Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Oxford Research Encyclopedias, Linguistics. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 06 July 2022

William Labovfree

William Labovfree

  • Matthew J. GordonMatthew J. GordonUniversity of Missouri


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.


  • Historical Linguistics
  • History of Linguistics
  • Linguistic Theories
  • Sociolinguistics

1. Career Overview

William Labov is a leading scholar in the field of sociolinguistics. He has explored a broad range of topics during his career, and he is widely known for the study of language variation and change. The research paradigm that he pioneered is known as variationist sociolinguistics.

Labov was born on December 4, 1927 and spent his childhood in New Jersey. He attended Harvard University and earned his bachelor’s degree in English and philosophy in 1948. After unsuccessful attempts to establish a career as a writer, he took a position with his family’s firm, the Union Ink Company, as a chemist specializing in the formulation of inks for commercial applications such as silk-screening (Labov, 2001a). In 1961, he returned to academic pursuits and began graduate work at Columbia University, choosing linguistics as his field of study. Noam Chomsky and other theorists had recently reinvigorated the discipline, and Labov was drawn by the opportunity to contribute new ways of thinking about language. He completed a master’s degree and a doctorate under the direction of Uriel Weinreich, a scholar of Yiddish who specialized in the study of language contact (e.g., Weinreich, 1953).

Labov’s first major publication, “The Social Motivation of a Sound Change” (1963) derived from his master’s thesis, a study of the dialect of Martha’s Vineyard. His doctoral dissertation explored sociolinguistic patterns in New York City English and was published by the Center for Applied Linguistics in 1966. After earning his PhD in 1964, Labov worked as an assistant professor at Columbia. During this time he directed research in Harlem that focused on the speech of young African Americans. The report of this study appeared in Labov, Cohen, Robins, and Lewis (1968).

Labov joined the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania in 1971. He led a large-scale survey of Philadelphia speech known as the Project on Linguistic Change and Variation. In addition to documenting the local dialect in extraordinary detail, this research served as a training ground for students, many of whom became prominent scholars in the field including John Baugh, Gregory Guy, Shana Poplack, and John Rickford. In the 1990s, Labov directed the Telsur project, which sought to record dialect patterns across all of English-speaking North America based on a survey conducted over the telephone (hence “Telsur”) with speakers from every U.S. and Canadian city with a population over 50,000. The results of this ambitious study appeared in the Atlas of North American English (Labov, Ash, & Boberg, 2006; see also Labov, 2012).

Throughout his career, Labov has published research on a range of topics within sociolinguistics as well as in discourse analysis and historical linguistics. His influence has also been felt in adjacent disciplines such as anthropology, sociology, and education. He served as president of the Linguistic Society of America in 1979 and was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1993. The Franklin Institute recognized Labov’s accomplishments in 2013 with the Benjamin Franklin Medal in Computer and Cognitive Science. In 2015, he received the Smith Medal in Linguistics from the British Academy. Labov retired from teaching in 2014, but maintains an active research agenda. He is co-editor of Language Variation and Change, which he established in 1989, and of the Journal of Linguistic Geography, which he co-founded in 2012.

2. Foundations of Variationist Sociolinguistics

Within the broad field of sociolinguistics, Labov developed a research paradigm known as the study of language variation and change, or variationist sociolinguistics. One of the hallmarks of this approach is its reliance on empirical observation of language in use. The linguistic data analyzed come from more or less authentic discourse contexts. Broadly speaking, the goal of variationist research is to uncover patterns in the use of variable linguistic forms. Quantitative methods are essential in revealing such patterns because usage is typically a matter of the relative frequency of one form versus a competing form rather than a categorical preference. Labov was not the first linguist to employ statistical analysis in the study of linguistic patterns, but he introduced a systematic approach to these issues that was well grounded in a broader theory about the inherent variability of language.

2.1 Martha’s Vineyard

Labov carried out the research that became his master’s thesis on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. This project focused on the pronunciation of the diphthongs /ai/ (as in price or hide) and /au/ (as in mouth or loud). Labov noticed that these phonemes are pronounced with varying degrees of raising of the nuclei from a low [a] to a mid [ə]. To assess the social distribution of these variable pronunciations among the local population, Labov sampled the speech of 69 native Vineyarders representing several locales on the island, various occupations, different ethnic groups, and a broad age range. He recorded each participant’s speech in a semi-structured interview. The full details of this study are reported in Labov (1963).

One of Labov’s methodological innovations in this study was the development of a numerical index to measure a speaker’s pronunciation tendencies. He coded the phonetic realizations of the two diphthongs on a four-point scale according to the height of the nucleus. Then, for each speaker he calculated an average based on their pronunciation of several tokens of each vowel during the interview. He also grouped speakers by various demographic categories as a means of examining sociolinguistic patterns. Among his most robust findings was the pattern related to age: each generation favored raised diphthongs more than the previous one. Labov interpreted this result as evidence of an active sound change; probing further, he argued that the increasing use of the raised forms represented a way for locals to assert their identity as Vineyarders in response to an influx of tourists and other part-time residents.

