William Labov (pron.: // lə-BOHV; born December 4, 1927) is an American linguist, widely regarded as the founder of the discipline of variationist sociolinguistics. He has been described as "an enormously original and influential figure who has created much of the methodology" of sociolinguistics. He is employed as a professor in the linguistics department of the University of Pennsylvania, and pursues research in sociolinguistics, language change, and dialectology.
Born in Rutherford, New Jersey, he studied at Harvard (1948) and worked as an industrial chemist (1949–61) before turning to linguistics. For his MA thesis (1963) he completed a study of change in the dialect of Martha's Vineyard, which was presented before the Linguistic Society of America. Labov took his PhD (1964) at Columbia University studying under Uriel Weinreich. He taught at Columbia (1964–70) before becoming a professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania (1971), and then became director of the university's Linguistics Laboratory (1977).
The methods he used to collect data for his study of the varieties of English spoken in New York City, published as The Social Stratification of English in New York City (1966), have been influential in social dialectology. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, his studies of the linguistic features of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) were also influential: he argued that AAVE should not be stigmatized as substandard, but respected as a variety of English with its own grammatical rules. He has also pursued research in referential indeterminacy, and he is noted for his seminal studies of the way ordinary people structure narrative stories of their own lives. In addition, several of his classes are service-based with students going out into the West Philadelphia region to help tutor young children while simultaneously learning linguistics from different dialects such as AAVE.
More recently he has studied changes in the phonology of English as spoken in the United States today, and studied the origins and patterns of chain shifts of vowels (one sound replacing a second, replacing a third, in a complete chain). In the Atlas of North American English (2006), he and his co-authors find three major divergent chain shifts taking place today: a Southern Shift (in Appalachia and southern coastal regions), a Northern Cities Shift affecting a region from Madison, Wisconsin, east to Utica, New York, and a Canadian Shift affecting most of Canada, as well as some areas in the Western and Midwestern (Midland) United States, in addition to several minor chain shifts in smaller regions.
Among Labov's well-known students are Penelope Eckert, Gregory Guy, Geoffrey Nunberg, Shana Poplack, and John Rickford. His methods were adopted in England by Peter Trudgill for Norwich speech and KM Petyt for West Yorkshire speech.
Labov's works include The Study of Nonstandard English (1969), Language in the Inner City: Studies in Black English Vernacular (1972), Sociolinguistic Patterns (1972), Principles of Linguistic Change (vol.I Internal Factors, 1994; vol.II Social Factors, 2001), and, together with Sharon Ash and Charles Boberg, The Atlas of North American English (2006).
Labov was awarded the 2013 Benjamin Franklin Medal in Computer and Cognitive Science by the Franklin Institute with the citation "[f]or establishing the cognitive basis of language variation and change through rigorous analysis of linguistic data, and for the study of non-standard dialects with significant social and cultural implications."
- Gordon, Matthew J. (2006). "Interview with William Labov". Journal of English Linguistics 34 (4): 332–51. doi:10.1177/0075424206294308.
- Tom Avril (October 22, 2012). "Penn linguist Labov wins Franklin Institute award". The Philadelphia Inquirer. Retrieved October 23, 2012.
- E.g., in the opening chapter of The Handbook of Language Variation and Change (ed. Chambers et al., Blackwell 2002), J.K. Chambers writes that "variationist sociolinguistics had its effective beginnings only in 1963, the year in which William Labov presented the first sociolinguistic research report"; the dedication page of the Handbook says that Labov's "ideas imbue every page".
- Trask, R. L. (1997). A Student's Dictionary of Language and Linguistics. London: Arnold. p. 124. ISBN 0-340-65266-7.
- Meyerhoff, Miriam; Nagy, Naomi, eds. (2008). Social Lives in Language. John Benjamins. p. 21. ISBN 90-272-1863-3.
- "Benjamin Franklin Medal in Computer and Cognitive Science". Franklin Institute. Retrieved October 23, 2012.
- William Labov's home page
- Journal of English Linguistics interview
- NPR story "American Accent Undergoing Great Vowel Shift"
- Sociolinguistics: an interview with William Labov ReVEL, vol. 5, n. 9, 2007.