William Labov

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William Labov
Born (1927-12-04) December 4, 1927 (age 96)
Occupation(s)Industrial chemist (1949–60); professor of linguistics
Known forVariationist sociolinguistics
  • Teresa Gnasso
(m. 1993)
Children7 (including Alice Goffman, his adoptive daughter)
Academic background
EducationHarvard College, B.A. (1948)
Columbia University, M.A. (1963), Ph.D. (1964)
Doctoral advisorUriel Weinreich
Academic work
InstitutionsColumbia University
University of Pennsylvania

William Labov (/ləˈbv/ lə-BOHV;[1][2] born December 4, 1927) is an American linguist widely regarded as the founder of the discipline of variationist sociolinguistics.[3][4] He has been described as "an enormously original and influential figure who has created much of the methodology" of sociolinguistics.[5]

Labov is a professor emeritus in the linguistics department of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and pursues research in sociolinguistics, language change, and dialectology. He retired in 2015 but continues to publish research.[6]

Early life and education[edit]

Labov was born and raised in Rutherford, New Jersey, moving to Fort Lee at age 12. He attended Harvard University, where he majored in English and philosophy and studied chemistry.[7] He graduated from Harvard in 1948.


After graduating from Harvard, Labov worked as an industrial chemist in his family's business (1949–61) before turning to linguistics.[7] For his MA thesis (1963) he completed a study of change in the dialect of Martha's Vineyard, which he presented before the Linguistic Society of America.[6] Labov took his PhD (1964) at Columbia University, studying under Uriel Weinreich. He was an assistant professor of linguistics at Columbia (1964–70) before becoming an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania in 1971, then a full professor,[3] and in 1976 becoming director of the university's Linguistics Laboratory.[8]

Linguistic research[edit]

The methods Labov 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:[6] he argued that AAVE should not be stigmatized as substandard, but rather respected as a variety of English with its own grammatical rules.[9][10]

He has also pursued research in referential indeterminacy[11] and is noted for his studies of the way ordinary people structure narrative stories of their own lives.[12][13][14] Several of his classes are service-based, with students going to West Philadelphia to help tutor young children while simultaneously learning linguistics from different dialects such as AAVE.[15]

More recently, Labov has studied ongoing changes in the phonology of English as spoken in the United States, as well as 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 Vowel Shift affecting a region from Madison, Wisconsin, east to Utica, New York; and a Canadian Shift affecting most of Canada, in addition to several minor chain shifts in smaller regions.[16]

Among Labov's well-known students are Charles Boberg, Anne H. Charity Hudley, Penelope Eckert, Gregory Guy, Robert A. Leonard, Geoffrey Nunberg, Shana Poplack, and John R. Rickford. His methods were adopted in England by Peter Trudgill for Norwich speech and K. M. 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),[17] Principles of Linguistic Change (vol.I Internal Factors, 1994; vol.II Social Factors, 2001, vol.III Cognitive and Cultural factors, 2010),[18] and, with Sharon Ash and Charles Boberg, The Atlas of North American English (2006).[19]

Labov was awarded the 2013 Benjamin Franklin Medal in Computer and Cognitive Science by the Franklin Institute with the citation for "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."[2][20]

Language in use[edit]

In "Narrative Analysis: Oral Versions of Personal Experience", Labov and Joshua Waletzky take a sociolinguistic approach to examine how language works between people. This is significant because it contextualizes the study of structure and form, connecting purpose to method. His stated purpose is to "isolate the elements of narrative"[21].[22]: 12  This work focuses exclusively on oral narratives.

Labov describes narrative as having two functions: referential and evaluative, with its referential functions orienting and grounding a story in its contextual world by referencing events in sequential order as they originally occurred,[23] and its evaluative functions describing the storyteller's purpose in telling the story.[24] Formally analyzing data from orally generated texts obtained via observed group interaction and interview (600 interviews were taken from several studies whose participants included ethnically diverse groups of children and adults from various backgrounds[25]), Labov divides narrative into five or six sections:[26]

  • Abstract – gives an overview of the story.[26]
  • Orientation – Labov describes this as "referential [free clauses that] serve to orient the listener in respect to person, place, time, and behavioral situation".[23] He specifies that these are contextual clues that precede the main story.[26]
  • Complicating action – the main story, during which the narrative unfolds. A story may consist of multiple complication sections.[26]
  • Evaluation – author evinces self-awareness, giving explicit or implicit purpose to the retelling of the story. Thus evaluation gives some indication of the significance the author attributes to their story.[26] But evaluation can be done subtly: for instance, "lexical intensifiers [are a type of] semantically defined evaluation".[27]
  • Resolution – occurs sequentially following the evaluation. The resolution may give the story a sense of completion.[26]
  • Coda – returns listener to the present, drawing them back out of the world of the story into the world of the storytelling event. A coda is not essential to a narrative, and some narratives do not have one.[26]