In asserting that language change could be observed while it was in progress, Labov challenged established thinking in historical linguistics (e.g., Bloomfield, 1933), which held that the change process involved chaotic fluctuations rendering it difficult or even impossible to detect until after it had run its course. The study also broke with more orthodox approaches by proposing that the change was driven by social motivations. Traditional research emphasized the role of language-internal, structural factors (e.g., ease of articulation, analogy) in spurring change. Appeals to speakers’ attitudes and social attributes were uncommon and likely to be met with skepticism. Nevertheless, Labov’s thorough documentation both of the linguistic variation and of the socio-cultural context on the island made a strong case, and broadened horizons in the study of language change.

2.2 New York City

Labov expanded the general framework he pioneered on Martha’s Vineyard in his dissertation study of New York City speech. A slightly modified version of the PhD thesis appeared as The Social Stratification of English in New York City, originally in 1966 with a much expanded second edition in 2006. Several chapters from Sociolinguistic Patterns (Labov, 1972b) come from this study and build on the observations originally made there. The New York research rocketed Labov to great prominence within linguistics and inspired many scholars to work in this new sociolinguistic paradigm (see, e.g., narratives recorded in Tagliamonte, 2016).

The main part of Labov’s study involved a survey of the Lower East Side neighborhood of Manhattan. As he had on Martha’s Vineyard, he sought a sample that would represent the social diversity of the community, giving particular emphasis to differences in socioeconomic class and ethnicity. He collected speech data from 158 people, but his analysis focused on a core group of 81 native New Yorkers. He again relied on semi-structured interviews for gathering samples of speech though he expanded this protocol to record a wider stylistic range from each interviewee (see section 3 below). The linguistic scope was similarly expanded from the earlier study. Labov concentrated his investigation on five phonological variables: the vowels /æ/ and /ɔ/, which are commonly raised in New York City speech, the fricatives /θ‎/ and /ð/, which may be realized as stops, and post-vocalic /r/, which is variably vocalized or dropped altogether. To assess usage of these features, he drew on numerical indexes similar to those used to examine diphthong raising on Martha’s Vineyard.

Much of the impact of Labov’s study stems from his success in countering the popular impression that New York speech is haphazard, and that, for example, a New Yorker pronounces the /r/ in park randomly or arbitrarily. He demonstrated instead that underlying the apparent chaos were regular patterns of correlation between linguistic forms and social factors. Among his most important findings were those related to social class. The participants in the study were divided into nine categories, ranging from lower to working to middle class. With all of the pronunciation features he examined, Labov found clear patterns of stratification by social class. For example, all New Yorkers pronounce words like these and those sometimes with [ð] and sometimes with [d]. They differ, however, in the relative frequencies with which they use each variant, and those differences correlate with their social class such that the lower class use the [d] variant at higher rates than the working class who use it at higher rates than the middle class. Labov also discovered that the phonological variation is shaped by speaking styles. Thus, New Yorkers use the [d] variant more frequently when engaged in casual conversation than when answering direct questions or reading aloud. Moreover, the patterns of stratification by social class generally hold across speaking styles. All New Yorkers adjust their usage according to the speech context, and they move in the same direction while maintaining the social distinctions. Such observations led Labov to develop the concept of the speech community as a group “not defined by any marked agreement in the use of language elements, so much as by participation in a shared set of norms” (1972b, p. 120).

In addition to the Lower East Side community project, Labov carried out a side study that examined the pronunciation of post-vocalic /r/ among employees at three department stores. The research sought to test whether the strong pattern of stratification found with this feature in the speech of members of different social classes could also be observed in the usage of New Yorkers of a single social class whose jobs caused them to interact with different social strata. He chose stores catering to different classes of customers: Saks for the upper class, Macy’s for the middle class, and S. Klein’s for the working class. He developed an innovative procedure for gathering examples of natural speech. Posing as a customer he entered each store and approached the staff to ask where he would find a department he knew to be on the fourth floor. When the employee answered “fourth floor,” Labov pretended not to hear which elicited a repetition of the phrase. In this way, he collected tokens of the /r/ variable in two different phonological environments (pre-consonantal in fourth and word-final in floor) and two stylistic contexts (the initial utterance and the more careful repetition). He followed this procedure for 264 employees in the three stores. The results confirmed his hypothesis about sociolinguistic stratification as he found the highest rates of dropping post-vocalic /r/ at S. Kleins and the lowest rates at Saks, with Macy’s in between the two. In addition to providing a fresh perspective on class-based variation, the study serves as a model for a useful methodology that is known as the rapid and anonymous survey.

2.3 Empirical Foundations for a Theory of Language Change

With the Martha’s Vineyard and New York City studies, Labov introduced new methods for studying language variation and change. These works were informed by a conceptualization of language that recognizes the influence of both linguistic and social structures. Working with their mentor Uriel Weinreich, Labov and a fellow student, Marvin Herzog, elaborated this line of thinking about language in a 1968 paper that serves as a manifesto for the variationist endeavor.

Weinreich, Labov, and Herzog (1968) observe that dominant theories of language perceive a tension between linguistic structure and variation. Language is thought to stand as a fundamentally homogenous object, one that depends on speakers sharing a set of consistent rules for phonology, grammar, etc. The fact that speakers actually vary in their use of a language seems to challenge the assumed uniformity of the underlying system. The resolution of this apparent paradox, according to Weinreich, Labov, and Herzog (1968), lies in the notion of orderly heterogeneity (p. 100), which holds that variable structures can nevertheless be rule-governed. Labov’s research, especially his New York City study, gives ample evidence that variation is not random but highly patterned. The idea that a speaker’s language competence involves a command of heterogeneous structures became a fundamental tenet of variationist sociolinguistics, a discipline that is in large part devoted to uncovering the patterns characterizing such structures.

