Labov, William

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Labov, William

December 4, 1927

Sociolinguist William Labov was born in Rutherford, New Jersey. Perhaps more than any other person, Labov has shaped the foundation of contemporary sociolinguistics. He made seminal contributions to the study of African-American Vernacular English (AAVE), albeit within the greater context of his global effort to create an inclusive and comprehensive linguistic science.

Labov's academic training began at Harvard University in 1944, where he majored in English and philosophy. After several unsuccessful attempts at other professions, he settled upon work as an industrial chemist in 1949. The experience of his philosophical, English, and scientific trainingcombined with the no-nonsense production schedules demanded of successful entrepreneursproved to be ideally suited to Labov's emerging fascination with linguistic science.

Labov's 1966 dissertation, "The Social Stratification of English in New York City," written at Columbia University, remains one of the most important and influential linguistic studies ever produced. It gave rise to his abiding concern about how best to advance literacy and educational achievement among black students with sophisticated analyses of their linguistic behavior.

Labov, working in collaboration with Paul Cohen, Clarence Robins, and John Lewis, produced The Non-standard English of Black and Puerto Rican Speakers in New York City in 1968. This important study provided the empirical bases for two companion studies that codify Labov's twin tower contributions to racial justice and linguistic science.

Students of AAVE have benefited from "The Logic of Nonstandard English" (1969) and "Contraction, Deletion, and Inherent Variability of the English Copula" (1969). In the former, Labov dispelled some prevalent myths regarding the logical coherence of AAVE. In the latter, he produced a major quantitative study of copula variation (i.e., variants of "is" and "are") among African Americans, and he did so in ways that were compatible with Noam Chomsky and Morris Halle's 1968 formulations for the sound pattern of English. Labov did more than merely describe AAVE; he did so while advancing a comprehensive linguistic sciencethat is, an empirical linguistic science that is fully inclusive.

These classical sociolinguistic studies remain the gold standard for excellence in AAVE research. Labov used his AAVE expertise in 1979 during the landmark Black English Trial in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Based on that experience he wrote "Objectivity and Commitment in Linguistic Science" (1982) in which he extols the social and educational virtue of the strategic collaboration between linguists, educators, and attorneys in support of young African-American plaintiffs. In this instance the black plaintiffs won their case by confirming that the defendant school district failed to account for potential linguistic barriers to their academic success and their language education in particular. Shortly thereafter he observed linguistic divergence among blacks and whites (Labov and Harris, 1986), which was a precursor to some of the important contemporary research on hip-hop and its linguistic defiance in the face of mainstream American English.

Labov remains extremely active. "How I Got into Linguistics, and What I Got Out of It" and "Coexistent Systems in African American English" provide greater insight into his professional life and recent contributions to studies of African-American English. Other major works include the two-volume Principles of Linguistic Change, the first volume (1994) dealing with internal factors and the second with social factors (2001). Intellectual tributes from his students can be found in the two-volume set Towards a Social Science of Language: Papers in Honor of William Labov.

See also Educational Psychology and Psychologists; English, African-American; Psychology and Psychologists: Race Issues; Social Psychology, Psychologists, and Race


Guy, Gregory Guy, John Baugh, Deborah Schiffrin, and Crawford Feagin. Towards a Social Science of Language: Papers in Honor of William Labov. Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 19961997.

Labov, William. The Social Stratification of English in New York City. Washington, D.C.: Center for Applied Linguistics, 1966.

Labov, William. "The Logic of Nonstandard English." In Georgetown Monograph Series on Language and Linguistics, vol. 22, edited by J. Alatis. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1969.

Labov, William. "Contraction, Deletion, and Inherent Variability of the English Copula." Language 45 (1969): 715762.

Labov, William. Language in the Inner-City: Studies in the Black English Vernacular. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1972.

Labov, William. Sociolinguistic Patterns. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1972.

Labov, William. "Objectivity and Commitment in Linguistic Science: The Case of the Black English Trial in Ann Arbor." Language in Society 11 (1982): 165202.

Labov, William. Principles of Linguistic Change. Volume 1: Internal Factors. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1994. Volume 2: Social Factors. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 2001.

Labov, William. "How I Got into Linguistics, and What I Got Out of It" (1997). Available from <>.

Labov, William, and Clarence Robins. "A Note on the Relation of Reading Failure to Peer-Group Status in Urban Ghettos." Teachers College Record 70 (1969): 395405.

Labov, William, and Wendel Harris. "DeFacto Segregation of Black and White Vernaculars." In Diversity and Diachrony, edited by D. Sankoff, pp. 124. Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1986.

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Labov, William

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