William Labov (b.1927) is an American scientist with seminal contributions in the field of sociolinguistics, the study which explores the relationships between language use and social structure.
Labov's academic training started at Harvard University (1944-1948), where he majored English and philosophy. After graduation, he worked as an ink-maker for several years, before returning to the scientific field, studying linguistics in particular, at Columbia University. His MA thesis in 1963 was a study of dialects of the population of Martha's Vineyard, while his 1966 dissertation, The Social Stratification of English in New York City, is considered among the most influential linguistic studies ever produced.
Labov taught at Columbia (1964-1970) and afterwards became a professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania (1971). Since 1977, he has been director of the university's Linguistics Laboratory. Among his seminal works are The Logic of Nonstandard English (1969), Objectivity and Commitment in Linguistic Science (1982) and Principles of Linguistic Change (1994-2001).
Labov's interest in linguistics appeared during his professional career as an ink-maker, as he had the chance of listening to and talking to his colleagues, who included ordinary pressmen, millhands and truck drivers. When he came back to the academic field in 1961, he made use of the experience he had gained while being an ink-maker and decided to develop an empirical linguistics. The latter was proposed to be based on what people actually say and to allow its claims to be tested by laboratory experimental techniques. At Columbia, Labov met Uriel Weinreich (1926-1967), who then headed the department of linguistics. Weinreich's research projects inspired much of Labov's work.
While at Columbia, Labov sought to determine the grounds of linguistic change and to describe the quantitative principles that can describe this process. His MA thesis, which was his first large endeavor in the field, studied the sound variations in the speech of the residents of Martha's Vineyard. He found evidence of social conditioning of language, as sound change on the island was serving as a claim to rights and privileges. The more the talking person sought to exercise that claim, the stronger was the sound change.
Studies in this field continued with Labov's dissertation which was a survey of the class differences in the dialect of New York City. Labov introduced a set of new interviewing methods, including quantitative means for measuring change. He also conducted field experiments to determine which sounds were disliked by New Yorkers. The techniques used by Labov in this study have been widely adopted since then and applied in studying language and dialects in hundreds of cities across the globe.
Labov's dissertation focused on his pioneering studies of the African-American Vernacular English (AAVE), a dialect spoken by most African-American youth in some parts of the United States, particularly in inner city areas. These studies not only paved the way for finding the system behind linguistic change, but were also applied in researches on the effect of linguistic barriers on education. Labov also reiterated that knowledge of dialect diversity can help the development of automatic speech recognition. He argued that for a computer to recognize how humans speak, it has to recognize both Chicago speech and New York speech. In 1970, Labov moved to Penn, where he was keen to explore the Philadelphia dialect. A year later Labov and a number of his colleagues set up the Linguistics Laboratory as a place where linguistics was treated as a science that can be approached via quantitative methods. Labov-developed theories, techniques and quantitative methods have been widely used not only in the fields of linguistics and sociology, but also in education and law.
In his essay How I Got Into Linguistics, and What I Got Out Of It (1997), Labov gave a peculiar example of the application of the quantitative techniques used to distinguish among dialects. In 1987, a man was arrested and sent to prison for allegedly making a series of bomb threats via phone calls to an airline counter at Los Angeles airport. The evidence against the defendant was that his voice sounded like the one from the tape recordings of the threats. Labov had to listen to the tapes and say whether the voices matched. The linguist concluded that the defendant was innocent as the dialect used by the threat caller identified him as a man from the Boston area of Eastern New England. The defendant, who was a New Yorker and spoke a different dialect, was acquitted after Labov's testimony.