The 1968 paper also lays out a series of problems inherent in the study of language change. These include the Transition Problem, which concerns how a language passes from one stage to another, and the Evaluation Problem, which deals with social perceptions of changes as they move through a speech community. The greatest challenges stem from the Actuation Problem, which asks, “Why do changes in a structural feature take place in a particular language at a given time, but not in other languages with the same feature, or in the same language at other times?” (Weinreich, Labov, & Herzog, 1968, p. 102). The statement of these questions set an agenda for the variationist investigation of linguistic change.

3. Speech Styles

Sociolinguists explore variation across speakers and groups as well as within an individual speaker’s repertoire. The former includes differences in social and regional dialects, while the latter involves speaking styles. Labov pioneered the variationist study of stylistic differences in his New York City project. The methodological key to this endeavor is the sociolinguistic interview as a data collection technique. Linguists seeking to document a person’s stylistic range face a dilemma known as the Observer’s Paradox: “the aim of linguistic research in the community must be to find out how people talk when they are not being systematically observed; yet we can only obtain these data by systematic observation” (Labov, 1972b, p. 209). Labov designed the sociolinguistic interview as a means of mitigating this problem.

A typical sociolinguistic interview engages the subject in a range of speech tasks. There are basic demographic questions as well as items that probe personal and family background. Often interviewees are asked to read aloud prepared materials such as story passages or word lists. The greatest challenge comes in capturing a person’s most informal speech, the style they would use in casual conversation with close friends. This style, which Labov calls the vernacular, is highly prized and felt to represent the most systematic speech because it is less affected by normative pressures such as concerns about correctness (Labov, 1972b, p. 208). One technique that Labov developed to draw out the vernacular style was the danger-of-death question, which asks speakers to discuss a time that their life was under threat.

The stylistic variation revealed over the course of a sociolinguistic interview is often as regular as the variation across groups of speakers categorized by class, ethnicity, etc. In New York City, for example, Labov found the highest rates of dropping post-vocalic /r/ in casual (vernacular) speech, while in careful speech (e.g., answering typical interview questions) the rates were lower. Rates of /r/-dropping were lower still when reading prose passages, and the lowest rates were associated with reading words in a list. Labov accounted for such patterns of style shifting with a framework of varying awareness. This model explained the differences as a matter of how much attention a speaker pays to their speech. With a phonological variable, the task of reading, especially pronouncing words from a list, prompts people to attend carefully to their usage whereas they are more concerned with what they say than with how they say it when telling a personal narrative. Several competing models have challenged Labov’s account of style shifting, and the contributions in Eckert and Rickford (2001) represent the diverse perspectives on the matter.

4. Language Change

Labov has devoted much of his scholarly attention to the study of linguistic change. He has investigated sound changes in many varieties of English, from Martha’s Vineyard and New York to Philadelphia and Chicago. His Atlas of North American English (Labov et al., 2006) records several examples of changes throughout the continent. He has also sought to contribute to broader theoretical conversations about language change, as seen in his three-volume Principles of Linguistic Change (1994, 2001b, 2010a). This interest aligns easily with the variationist paradigm because change and variation go hand in hand. Languages do not typically change through the immediate replacement of one form with another, but rather experience periods of variation where innovative forms compete with existing ones before eventually replacing them.

4.1 Language Change in Progress

Labov pioneered the study of language change in progress in his Martha’s Vineyard study (see section 2.1). He drew on the fundamental insight that change could be inferred from comparing speakers of different ages. This apparent-time reasoning assumes that the speech of 60-year-olds represents the language of half a century ago, when those people were acquiring their linguistic habits. Thus, by examining usage across generations at a particular point in time we gain a window into the recent history of a speech community. The accuracy of conclusions drawn on the basis of an apparent-time comparison rests on a person’s speech not changing significantly over the course of their life. Fortunately, longitudinal studies tracking speakers over time show that such linguistic stability generally holds, at least as regards the kinds of speech features studied by Labov (see, e.g., Sankoff & Blondeau, 2007).

Studying active changes opens new perspectives on the process that has traditionally been observed only after the fact. Labov’s approach offers a detailed view of how changes become embedded and spread within the language system and the speech community. For example, in the case of a sound change such as the fronting of /uw/ in Philadelphia, variationist methods reveal that the innovation takes hold first in certain phonological environments (following coronal consonants as in too, noon, do) before spreading to others. Social differentiation is also evident for this change as women show more advanced fronting of the vowel than do men (see Labov, 1990; Labov, Rosenfelder, & Fruehwald, 2013). In the study of sound change, progress can be tracked in minute detail with acoustic measurements. Thus, the frequencies of the first and second formant provide a useful corollary of vowel height and frontness, respectively. Labov championed the introduction of methods of acoustic analysis into sociolinguistic research, and Labov, Yaeger, and Steiner (1972) stands as an influential early demonstration of their value in explorations of sound change.

