Toward a History of American Linguistics

By E. F.K. Koerner | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 10

WILLIAM LABOV AND THE ORIGINS OF SOCIOLINGUISTICS IN AMERICA

1.

Introductory observations

It appears to be a regular part of North American culture that when something is declared to be new, few people care to ask a question about what in effect distinguishes this allegedly novel idea, project or product from the old. The past is soon forgotten and people are happy to be part of a trendy present which holds out the promise of becoming the future. There are reasons for this phenomenon, historical, socio-political, and economic; however, an analysis of these reasons is not my concern here. I am simply trying to explain to myself why linguists on this continent often lack a historical consciousness regarding their own field of study and, as a result, can be easily led into believing claims of novelty, discontinuity, breakthrough, and revolution made by someone in favour of a new approach or, for that matter, a theoretical stance. I still recall my own astonishment about the enthusiasm of some of my teachers about 'sociolinguistics' during the late 1960s, which then was, as it is still today, largely associated with the name of William Labov (cf. Macaulay 1988:154-157 passim), 1 at least in North America. Indeed, the opinio communis regarding the origins of sociolinguistics still today appears to be what the editor of the 1,000-page Concise Encyclopedia of Sociolinguistics has noted, namely, that "sociolinguistics as a specially demarcated area of language study only dates to the early 1960s" (Mesthrie 2001:1). 2

In this chapter I refer mainly to this brand of sociolinguistics rather than the line of research usually pursued by scholars coming from sociology like Basil Bernstein (1924-2000) 3 in Britain (e.g., Bernstein 1971) and Joshua A. Fishman (b.1926) in the United States (e.g., Fishman 1972), which is perhaps better defined by the phrase 'sociology of language', or the research programs

1 For an interesting-and very detailed-criticism of Labov's theories, not attempted in the present chapter, see Figueroa (1994:69-110).

2 Mesthrie's sole references regarding the history of the field are Shuy (1989) and Paulston & Tucker (1997). There is no chapter in this massive quarto-size volume on the subject.

3 For a sympathetic and thorough analysis of Bernstein's work-and its success outside the United States, see Hasan (2000).

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