While not every narrative includes all these elements, the purpose of this subdivision is to show that narratives have inherent structural order. Labov argues that narrative units must retell events in the order they were experienced because narrative is temporally sequenced. In other words, events do not occur at random but are connected to one another; thus "the original semantic interpretation" depends on their original order.[28][29] To demonstrate this sequence, he breaks a story down into its basic parts. He defines narrative clause as the "basic unit of narrative"[30] around which everything else is built. Clauses can be distinguished from one another by temporal junctures,[31] which indicate a shift in time and separate narrative clauses. Temporal junctures mark temporal sequencing because clauses cannot be rearranged without disrupting their meaning.

Labov and Waletzky's findings are important because they derived them from actual data rather than abstract theorization. Labov, Waletzky, &c., set up interviews and documented speech patterns in storytelling, keeping with the ethnographic tradition of tape-recording oral text so it can be referenced exactly. This inductive method creates a new system through which to understand story text.

Golden Age Principle[edit]

One of Labov's most quoted contributions to theories of language change is his Golden Age Principle (or Golden Age Theory). It claims that any changes in the sounds or the grammar that have come to conscious awareness in a speech community trigger a uniformly negative reaction.[32]

Communities differ in the extent to which they stigmatize the newer forms of language, but I have never yet met anyone who greeted them with applause. Some older citizens welcome the new music and dances, the new electronic devices and computers. But no one has ever been heard to say, "It's wonderful the way young people talk today. It's so much better than the way we talked when I was a kid." ... The most general and most deeply held belief about language is the Golden Age Principle: At some time in the past, language was in a state of perfection. It is understood that in such a state, every sound was correct and beautiful, and every word and expression was proper, accurate, and appropriate. Furthermore, the decline from that state has been regular and persistent, so that every change represents a falling away from the golden age, rather than a return to it. Every new sound will be heard as ugly, and every new expression will be heard as improper, inaccurate, and inappropriate. Given this principle it is obvious that language change must be interpreted as nonconformity to established norms, and that people will reject changes in the structure of language when they become aware of them.

— William Labov, Principles of Linguistic Change, Vol. 2: Social Factors (2001), p. 514

Scholarly influence and criticism[edit]

Labov's seminal work has been referenced and critically examined by a number of scholars, mainly for its structural rigidity. Kristin Langellier explains that "the purpose of Labovian analysis is to relate the formal properties of the narrative to their functions":[33] clause-level analysis of how text affects transmission of message. This model has several flaws, which Langellier points out: it examines textual structure to the exclusion of context and audience, which often act to shape the text; it is relevant to a specific demographic (may be difficult to extrapolate); and, by categorizing the text at a clausal level, it burdens analysis with theoretical distinctions that may not be illuminating in practice.[34] Anna De Fina remarks that [within Labov's model] "the defining property of narrative is temporal sequence, since the order in which the events are presented in the narrative is expected to match the original events as they occurred",[35] which differs from more contemporary notions of storytelling, in which a naturally time-conscious flow includes jumping forward and back in time as mandated by, for example, anxieties felt about futures and their interplay with subsequent decisions. De Fina and Langellier both note that, though wonderfully descriptive, Labov's model is nevertheless difficult to code, thus potentially limited in application/practice.[36] De Fina also agrees with Langellier that Labov's model ignores the complex and often quite relevant subject of intertextuality in narrative.[37] To an extent, Labov evinces awareness of these concerns, saying "it is clear that these conclusions are restricted to the speech communities that we have examined",[24] and "the overall structure of the narratives we've examined is not uniform".[38] In "Rethinking Ventriloquism", Diane Goldstein uses Labovian notions of tellability—internal coherence in narrative—to inform her concept of untellability.[39]


In 1968, Labov received the David H. Russell Award for Distinguished Research in Teaching English.[40]

He was a Guggenheim Fellow in 1970–71 and 1987–88.[41]

Labov has received honorary doctorates from, among others, the Faculty of Humanities at Uppsala University (1985) and University of Edinburgh (2005).[42][43]

In 1996, he won the Leonard Bloomfield Book Award from the Linguistic Society of America (LSA) for Principles of Linguistic Change, Vol. 1.;[19] he won the Award again in 2008 as a coauthor of the Atlas of North American English.[19]

In 2013, Labov received a Franklin Institute Award in Computer and Cognitive Science for "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."[44]

In 2015, he was awarded the Neil and Saras Smith Medal for Linguistics by the British Academy "for lifetime achievement in the scholarly study of linguistics" and "his significant contribution to linguistics and the language sciences".[45]

In 2020, Labov was awarded the American Academy of Arts and Sciences' Talcott Parsons Prize, recognizing "distinguished and original contributions to the social sciences".[3]

Personal life[edit]

Labov has five children from his first marriage to Teresa Gnasso Labov: Susannah Page, Sarah Labov, Simon Labov, Joanna Labov, and Jessie Labov. In 1993, he married fellow sociolinguist Gillian Sankoff,[46] and they have two children: Rebecca Labov and sociologist Alice Goffman.