Linguistic variables, including those undergoing change, differ in the degree of social awareness they bear. Some are highly salient to members of a speech community, while others fly under the perceptual radar. Labov (1972b) identifies three main types of variables related to this parameter. Those bearing overt awareness, as shown, for example, in popular comments or imitations (e.g., “pahk the cah in Hahvahd Yahd” for /r/-dropping in Boston), count as stereotypes in Labov’s typology. Features that are differentiated socially and across speaking styles but are not the subject of conscious awareness are markers. The raising of /æ/ in New York City is such a variable, as Labov found it was stratified by social class, with raising more common at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale, and subject to style-shifting, with the highest rates of raising in casual speech. Labov’s third type, indicators, are characterized by social differentiation but they do not vary stylistically. In this way, they reflect some degree of group membership, but speakers are wholly unaware of their presence in the speech community and do not adjust their usage across discourse contexts. Some phonological mergers such as the one affecting the back vowels of cot and caught operate as indicators.

Labov draws on this typology in his theorizing about the life cycle of linguistic change (1972b, 178–180). Thus, he suggests that changes typically begin as indicators when the innovative usage comes to be adopted by certain groups of speakers. As the change becomes more firmly embedded in the community it attracts some degree of social awareness and people vary their use of it across styles, making it a marker. In some cases the level of awareness rises and the innovative forms become objects of explicit stigma or prestige as stereotypes. Varying degrees of salience also pertain to another distinction Labov proposes, between change from below and change from above. The directions refer to conscious awareness. Most changes operate below the level of awareness. A change from above might involve the adoption of a prestige feature from outside the speech community. Post-vocalic /r/ in New York City stands as a well-known example. Until the middle of the 20th century, /r/-dropping was the norm in the speech of New Yorkers of all social classes, but it has been losing ground since that time. Labov’s research demonstrated that retaining /r/ was increasingly common among younger speakers and that this tendency was stronger in the middle class than the working class. The style-shifting evidence, which showed higher levels of /r/ pronunciation in more careful styles, supported Labov’s interpretation that this was an incoming prestige feature operating as a change from above.

Over the course of his career, Labov has continued to refine and elaborate his thinking on the social and linguistic forces that drive language change. Particularly influential in this regard is his 2007 paper, where he describes the transmission of change within a community through a process of incrementation, by which “successive cohorts and generations of children advance the change beyond the level of their caretakers and role models, and in the same direction over many generations” (p. 346). This process stands in contrast to one of diffusion, which involves change spreading from one community to another via contact between adults. Labov's account is grounded in theories of language learning including the social context of that learning (see discussion of gender differences in section 4.2).

4.2 Principles of Linguistic Change

Through the fieldwork he personally conducted and the larger projects he directed, Labov has amassed a rich database of observations of language changes. He draws on this material to formulate general principles governing linguistic change. As a sociolinguist, Labov naturally explores both linguistic and social factors in seeking to understand the change process. His contributions related to linguistic factors are summarized in the first volume (1994) of his landmark collection, Principles of Linguistic Change, while he takes up the social factors in the second volume (2001b). Volume 3 (2010) explores “cognitive and cultural factors” and illustrates the complex interaction of a range of influences on the change process.

One outgrowth of Labov’s research on language change has been the refinement of concepts developed originally in historical linguistics (see Gordon, 2016). For example, Labov has documented several examples of phonological merger, the process by which a phonemic distinction is neutralized in some environments or lost altogether. Previous work on the subject (e.g., Hoenigswald, 1960) identified various patterns of merger by comparing pre- and post-change stages, but the study of sound change in progress opens new perspectives on what happens in between, revealing how mergers can be driven by different mechanisms (Labov, 1994, pp. 321–323). Labov’s research on mergers also identifies an unanticipated situation involving a discrepancy between what speakers say and what they hear. This scenario, known as near merger, describes the case of a speaker who consistently produces a distinction between sounds but fails to perceive that distinction and reports hearing the sounds as the same (Labov, 1994, pp. 349–390; Labov, Yaeger. & Steiner, 1972, pp. 229–257). The concept of a near merger can shed light on historical reports of sounds merging and later unmerging. Such cases present a dilemma, because ordinarily, mergers cannot be undone (see Labov, 1994, pp. 311–312, on Garde’s Principle). If, however, the reported merger was actually a near merger, its reversal seems more plausible, because the distinction was never fully lost in speakers’ production.

Chain-shifting is another type of sound change that has figured prominently in Labov’s research agenda. A chain shift describes a coordinated series of two or more changes, most commonly movements of vowels. Labov et al. (1972) presented the first detailed account of one such change, a pattern that came to be known as the Northern Cities Shift, which involves changes to six vowels including the /ɔ/ of thought, the /ɑ/ of lot, and the /æ/ of trap. The chain of events related to these vowels, according to Labov (e.g., 1994, p. 184), began with the raising and fronting of /æ/, creating an opening in vowel space which /ɑ/ fronted to fill, thereby creating another opening which /ɔ/ lowered and fronted to fill. Taking these movements together with evidence of many other contemporary and historical shifts in English and other languages, Labov (1994) proposes several principles that describe general patterns of chain-shifting. For example, he notes that peripheral vowels (such as the English tense vowels) tend to become less open or rise in vowel space, while non-peripheral vowels (such as the English lax vowels) tend to move in the opposite direction.

Labov takes a similar approach in his consideration of the role of social factors on language change. He has tended to frame his work in this area around broad demographic categories like social class, ethnicity, and gender. One general tendency he postulated with regard to social class is the Curvilinear Principle: “Linguistic change from below originates in a central social group, located in the interior of the socioeconomic hierarchy” (2001b, p. 188). This principle, which is supported by evidence from his studies of New York City and Philadelphia, serves as a corrective to popular beliefs about language change starting among the less educated lower classes through ignorance or among the elites as an attempt to separate themselves linguistically from the hoi polloi.

