observations have become a standard for evaluating the
validity of scholarship. Labov (1969a) applied the
concept of the variable rule to the copula absence
described in Labov et al. (1968). Notably, social
factors did not play a role but were separately
considered in Labov (1969a), in contrast to
Weinreich et al. (1968: 170) where the formula for
the linguistic variable included ... linguistic or
extralinguistic ... factors. Fasold (1991) argues
that Labovs theoretical choice to consider linguistic factors separately from social factors is the
most productive manner for analyzing linguistic
variation. In addition, one of the initial stipulations
of variable rules was that categorical application of
a regular linguistic rule was constrained by variable input (1969a: 738). However, the variable rule
has fallen out of favour since that time. Fasold
(1991) notes that scholars have largely abandoned
variable rules as a descriptive mechanism, although
the construct of the variable is widely used.
Perhaps the most accepted and lasting import of
the variable rule is the principle of accountability

That any variable form (a member of a set of alternative ways of saying the same thing) should be
reported with the proportion of cases in which the
form did occur in the relevant environment, compared to the total number of cases in which it
might have occurred.



system was the main point. The variables were

only means to that end.

Labovs work in education

Reflecting the educational concerns and larger
social troubles of the 1960s, A. Hood Roberts, in
Labov (1969c: iii), notes that ... the urgency of
the need for a new research approach and solutions became prominent during the last decade as
a result of massive social problems. The motivation for defending minority varieties of English
came from attacks on these varieties by educational scholars who promoted ... the explicit
assumption that the language of culturally
deprived children ... is not merely an underdeveloped version of standard English, but is basically
a non-logical mode of expressive behavior (Labov
1969c: 47). The subtlety of Labovs linguistic
assessment combined with his sociopolitical critique established him as the linguist with the final
word: minority dialects are both logical and fully
developed forms of language.
Much of Labovs educational writing was
based on work done in Harlem by a collaborative
team he directed. This work was one of the first
scholarly efforts to describe minority speech communities in the USA. As Lavandera (1989: 4)
notes, numerous scholars, including Dell Hymes
(see Johnstone and Marcellino, this volume), were
calling for a socially-realistic linguistics at the
time. The research team of William Labov, Paul
Cohen, Clarence Robins and John Lewis undertook such a project between 1965 and 1967 with
the goals being
... to determine (1) differences in the structure of
non-standard Negro English (NNE) and standard
English (SE), and (2) differences in the ways in
which speakers of these dialects use language,
with emphasis on the speech events, verbal skills,
and social controls which govern the development
of the vernacular (Labov et al., 1968).

With this study, they were directly providing an

empirical argument against the widespread educational belief in the culturally deprived child.
The basic premise was that children who did not
receive cultural enrichment similar to (white)
middle-class families were not able to handle the
requirements of school and therefore were destined to failure. For example, Fred M. Hechinger,
the Education Editor of the New York Times,
wrote, All the evidence today indicates that children from a home background that not only is
economically and socially at the lowest level but
lacks family orientation toward formal learning

are virtually excluded from success in school

(1966: 2).
The main area of deprivation on which scholars
focused was language. Scholars in education did
not believe that either the language or the social
environment fostering language worked well or
at all: ... the slum home is a place of little opportunity for infants to talk, question, and seek
answers (Hechinger, 1966). Carl Bereiter,
Siegfried Engelman, Jean Osborn and Philip A.
Reidford presented a study, based on assumptions
from two works Negro Intelligence and Selective
Migration (Lee, 1951) and Early Education of the
Mentally Retarded (Kirk, 1958) where they
argue that culturally deprived children did not
think because their language was so deprived
that they could not think. Their solution was for
the preschool to lay the foundations of language
logic directly. They write (Hechinger, 1966: 105),
... culturally deprived children do not just think at
an immature level: many of them do not think at
all. It is clear, in Bereiter et al.s article, that the
narrative categorization of speech is essential to
distinguish thought from non-thought (Hechinger,
1966: 107):
They are oblivious of even the most extreme discrepancies between their actions and statements
as they follow one another in a series. They do not
just give bad explanations. They can not give
explanations at all, nor do they seem to have any
idea of what it is to explain an event. The question
and answer process which is the core of orderly
thinking is completely foreign to most of them.

