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Labov “Dialect Diversity in America”

Review of William Labov’s Dialect Diversity in America: The Politics of Language Change (2012, Charlottesville, University of Virginia Press)


I. What the Book is About.  It has been brought to my attention that my pseudonym has been taken in vain by another respected scholar in his recent monograph, Dialect Diversity in America, by  William Labov. Labov quoted this blog:

“Regional accents are dying out…the original dialects in this country were the results of the accents of various immigrants who came to this country looking for a better life. They all landed on the east coast, which is why all accents are currently located in the east. However, as they migrated to the west, all these accents merged into one, so there are no distinctive regional dialects west or north of southern Ohio (maybe southern Illinois and a bit in northern Minnesota).”

His remark to this quotation was, “This overwhelmingly common opinion is simply and jarringly wrong.”  The popularity of this opinion makes Labov’s task especially difficult, since the opinion is popular among professional linguists like Mr. Labov and myself.

I will proceed as follows. I will describe his monograph chapter by chapter and then remind us of what he omitted.

Chapter 1 About Language and Language Change. This chapter explains the common knowledge of how dialects emerge when some speakers of a language split away from the main body of speakers of a given language and that language continues to develop, but along different paths. Eventually, these two dialects become so different that mutual comprehensibility is lost, at which point we say that they have become different languages. We should expect that when dialect areas reintegrate, differences in dialectal characteristics disappear, but Labov claims that this is not happening in the US. In fact, dialectal differences are growing and spreading.

Chapter 2 A Hidden Consensus. This chapter explains how we know the suffix -ing is only pronounced -in’ in informal situations. He admits that this phenomenon is not strictly American; it has existed in all dialect areas for at least 1000 years. But he makes the point, well known by linguists, that there are not only regional dialects but social ones as well.

Chapter 3 Hidden Diversity. Having spent the first two chapters explaining the obvious and irrelevant, Labov begins this chapter by telling the reader that only phonological diversity will be considered, not morphological, syntactic, semantic, or lexical. So, Labov will be writing only about accents, not dialects. Dialects comprise differences in all aspects of grammar.

He them proceeds to quote some studies done in the 60s and  70s of the pronunciation of words, selected on the basis of known accent differences, recorded with Philadelphia, Chicago, and Birmingham. Recorded passages with accents were played in isolation to subjects in the same cities except the one they lived in. In isolation the subjects listening to each word recognized about 5% of them. When conjoined with one other word the percentage rose to around 30-40%. When the words were then repeated in complete sentences, the percentage rose to 90%.

Labov does not mention that linguistic sounds are relative to one another. We have no difficulty understanding people speaking with different foreign accents, even if they are using only native sounds. The ear has no trouble making the adjustment in seconds. So, Labov doesn’t even make the case that accents interfere with comprehensibility. Incomprehensibility, which leads dialects to become fully fledged languages, comes only with morphological, syntactic, semantic and lexical differences.

He then moves on to explain the major point of the book: Northern Cities Shift (NCS). NCS involves a circular shift of five sounds involving such those formerly heard only in the northeast, such as the pronunciation of bat moving bet, and bet to bit. He uses this shift, which has moved west across the northern tier of states, to prove that dialectal differences are increasing.

He fails to note that as this dialectal “difference” as it moved westward, must have obliterated all the dialectal differences in its path, proving my point, too, that dialectal, even accentual differences, are disappearing.

Chapter 4 The Growing Divergence of Black and White English. Amazingly, after claiming in Chapter 2 that only phonological features of “dialects” will be considered, this chapter deals almost exclusively with morphological differences.

Labov discusses the following features of Black English (or AAVE, African American Vernacular English, as he calls it):

1. Loss of r at the end of syllables;

2. Use of present tense with an infinitive (He can goes out)

3. HAD as a simple past based on one study in Springville, Texas;

4. BE as marker of habitual past (Imperfective Progressive: He be good);

5. BEEN as a remote present perfect

6. BE DONE as a remote present perfect

7. Omission of -s possessive: My mom room

8. Omission of -s present tense: She hit me when I come into her room.

Notice that only one of these topics involve phonology: the omission of R at the end of syllables. This is a universal trait of all English dialects, including the one  spoken by the Queen of England. Neither the Cambridge British nor the Oxford English Dictionary pronunciations ever include an R at the end of syllables.

On the loss of verbal S (He see me), the possessive S (my mom room) and the copula (he good), Labov reports a 1983 work by Baugh: “The majority of speakers, those who had very little contact with whites, show 78% absence of the possessive ['s], 72% for verbal /s/, and 52% for the copula. In contrast, the African Americans with high rates of contact with whites . . . show very low rates of -s absence . . . .”

What this description lacks is any number identifying how many speakers had “very little contact with whites”. Or any mention of the effects of the 1952 Brown v Board of Education decision, or the 1964 or 1965 civil rights laws, forced bussing, or affirmative action. Citing a 1983 work to prove a point is too early in the startling process in US education that brought an African American to the presidency.

So does Labov prove that Black English is expanding or splitting up? Although he cites much research based on interviews, he only cites in detail one work not written by him, a work that tracks the usage of had as a marker of the simple past: I had pushed him, where had marks, not the past perfect, but simple past. This usage is reported to have spread throughout the African American community of Springville, Texas. However, notice that a feature already in the dialect only spread within that dialect. It did not lead to an increase in the number of dialects.