With respect to gender, one of Labov’s key observations is the tendency for women to lead in language change (e.g., 2001b, pp. 279–93). This is the case with the fronting of /uw/ in Philadelphia, where women shift the vowel more extremely than do men, and many other such examples are reported in languages around the world. The usual quantitative pattern shows men roughly one generation behind women in their adoption of linguistic innovations. This observation has led Labov to posit an explanation related to language acquisition and gender asymmetries in child-rearing duties. Because women in most societies take primary responsibility in caring for children, their usage serves as a linguistic model more than men’s. Initially, both boys and girls adopt innovations at levels consistent with their mothers’ usage, but incrementation (see section 4.1) operates differently for each gender and girls advance the change beyond their mothers’ level, while boys advance it much less, resulting in the one-generation lag (Labov, 2001b, pp. 446–465; Tagliamonte & D’Arcy, 2009).

The principles that Labov has proposed have held with varying degrees of generality. Counterexamples certainly exist for many of the principles. For example, in some varieties of English (e.g., New Zealand), the lax (non-peripheral) front vowels /æ/, /ɛ/, and /ɪ/ have raised, not lowered as Labov’s chain-shifting principle would dictate. Similarly, there are several reported cases of men leading linguistic changes, including the diphthong raising Labov found on Martha’s Vineyard. Labov acknowledges that his principles are not without exception. Their value lies not so much in establishing hard and fast rules as in stating tendencies, and in so doing, Labov has helped to clarify many issues related to the sociolinguistic study of language change and has effectively shaped the broader research agenda in the field for many decades.

5. African American English

Labov has carried out research on a number of varieties of English during his career, but perhaps nowhere has his work had more wide-ranging impact than in his studies of African American English (AAE). Early on, his interest in this topic led him to direct a project in Harlem that focused on language use among African American children. Labov et al. (1968) offer a complete account of that research, and Labov collected many insights from the project and related work in Language in the Inner City (1972a). He has returned to central questions about the structure and history of AAE in later publications (e.g., Labov, 1998). Beyond the scholarly contributions, Labov’s work on AAE has sought to inform broader societal conversations about this and other non-standard dialects (e.g., Labov, 1982).

Dialectologists and other linguists had investigated African American speech before the 1960s, but the Harlem study stands apart from earlier work in its scale and its implementation of the variationist methods that Labov pioneered in his Lower East Side study (Labov, 1966). The main fieldwork in Harlem involved recorded interviews with over 200 young people (mostly boys ages 10 to 17 years). While some of these were one-on-one interviews, the team found that small-group sessions were useful for putting children at ease and thus for eliciting casual speech. The analysis considered phonological variables, including some like post-vocalic /r/ examined in Labov’s earlier work. They give special attention to exploring the complex variation associated with the simplification of final consonant clusters, the phenomenon heard in virtually all varieties of English, whereby final /t/ and /d/ may be omitted at the end of words when preceded by another consonant (e.g., west [wɛs] in west side; hand [hæn] in hand stand). They also studied several grammatical features of AAE, including the rules of negation that generated the memorable example sentence: “It ain’t no cat can’t get in no coop” (Labov et al., 1968, p. 267). The scope of the project even extends to analyzing the broader socio-cultural context of AAE use. In this regard, they describe various speech events including the exchange of ritualized insults known as sounding or playing the dozens.

Drawing on results from the Harlem project, Labov (1969) presented a landmark study of copula deletion, the grammatical feature of variably omitting is and are (e.g., he __ wild; you __ watching). He spelled out the constraints on deletion and showed how rates of deletion varied by grammatical context. For example, it is more common to omit the is/are before a progressive participle than before a noun phrase complement. Seeking to integrate such observations into contemporary syntactic theory, Labov developed the notion of variable rules. Whereas rules in mainstream generative grammar were thought to operate categorically, Labov proposed rules that were applied optionally, at frequencies determined by variable constraints related to phonological and grammatical environments. The variable rule concept did not gain much traction among generative syntacticians or phonologists, though some of the core elements are reflected in Optimality Theory. Within sociolinguistics, the idea had greater influence. Cedergren and Sankoff (1974) developed Labov’s insights into a complete mathematical model that resulted in VARBRUL, a statistics program for calculating how various factors influence the application of a variable rule. The formalism associated with variables rules has fallen out of favor though the basic reasoning underlying the concept remains a core tenet of variationist sociolinguistics (see Fasold, 1991).

As Labov (1969) observes, the constraints on the deletion of the copula in AAE pattern very closely with those that govern copula contraction in all varieties of English. Thus both deletion and contraction are disallowed at the end of sentences (e.g., We know where she is, but not * We know where she __ / * We know where she’s). These facts led Labov to consider the relationship between these grammatical phenomena and suggest that deletion could represent a kind of further step in the process of reduction that also produces contraction.

More broadly such observations raise questions about the relationship between Standard English and AAE. One of the central debates in this regard is whether the highly distinctive features of AAE represent a separate linguistic system in the mind of a speaker similar to how bilinguals hold two different grammars in their heads. Labov (1998) argues for such co-existent systems whereby an AAE speaker’s mental grammar contains both a “General English” element and an “African American” one. These seemingly abstract questions have relevance in scholarly debates about the historical origins of AAE. Some researchers have noted similarities between grammatical features found in AAE and those in regional dialects like Irish English and have argued that AAE inherited them through dialect contact in colonial America. Other scholars argue that distinctive features in AAE reflect its roots in a creole language similar to Jamaican Patois. Labov favors this creolist hypothesis, citing data related to copula deletion among other evidence where the AAE patterns match closely grammatical constraints found in Caribbean creoles (1998).