In reaction to such opinions, Labov, Cohen,

Robins and Lewis (1968) presented a two-volume
report (732 pages) empirically refuting the foundational assumptions of the culturally-deprived
view of language. From this work came Labovs
Logic of Nonstandard English (1969b; see also
Labov, 1972a), which presented Labovs view to a
greatly expanded audience.
Labovs interest in narrative was fuelled in part
by educational scholars ignorance about the systematic nature of spontaneous, vernacular talk.16
In Labov and Waletsky (1967), republished in
1997, Labov set out to provide a formal characterization of personal experience narratives, using
narratives collected on Marthas Vineyard and in
New York in the course of his sociolinguistic
interviews. Labovs study of narrative tried to
understand vernacular speakers in context. In a
very influential paper called The Logic of NonStandard English, Labov (1969b: 54) describes
narrative interactions between students and teachers. The narratives of the non-standard speakers,
often seen by educators as illogical or incoherent,


are recast by Labov as clear expressions in a

rule-governed system. Using the logical formalizations of the linguistics of the time, he argues for
the legitimacy of non-standard English, by showing that African-American students narratives are
in some ways more logical than those of White
adults (Labov 1969b: 55).


Since 1994, Labov has published two tomes in the
three-volume set entitled Principles of Linguistic
Change (Labov 1994, 2001). Volume I17 deals
with internal factors, predominantly drawing from
work begun for Labov, Yaeger and Steiner (1972),
the Linguistic Change and Variation project conducted in Philadelphia and eastern Pennsylvania
from 1973 to 1979, and the work of Herold (1990)
and Poplack (1979, 1980a, 1980b). Volume I predominantly explores the linguistic mechanics of
vowel mergers and chain shifts. Volume II18 deals
with social factors, incorporating the findings of
the internal factors developed in Volume I. Volume
II explores stable and changing linguistic variables, neighbourhoods and ethnicity, gender, age
and social class, while portraying the leaders of
linguistic change and charting their defining characteristics. It also explores how scholars solve the
problems of transmission, incrementation and
continuation of linguistic change.19
In 2006, Labov, Sharon Ash and Charles Boberg
published The Atlas of North American English.20
The authors and a team of researchers collected
data from 762 speakers over the telephone in reading passages, word lists and more casual interviews. Four hundred and thirty-nine of the
interviews underwent acoustic analysis. Their
major goals were to delimit the dialect areas of
North America, primarily on the basis of speakers
vowel systems, and to take account of the mechanism, the causes, and the consequences of linguistic change (Labov et al., 2006: v). This atlas takes
up boundaries of perception as well as production
in its search for sound changes in progress. Vowels
had been part of traditional dialectologys repertoire of tools for deciding dialect boundaries, but
Labov and his colleagues have greatly enhanced
the acoustic analysis of vowel systems in dialectological work.21 By analysing the entire orchestra
of vowels, their movements and pressures, Labov,
Ash and Boberg describe fine linguistic distinctions amongst large geographic regions. Their
work represents a comprehensive sketch of English
in North America, and they encourage other scholars to complete their sketch with studies of local


As seen in his most recent interview (Gordon,
2006: 338), Labov continues to search for the
comprehensive principles he can find for language: for example, principles of chain shifting
(Labov, 1994: 116) or social principles such as
the Nonconformity Principle (Labov, 2001: 516).
The impact of Labovs efforts should also be
assessed by their effect on how linguistic scholarship is conducted. Perhaps the most rewarding
component of his legacy has been his impact on
his students at the University of Pennsylvania
and the many students he has assisted from around
the world. Labovs former students are themselves highly productive and innovative language
Despite his sweeping influence as teacher and
scholar, the conglomerate field of sociolinguistics
is not uniformly a Labovian field. In the introduction to Volume I of the Principles of Linguistic
Change, Labov remarks that his view of theorizing may not be in line with that of other students
of sociolinguistics who argue for a sociolinguistic
theory. Labov (1994: 4) does not attempt to model
all possible relations between past and present
language systems, but leans towards approaches
in sciences like biology and geology, proceeding
... steadily from the known to the unknown,
enlarging the sphere of our knowledge on the foundation of observation and experiment in a cumulative manner (1994: 5). This approach is in contrast
to making more general statements (theories) and
then deducing from them expectations of what
can be found in certain communities. Labov
instead works towards finding an explanation
based on internal factors of linguistic change, an
explanation which must ultimately ... find its
causes in a domain outside of linguistics: in
physiology, acoustic phonetics, social relations,
perceptual or cognitive capacities (1994: 5). It is
towards this end of explanation that Labov has
guided his work for over four decades.