  1. ^ Gordon, Matthew J. (2006). "Interview with William Labov". Journal of English Linguistics. 34 (4): 332–51. doi:10.1177/0075424206294308. S2CID 144459634.
  2. ^ a b Tom Avril (October 22, 2012). "Penn linguist Labov wins Franklin Institute award". The Philadelphia Inquirer. Retrieved October 23, 2012.
  3. ^ a b c "Pioneering Sociolinguist William Labov Receiving Social Science Prize". American Academy of Arts and Sciences. January 29, 2020. Retrieved January 30, 2020.
  4. ^ 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".
  5. ^ Trask, R.L. (1997). A Student's Dictionary of Language and Linguistics. London: Arnold. p. 124. ISBN 0-340-65266-7.
  6. ^ a b c Chambers, Jack (January 14, 2017). "William Labov: An Appreciation". Annual Review of Linguistics. 3 (1): 1–23. doi:10.1146/annurev-linguistics-051216-040225. ISSN 2333-9683. S2CID 151373995. Retrieved March 27, 2023.
  7. ^ a b Labov, William. "How I got into Linguistics". www.ling.upenn.edu. Retrieved March 27, 2023.
  8. ^ "Department of English". University of Pennsylvania. Retrieved March 27, 2023.
  9. ^ Wheeler, R. (January 14, 2016). ""So Much Research, So Little Change": Teaching Standard English in African American Classrooms". Annual Review of Linguistics. 2: 367–390. doi:10.1146/ANNUREV-LINGUISTICS-011415-040434. Retrieved March 27, 2023.
  10. ^ Labov, William (June 1972). "Academic Ignorance and Black Intelligence". The Atlantic. Retrieved March 28, 2015.
  11. ^ Andersen, Øivin (May 9, 2007). "Indeterminacy, context, economy and well-formedness in specialist communication". Indeterminacy in Terminology and LSP: Studies in honour of Heribert Picht (PDF). John Benjamins Publishing Company. ISBN 978-90-272-2332-6.
  12. ^ Lamb, Gavin (February 26, 2021). "The Linguistics Of Narrating Personal Experience". Wild Ones. Retrieved March 27, 2023.
  13. ^ Johnstone, Barbara (September 2016). "'Oral versions of personal experience': Labovian narrative analysis and its uptake". Journal of Sociolinguistics. 20 (4): 542–560. doi:10.1111/josl.12192. ISSN 1360-6441. S2CID 151597119. Retrieved March 27, 2023.
  14. ^ Wang, Yue (September 1, 2020). "Narrative Structure Analysis: A Story from "Hannah Gadsby: Nanette"". Journal of Language Teaching and Research. 11 (5): 682. doi:10.17507/jltr.1105.03. ISSN 1798-4769. S2CID 225274833. Retrieved March 27, 2023.
  15. ^ Benson, Lee; Harkavy, Ira; Puckett, John (March 2000). "An Implementation Revolution as a Strategy for Fulfilling the Democratic Promise of University-Community Partnerships: Penn-West Philadelphia as an Experiment in Progress". Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly. 29 (1): 24–45. doi:10.1177/0899764000291003. ISSN 0899-7640. S2CID 145641409. Retrieved March 27, 2023.
  16. ^ Armstrong, Eric (January 2007). "Book Review The Atlas of North American English: Phonetics, Phonology and Sound Change by William Labov, Sharon Ash, & Charles Boberg". Voice and Speech Review. 5 (1): 394–395. doi:10.1080/23268263.2007.10769800. ISSN 2326-8263. S2CID 161671407.
  17. ^ Attinasi, John J. (1974). "The sociolinguistics of William Labov". Bilingual Review / La Revista Bilingüe. 1 (3): 279–304. ISSN 0094-5366. JSTOR 25743604.
  18. ^ Milroy, James (September 1995). "William Labov, Principles of linguistic change. Volume I: Internal factors (Language in Society 20). Oxford: Blackwell, 1994. Pp. xix + 641". Journal of Linguistics. 31 (2): 435–439. doi:10.1017/S0022226700015693. ISSN 1469-7742. S2CID 145806007. Retrieved March 27, 2023.
  19. ^ a b c "Leonard Bloomfield Book Award Previous Holders". linguisticsociety.org. Linguistic Society of America. Retrieved July 21, 2019.
  20. ^ "Benjamin Franklin Medal in Computer and Cognitive Science". Franklin Institute. September 5, 2014. Retrieved September 9, 2014.
  21. ^ Nair, Rukmini Bhaya (June 2004). Narrative Gravity: Conversation, Cognition, Culture. Routledge. ISBN 978-1-134-39792-1.