Labov’s research on AAE has had ramifications well beyond the field of linguistics. The Harlem study was funded by the federal government’s Office of Education because it was designed to have applications to the teaching of reading. Given the paltry level of basic knowledge about AAE grammar and phonology at the time, a thorough account of the linguistic structures based on authentic speech within the community was needed to inform the development of strategies to improve literacy. While the report of the Harlem project (Labov et al., 1968) did not dwell on such implications of the work, Labov has since devoted much of his research attention to these issues. He has shown how vernacular speech patterns affect reading proficiency and has applied this knowledge to the design of more effective pedagogical tools. He took up these questions in the opening chapter of Labov (1972a), and more recent empirical investigations are reported by Labov and Baker (2010). Labov (2010b) frames the problem of reading failure in a wider social and historical context of residential segregation. Tagliamonte (2016, pp. 125–128) reviews Labov’s efforts in the design of curricular materials.

The challenges that inner-city African American children face in school are compounded by attitudes commonly held by teachers and other educators who view AAE as a hindrance to academic success. Early in his career, Labov took on established thinking among educational psychologists promoting a cultural deficit theory. Essentially these scholars argued that African American children are raised in a culturally impoverished environment lacking sufficient verbal stimulation, and that this situation stunts not only their language development but their cognitive growth as well. Labov countered this view in his essay “The logic of nonstandard English,” which he first presented at a conference in 1968 and included as a chapter in Labov (1972a). The work was reprinted for a general audience in the Atlantic Monthly under the more pointed title “Black Intelligence and Academic Ignorance” (1972c). Labov demonstrated how the claim of verbal deprivation stemmed from researchers’ lack of understanding of AAE and ultimately their unwillingness to consider that nonstandard dialects have rules and that these linguistic systems serve well the complex communication needs of their users.

In 1977, Labov again rose in defense of AAE-speaking children who were mistreated by the educational system (see Labov, 1982). He and other linguists, led by Geneva Smitherman, served as expert witnesses in a legal trial in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The case stemmed from a complaint filed by parents claiming the local school failed to take into account the children’s cultural background as a way of helping them succeed academically. Language took center stage in the trial and Labov and others testified about the structure of AAE, demonstrating that ignorance of such linguistic structure leads teachers to misjudge the intellectual abilities of the children just as the deficit theory psychologists had earlier. The judge sided with the parents (and the linguists) and ordered, among other remedies, training for teachers so they might appreciate the phonological and grammatical patterns of AAE. Unfortunately, this problem of devaluing people based on their language has proven intractable over the years. The national uproar that followed a 1996 proposal by the Oakland, California school board to recognize Ebonics (another label for AAE) as the language of many of their students illustrates how dominant the stigma surrounding AAE is (see, e.g., Baugh, 2000). As it happens, when this Ebonics controversy arose, Labov was once again called to testify about the linguistic facts, this time before the U.S. Senate.

Labov’s efforts to counter popular misconceptions about AAE reflect a commitment to promoting social justice that has motivated much of his work in sociolinguistics. He encapsulated his thinking on the matter in two general principles. The “principle of error correction” holds that scientists who encounter widespread beliefs that they know to be invalidated by their data have an obligation to bring such errors to the attention “of the widest possible audience” (Labov, 1982, p. 172). The “principle of debt incurred” dictates that linguists should use the knowledge they gain for the benefit of the speech communities they study (Labov, 1982, p. 173). These principles have served as a call to action for sociolinguists promoting outreach beyond the academy (e.g., Wolfram, 1998).

6. Discourse Analysis

While the bulk of Labov’s research across his career investigates small units of language—sounds and grammatical structures—he has maintained an interest in the study of larger stretches of discourse. On the surface, this work in discourse analysis may seem tangential to Labov’s main research program, but in fact, it pursues the same general goals and operates by similar principles. If, as Labov holds, sociolinguists are fundamentally driven by “the need to understand why anyone says anything” (1972b, p. 207), they must be willing to look beyond the sentence level.

Within discourse studies, Labov’s strongest influence has come in the area of narrative analysis. This line of research developed organically from his sociolinguistic projects. The interviews he conducted for his studies of phonological and grammatical variation sought to elicit personal stories of meaningful life experiences (e.g. a time when one’s life was in danger). When he examined these stories, he began to notice patterns. In 1967, he co-authored a paper with Joshua Waletzky that set out to define what makes a narrative a narrative and to sketch the core components of narrative structure. They observe, for example, that a successful narrative is not simply a retelling of events but must involve an “evaluation” element, in which the narrator reveals their attitude about the events and their sense of what is important in the tale. Labov and Waletzky’s framework derives from the analysis of hundreds of narratives recorded in sociolinguistic interviews (from Labov, 1963, 1966, and Labov et al., 1968). The research broke new ground in part because they studied the spontaneous narratives of everyday people representing a range of backgrounds, whereas much of the prior research in this area had examined stories from literature or oral traditional performances. Labov has refined and elaborated the model in subsequent publications (e.g., 1972a, 2013). In 1997, the Journal of Narrative and Life History marked the thirtieth anniversary of the original Labov and Waletzky article with a special issue featuring critical reflections on the work from a range of scholars (Bamberg, 1997).

