The field of dialectology, the study of the language of an area or group of people, has a long tradition within linguistics. From the earliest dialect studies, a focus on rigorous methodological practices has been an ever-present component of this discipline. Traditional methodologies can be seen in the work of the early dialect atlases, which relied heavily on mail questionnaires or fieldworkers that would chronicle the pronunciation, grammatical features, and lexicon of residents of particular regions. More recent technological innovations, such as GIS and online survey methods and applications, have brought multidisciplinary approaches to the study of dialects, as well as allowing for broader and more robust studies of geographic areas and social groups. The influence and interface of dialectology on various linguistic disciplines is noteworthy. Dialectological methods have most commonly been utilized in historical linguistics, sociolinguistics/language variation and change, and language endangerment/documentation. Within each of these disciplines, the adoption of methods from dialectology has allowed for the systematic study of language across geographic and social space, as well as across time.
Matthew J. Gordon
William Labov (b. 1927) is an American linguist who pioneered the study of variationist sociolinguistics. Born and raised in northern New Jersey, Labov studied English and philosophy at Harvard University (BA, 1948) and worked as an industrial chemist for several years before entering graduate school in linguistics at Columbia University in 1961. He completed his PhD in 1964, under the direction of Uriel Weinreich. He worked at Columbia until 1971, when he joined the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania, where he taught until his retirement in 2014. Labov’s influence on the field began with research he conducted in graduate school. His study of changing pronunciations on Martha’s Vineyard, the subject of his master’s thesis, introduced a method for observing sound change in progress and broke with tradition by exploring social motivations for linguistic innovations. For his PhD dissertation, Labov carried out a study of dialect patterns on the Lower East Side of New York City. Using a systematic, quantitative methodology, he demonstrated that linguistic variation is socially stratified, such that the use of pronunciation features (e.g., dropping of post-vocalic /r/) correlates with social class, ethnicity, etc. in regular patterns. Labov’s early research was greatly influential and inspired many scholars to carry out similar projects in other communities. The paradigm came to be known as variationist sociolinguistics. Much of Labov’s scholarship seeks to advance our understanding of language change. Historical linguists traditionally study completed linguistic changes, often long after they occurred, but Labov developed a method for examining active changes through a quantitative comparison of speakers representing several generations. This approach produces a new perspective on the change process by revealing intermediate stages. Labov has brought insights from this research to bear on theoretical debates within historical linguistics and the field more broadly. His work in this area has also documented many active sound changes in American English. Among these changes are innovations underway in particular dialects, such as the vowel changes in Philadelphia, as well as broader regional patterns, such as the Northern Cities Shift heard in the Great Lakes states. Throughout his career, social justice concerns have fueled Labov’s research. He has sought to demonstrate that the speech of stigmatized groups is as systematic and rule-governed as any other. He led a pioneering study in Harlem in the late 1960s that shone new light on African American English, demonstrating, for example, that grammatical usages like the deletion of the copula (e.g., He fast) are subject to regular constraints. Labov has served as an expert witness in court and before the U.S. Congress to share insights from his study of African American English. He has also worked to promote literacy for speakers of non-standard dialects, carrying out research on reading and developing material for the teaching of reading to these populations.
Corpus Phonology is an approach to phonology that places corpora at the center of phonological research. Some practitioners of corpus phonology see corpora as the only object of investigation; others use corpora alongside other available techniques (for instance, intuitions, psycholinguistic and neurolinguistic experimentation, laboratory phonology, the study of the acquisition of phonology or of language pathology, etc.). Whatever version of corpus phonology one advocates, corpora have become part and parcel of the modern research environment, and their construction and exploitation has been modified by the multidisciplinary advances made within various fields. Indeed, for the study of spoken usage, the term ‘corpus’ should nowadays only be applied to bodies of data meeting certain technical requirements, even if corpora of spoken usage are by no means new and coincide with the birth of recording techniques. It is therefore essential to understand what criteria must be met by a modern corpus (quality of recordings, diversity of speech situations, ethical guidelines, time-alignment with transcriptions and annotations, etc.) and what tools are available to researchers. Once these requirements are met, the way is open to varying and possibly conflicting uses of spoken corpora by phonological practitioners. A traditional stance in theoretical phonology sees the data as a degenerate version of a more abstract underlying system, but more and more researchers within various frameworks (e.g., usage-based approaches, exemplar models, stochastic Optimality Theory, sociophonetics) are constructing models that tightly bind phonological competence to language use, rely heavily on quantitative information, and attempt to account for intra-speaker and inter-speaker variation. This renders corpora essential to phonological research and not a mere adjunct to the phonological description of the languages of the world.