1 As with any historical view of an ongoing academic endeavor (Hazen, 2007a, 2007b), this chapter
is one scholars perspective. It should therefore be
read as an interpretation and, accordingly, part of a
larger conversation about how the fields analyzing
language in society have developed.
2 Labov cites for the precise statement concerning idiolects Zellig Harriss (1951: 9) Methods
in Structural Linguistics: These investigations are
carried out for the speech of one particular person,



or one community of dialectally identical persons,

at a time ... .
3 As part of this debate, Uriel Weinreich wrote
a review of Hocketts (1958) A Course in Modern
Linguistics where Hockett creatively reiterated
Bloomfields view. Weinreich argued that a view
which holds up changes in the past as theoretically
interesting in contrast to current change is neither
sufficient nor necessary (Weinreich, 1959).
4 Although perhaps not a direct influence, the
work of Kenneth Burke (1969) on identification
should be part of future scholarship on the history of
the study of language and self since that work has
connections with Labovs on several levels.
5 Lavandera (1988) asserts that Labov (1969a)
and (1972g) focus on the systematicity of performance in contrast to the systematicity of competence.
I disagree with that assertion. I suspect Labov viewed
the boundary between the two as illusory and as
simply a fabrication to allow for weak data. Labovs
search for robust data in the speech community
(abstracted from the grammar of the individual and
hence not the grammar of an idiolect) does not fit
the profile of performance as Chomsky (1965)
describes it (cf. also Jackendoff 2002 for a critique of
Chomskyan performance).
6 Most assessors of linguistic history (e.g.
Koerner, 1991: 65) put the first use of the English
term sociolinguistics at 1952 by Haver C. Curie
7 Weinreich, Labov and Herzog use the term
idiolect throughout the chapter, but the term idiolect was not in print until 1948 (Hazen, 2006).
8 Labov at times contextualizes previous
scholars in his own line of thought through his
translations of their work. For example, he translates
(2006: 11) the following line to have variables as
the noun whereas Meillet has variable conditions:
car il resterait dcouvrir les conditions variables qui
permettent ou provoquent la ralization des possiblits ainsi reconnues (Meillet, 1921: 1617).
9 Although Gumperz is renowned for his work
with dialects of India, his dissertation focused on a
Swabian dialect (German) of third-generation farmers in Michigan. Hence, Gumperz, who studied at
the University of Michigan, has his roots, in part, in
American dialectology.
10 Labov, in Gordon (2006: 334), argues that If
Weinreich had lived, I think two things would have
happened. Studies of languages in contact would be
pursued much more vigorously as a part of sociolinguistics. And, most important, dialect geography
would have advanced much more strongly in the
past forty years.
11 Although the contrast between generative
grammarians and sociolinguists is sometimes made,
many scholars of language variation and change
also assume that a mental grammar generates a
potentially infinite set of utterances. Variationists just

contest the assumptions of categoricity and the resulting methodological choices (see Chambers, 2003).
12 The American Language Survey was the basis
for Labov (1966a).
13 Weinreich et al. (1968: 167) write: To
account for such intimate variation, it is necessary to
introduce another concept into the mode of orderly
heterogeneity which we are developing here: the
linguistic variable a variable element within the
system controlled by a single rule. The term variable
rule does come up in footnote 56 on page 170, but
it is presented without comment.
14 Although, in section 3.21 on Coexistent
Systems, Weinreich, Labov and Herzog (1968: 159)
discuss forms from different language systems (in
one speaker):
In terms of the model of a differentiated language system that we are developing, such
forms share the following properties: (1) They
offer alternative means of saying the same
thing: that is, for each utterance in A there is a
corresponding utterance in B which provides
the same referential information (is synonymous) and cannot be differentiated except in
terms of the over-all significance which marks
the use of B as against A.
15 Labovs (1972d) paper had first been presented in 1968 at the LSA winter meeting.
16 Labov and Fanshel (1977) take up a different
track of narrative analysis by analysing a psychologists doctorpatient relations.
17 Reviewed by Kretzschmar (1996).
18 Reviewed by Kretzschmar (2005).
19 Volume III is in progress at the time of
writing. The draft chapters are available at: http://
20 This book is reviewed in Bailey (2007). Some
critics view this work as a return to traditional dialectology, with a lack of representative sampling in any
one area.
21 See Thomas (2001) for a discussion of Labovs

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