The work on narrative illustrates one avenue Labov has explored in his pursuit of identifying the principles underlying discourse structure. In other research, he has focused on how speakers accomplish social actions through their talk. This question drove the analysis presented in Therapeutic Discourse (1977), which Labov co-wrote with David Fanshel, a professor of social work. This study examines in great detail the language of a therapy session between a patient and her psychotherapist. Labov and Fanshel look beyond the words that are spoken to consider what was intended and how the message was received. As they view it, “conversation is not a chain of utterances, but rather a matrix of utterances and actions bound together by a web of understandings and reactions” (1977, p. 30). In this way conversation operates by an unspoken code of conduct that Labov and Fanshel seek to bring to light. They note, for example, that utterances phrased as questions can function as requests for action (e.g., “When do you plan to come home?”), and they formulate a “rule for indirect requests” that spells out the conditions under which such an interpretation applies (1977, p. 82). In the statement of such rules we see parallels to Labov’s other research where the development of general principles serves as an overarching goal (e.g., 1994, 2001b, 2010a).

7. Critical Analysis of Scholarship

Labov’s influence on sociolinguistics is unparalleled. The variationist approach that he developed was not created in a vacuum but rather builds on existing scholarly traditions within linguistics and in adjacent disciplines such as anthropology. Nevertheless, Labov introduced new methods of analyzing the complex picture of sociolinguistic variation that appears in every speech community. He also developed a theoretical framework to interpret the complex patterns emerging from variationist analyses. Weinreich et al. (1968) first laid out the foundations of the variationist program, and Labov’s later work has continued to explore dimensions of a general theory of language variation and change (see especially 1972b, 1994, 2001b, 2010a).

Any researcher who puts forward bold claims on a wide range of scholarly topics is bound to meet with criticism, and Labov is certainly no exception to this rule. For example, his thinking on style-shifting has been challenged by several scholars (see Eckert & Rickford, 2001), as has his work in narrative analysis (see Bamberg, 1997) and aspects of his AAE research (see Wolfram, 2007). In the last decade or so, a more sustained critique of Labov’s approach has emerged in the form of “third-wave” variationist studies. This label comes from Eckert’s (2012) delineation of trends within the field. The first wave of variationist studies, according to Eckert, produced large-scale surveys like Labov’s New York City project (1966) that explored correlations between linguistic forms and broad demographic categories like class, ethnicity, and sex. In the second wave, more attention was paid to social distinctions with local relevance, and the research had more of an ethnographic orientation. Labov’s Martha’s Vineyard study (1963) represents a precursor to this kind of study that grew more popular in the 1980s. Eckert’s third wave marks a stronger break with variationist tradition by focusing on social action rather than social structures. While previous research framed linguistic variants as markers of static social categories (e.g., high rates of post-vocalic /r/ retention mark a New Yorker as middle class or higher), third-wave variationists view linguistic variables as resources that speakers draw on to construct social meaning through their interactions. In this way, such research aligns with and draws inspiration from linguistic anthropology, while at the same time relying on a fundamentally variationist methodology.

The variationist sociolinguistics that Labov pioneered has grown tremendously over the half century of its existence. It represents the dominant approach to sociolinguistics in North America and the United Kingdom and perhaps elsewhere. The annual NWAV (New Ways of Analyzing Variation) conference has showcased variationist research since 1972, and in 2011 inspired a sister conference, NWAV Asia-Pacific, that features sociolinguistic studies in that region. The journal Language Variation and Change was founded specifically to promote variationist research, though this work now regularly appears in a range of venues.

Links to Digital Material

Further Reading

  • Gordon, M. J. (2006). Interview with William Labov. Journal of English Linguistics, 34, 332–351.
  • Gordon, M. J. (2013). Labov: A guide for the perplexed. London: Bloomsbury.
  • Hazen, K. (2011). Labov: Language variation and change. In R. Wodak, B. Johnstone, & P. E. Kerswill (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of sociolinguistics (pp. 24–39). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.
  • Koerner, K. (1991). Toward a history of modern sociolinguistics. American Speech, 66, 57–70.
  • Labov, W. (1966). The social stratification of English in New York City. Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics.
  • Labov, W. (2006). The social stratification of English in New York City (2d ed.). Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  • Labov, W. (1972b). Sociolinguistic patterns. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Labov, W., Ash, S., & Boberg, C. (2006). Atlas of North American English: Phonology and sound change. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
  • Shuy, R. W. (1990). A brief history of American sociolinguistics, 1949–1989. In F. P. Dinneen, & E. F. K. Koerner (Eds.), North American contributions to the history of linguistics (pp. 183–209). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
  • Tagliamonte, S. A. (2016). Making waves: The story of variationist sociolinguistics. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Weinreich, U., Labov, W., & Herzog, M. (1968). Empirical foundations for a theory of language change. In W. Lehmann, & Y. Malkiel (Eds.), Directions for historical linguistics (pp. 98–188). Austin: University of Texas Press.