Labov explains the expansion of African American English in these terms: “The answer to the question, why are the differences increasing? Is, first and foremost, residential segregation, as reinforced and maintained by institutional racism.” He cites a 1981 study by Hershberg based on a study of segregation between 1850 and 1970. An analysis of historical U.S. Census data by Harvard and Duke scholars, “The End of the Segregated Century”, published by the conservative Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (January 2012) shows that racial separation has diminished significantly since the 1960s. That means that more African Americans since the 1970s have had “high rates of contact with whites.”

Chapter 5 – Politics of African American English.  At the center of this chapter is a series of jokes about Ebonics followed by a report on the failure of that movement’s claim that African American English is a foreign language, that courses needed be taught in African American English vernacular. The chapter ends with a description of the research into two commercial products produced by Labov, research which shows them successful.

Again, Labov does not mention the effects of integration, bussing to force the integration of schools, or affirmative action designed to fully integrate colleges and universities.  Did these politically motivated upheavals not affect the dialectal differences between white and black English?  How could Labov discuss the politics of “dialects” without mentioning the major political events that have had a great impact on the two major dialects in the United States? He does not raise this issue because it undermines his thesis.

Chapter 6 – Language Change as Language Politics.   This chapter discusses two phenomena: Canadian Raising in a village in Martha’s Vineyard  and similar the shift of the pronunciation of the diphthong in words like down [aw] to [ew]. Labov admits that two follow up studies found it to be non-existent or “showed signs of recession among the youngest speakers”. I fail to see why this bit of putative evidence was even mentioned in the book. Since, again, Labov only claims that this phenomenon is only spreading, not leading to dialectal distinction, I will omit comment in further detail on this phenomenon.

Chapter 7 – The Political Ideology of the Northern Cities Shift. This chapter returns to the Northern Cities Shift, tying it to the building of the Erie Canal (1817-1875). Without first showing that the Northern Cities Shift had taken place in New York by the time we started building the Erie Canal, Labov declares that it followed the route of that canal.

Labov then goes on to explain “the tendency to superimpose Yankee ideology on the rest of the world” as an explanation why, of all the accents brought in by workers on the Erie Canal, the New York accent prevailed. He then moves into an explanation of “Yankee ideology”, a topic far off subject.

II. What Labov Left Out. Although my claims were anecdotal, most of Labov’s arguments are anecdotal, too, based on interviews with individuals. The anecdotal evidence is so overwhelming as to make a statistical study, were it even possible to base such a study on data collected over the past 30 or so years, moot.

First, I began by noting that ALL my grandnieces and grandnephews, who live in rural North Carolina speak without a trace of even their parents’ mild accent. I have attended baseball games and soccer games they played in and none of their friends, black or white, spoke in the strong Southern dialect I was brought up speaking and hearing in the 40s. Remember, we are talking about rural North Carolina.

The white generation that preceded me used sot and holp as the past tense of sit and help, and et, as it is in Britain today, was the past tense of eat.  The words very and must didn’t exist in the rural North Carolina dialect I spoke. All my relatives and neighbors used mighty where Yankees would use very. I recall the first time I heard must coming from the mouth of a Southerner. Our high school was having career day and had invited a pianist from Fayetteville who had tried his luck in New York. He said, “I must go now; I have another session . . . . “  I was so struck by the incident, that I remember it to this day, a half century later. Now very and must are commonplace and holp, sot and et are not to be heard because dialects are disappearing.

The African American friends of my grandnieces and grandnephews continue to pronounce [th] as [t] and [d], as I did growing up (I am white) and some of their (white) parents still do. But I never hear Ise (I is), nor a you is, we is, they is when I return now.  Whites and blacks drop the R at the end of syllables and substitute -in for -ing, as do people speaking English informally around the world.

But that is the extent of the accentual differences that I hear today back home or here in Pennsylvania. I do not know when I have heard the strong African American accent by anyone interviewed on television. All I have heard for the past ten years are the three characteristics mentioned above. Interviews with African American athletes on the Sports Illustrated web site (si.com) seldom reveal a trace of African American accent beyond the three traits mentioned above.

Geographical separation is required for a dialect (not an accent) to thrive. When dialect D1 is mixed with D2 one is absorbed by the politically dominant one. It is economically advantageous to speak the politically dominant dialect or language. We had courses in standard English that were taught to Southerners and Northerners with a “Brooklyn” accent in the 80s. I haven’t heard of any such courses in the new millennium.

Migration patterns do not involve part of the US English speakers removing themselves geographically from the others. Migration is all internal and is based on economic factors. There has been an intermixture of dialects, rather than separation.

We must never forget the fundamental economic factor influencing the recent development of dialects in the US: you cannot succeed in the US unless you speak economically dominant “standard” English. Everyone, no matter which dialect or language (Spanish, Russian, etc.) you speak, wants to speak and write that dialect.

So Mr. Labov has not made his case with convincing examples or statistics. He offers a few tables of long-term statistics which show the development of pronunciation differences over time, no massive chronological tables which his case requires. The anecdotal evidence, on the other hand, so overwhelmingly favors my position, I personally see no need for long-term statistics, even were they to exist.

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