  22. ^ Labov, William; Waletzky, Joshua (January 1, 1997). "Narrative Analysis: Oral Versions of Personal Experience1". Journal of Narrative and Life History. 7 (1–4): 3–38. doi:10.1075/jnlh.7.02nar. ISSN 1053-6981. S2CID 143152507.
  23. ^ a b Labov, W., & Waletzky, J. (1997). "Narrative analysis: Oral versions of personal experience". p. 32.
  24. ^ a b Labov, W., & Waletzky, J. (1997). "Narrative analysis: Oral versions of personal experience". p. 41.
  25. ^ Labov, W., & Waletzky, J. (1997). "Narrative analysis: Oral versions of personal experience". p. 13.
  26. ^ a b c d e f g Ouyang, Jessica; McKeown, Kathy (2014). "Towards Automatic Detection of Narrative Structure" (PDF). Proceedings of the Ninth International Conference on Language Resources and Evaluation (LREC'14). Reykjavik, Iceland: European Language Resources Association (ELRA). pp. 4624–4631. Archived (PDF) from the original on March 27, 2023.
  27. ^ Labov, W., & Waletzky, J. (1997). "Narrative analysis: Oral versions of personal experience". p. 37.
  28. ^ Pratt, Mary Louise (1977). "Natural Narrative" (PDF). Toward a speech act theory of literary discourse. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press. Archived (PDF) from the original on March 27, 2023.
  29. ^ Labov, W., & Waletzky, J. (1997). "Narrative analysis: Oral versions of personal experience". p. 21.
  30. ^ Labov, W., & Waletzky, J. (1997). "Narrative analysis: Oral versions of personal experience". p. 22.
  31. ^ Labov, W., & Waletzky, J. (1997). "Narrative analysis: Oral versions of personal experience". p. 25.
  32. ^ Anderwald, Lieselotte (June 2, 2016). Language Between Description and Prescription: Verbs and Verb Categories in Nineteenth-Century Grammars of English. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-027068-1.
  33. ^ Langellier, Kristin M. "Personal narratives: Perspectives on theory and research". Text and Performance Quarterly 9.4 (1989): 243-276. p. 245.
  34. ^ Langellier, Kristin M. "Personal narratives: Perspectives on theory and research". Text and Performance Quarterly 9.4 (1989): 243-276. p. 246-8.
  35. ^ De Fina, Anna, and Alexandra Georgakopoulou. Analyzing narrative: Discourse and sociolinguistic perspectives. Cambridge University Press, 2011. p. 27.
  36. ^ De Fina, Anna, and Alexandra Georgakopoulou. Analyzing narrative: Discourse and sociolinguistic perspectives. Cambridge University Press, 2011. p. 32.
  37. ^ De Fina, Anna, and Alexandra Georgakopoulou. Analyzing narrative: Discourse and sociolinguistic perspectives. Cambridge University Press, 2011. p. 35.
  38. ^ Labov, W., & Waletzky, J. (1997). "Narrative, analysis: Oral versions of personal experience". p. 40.
  39. ^ Goldstein, Diane E. "Rethinking Ventriloquism: Untellability, Chaotic Narratives, Social Justice, and the Choice to Speak For, About, and Without". Journal of Folklore Research 49.2 (2012): 179-198.
  40. ^ "David H. Russell Award for Distinguished Research in the Teaching of English Winners" (PDF). NCTE. Archived from the original (PDF) on July 21, 2019. Retrieved July 21, 2019.
  41. ^ "All Fellows". John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. Archived from the original on July 5, 2019. Retrieved July 21, 2019.
  42. ^ "Honorary Doctors of the Faculty of Humanities". Uppsala University. June 8, 2023. Archived from the original on December 16, 2023.
  43. ^ "Honorary graduates 2004/05". The University of Edinburgh. May 25, 2015. Archived from the original on June 4, 2023.
  44. ^ "Franklin Institute Awards: William Labov". Franklin Institute. September 5, 2014.
  45. ^ "William Labov receives the Neil and Saras Smith Medal for Linguistics from the British Academy". Department of Linguistics. University of Pennsylvania. Retrieved July 30, 2017.
  46. ^ Meyerhoff, Miriam; Nagy, Naomi, eds. (2008). Social Lives in Language. John Benjamins. p. 21. ISBN 978-90-272-1863-6.

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