  • Bamberg, M. G. W. (Ed.). (1997). Oral versions of personal experience: Three decades of narrative analysis [Special issue]. Journal of Narrative and Life History, 7(1–4).
  • Baugh, J. (2000). Beyond Ebonics: Linguistic pride and racial prejudice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Bloomfield, L. (1933). Language. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.
  • Cedergren, H., & Sankoff, D. (1974). Variable rules: Performance as a statistical reflection of competence. Language, 50, 333–355.
  • Eckert, P. (2012). Three waves of variation study: The emergence of meaning in the study of sociolinguistic variation. Annual Review of Anthropology, 41, 87–100.
  • Eckert, P., & Rickford, J. R. (Eds.). (2001). Style and sociolinguistic variation. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  • Fasold, R. W. (1991). The quiet demise of variable rules. American Speech, 66, 3–21.
  • Gordon, M. J. (2006). Interview with William Labov. Journal of English Linguistics, 34, 332–351.
  • Gordon, M. J. (2013). Labov: A guide for the perplexed. New York: Bloomsbury.
  • Gordon, M. J. (2016). Exploring chain shifts, mergers, and near-mergers as changes in progress. In P. Honeybone, & J. Salmons (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of historical phonology (pp. 173–190). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Hazen, K. (2011). Labov: Language variation and change. In R. Wodak, B. Johnstone, & P. E. Kerswill (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of sociolinguistics (pp. 24–39). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.
  • Hoenigswald, H. (1960). Language change and linguistic reconstruction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Labov, W. (1963). Social motivations of a sound change. Word, 19, 273–309.
  • Labov, W. (1966). The social stratification of English in New York City. Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics.
  • Labov, W. (1969). Contraction, deletion, and the inherent variability of the English copula. Language, 45, 715–762.
  • Labov, W. (1972a). Language in the inner city: Studies in the Black English vernacular. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Labov, W. (1972b). Sociolinguistic patterns. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Labov, W. (1972c). Academic ignorance and black intelligence. Atlantic Monthly, 229: 59–67.
  • Labov, W. (1982). Objectivity and commitment in linguistic science. Language in Society, 11, 165–201.
  • Labov, W. (1990). The intersection of sex and social class in the course of linguistic change. Language Variation and Change, 2, 205–254.
  • Labov, W. (1994). Principles of linguistic change. Vol. 1: Internal factors. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Labov, W. (1998). Co-existent systems in African-American vernacular English. In S. S. Mufwene, J. R. Rickford, G. Bailey, & J. Baugh (Eds.), African-American English: Structure, history and use (pp. 85–109). London: Routledge.
  • Labov, W. (2001a). How I got into linguistics, and what I got out of it. Historiographia Linguistica, 28, 455–466.
  • Labov, W. (2001b). Principles of linguistic change. Vol. 2: Social factors. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
  • Labov, W. (2006). The social stratification of English in New York City (2d ed.). Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  • Labov, W. (2007). Transmission and diffusion. Language, 83, 344–387.
  • Labov, W. (2010a). Principles of linguistic change. Vol. 3: Cognitive and cultural factors. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Labov, W. (2010b). Unendangered dialect, endangered people: The case of African American Vernacular English. Transforming Anthropology, 18, 15–27.
  • Labov, W. (2012). Dialect diversity in America: The politics of language change. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.
  • Labov, W. (2013). The language of life and death: The transformation of experience in oral narrative. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  • Labov, W., Ash, S., & Boberg, C. (2006). Atlas of North American English: Phonology and sound change. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
  • Labov, W., & Baker, B. (2010). What is a reading error? Applied Psycholinguistics, 31, 735–757.
  • Labov, W., Cohen, P., Robins, C., & Lewis, J. (1968). A study of the non-standard English of Negro and Puerto Rican speakers in New York City. Cooperative Research Report 3288. Philadelphia: U.S. Regional Survey.
  • Labov, W., & Fanshel, D. (1977). Therapeutic discourse: Psychotherapy as conversation. New York: Academic Press.
  • Labov, W., Rosenfelder, I., & Fruehwald, J. (2013). One hundred years of sound change in Philadelphia: Linear incrementation, reversal, and reanalysis. Language, 89, 30–65.
  • Labov, W., & Waletzky, J. (1967). Narrative analysis: Oral versions of personal experience. In Helm, J. (Ed.), Essays on the verbal and visual arts (pp. 12–44). Seattle: University of Washington Press.
  • Labov, W., Yaeger, M., & Steiner, R. (1972). A quantitative study of sound change in progress. Philadelphia: U.S. Regional Survey.
  • Sankoff, G., & Blondeau, H. (2007). Language change across the lifespan: /r/ in Montreal French. Language, 83, 560–588.
  • Tagliamonte, S. A. (2016). Making waves: The story of variationist sociolinguistics. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Tagliamonte, S. A., & D’Arcy, A. (2009). Peaks beyond phonology: Adolescence, incrementation, and language change. Language, 85, 58–108.
  • Weinreich, U. (1953). Languages in contact: Findings and problems. The Hague: Mouton.
  • Weinreich, U., Labov, W., & Herzog, M. (1968). Empirical foundations for a theory of language change. In W. Lehmann, & Y. Malkiel (Eds.), Directions for historical linguistics (pp. 98–188). Austin: University of Texas Press.
  • Wolfram, W. (1998). Scrutinizing linguistic gratuity: Issues from the field. Journal of Sociolinguistics, 2, 271–279.
  • Wolfram, W. (2007). Sociolinguistic folklore in the study of African American English. Language and Linguistics Compass, 1, 292–313.