William Labov

William Labov
Computer and Cognitive Science
Benjamin Franklin Medal
University of Pennsylvania | Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
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.

Civilization would be impossible without language—a method of communication that conveys an infinite variety of ideas, thoughts, and emotions. Linguistics seeks to understand and explain how language works and evolves. For more than 50 years, William Labov has blazed new paths in linguistics, developing methodologies and concepts that revolutionized the field.

Considering Labov's unquestioned status as one of the world's most influential researchers in his field, it is surprising that he started out as a chemist. After graduating from Harvard with a B.A. in English in 1948, he worked as an industrial chemist for more than a decade. But he became interested in the burgeoning field of linguistics and returned to school to obtain his M.A. and Ph.D. in the subject from Columbia University in 1963 and 1964. He taught at Columbia before moving to the University of Pennsylvania in 1971. His background influenced his approach to linguistics, giving him an empirical perspective that the discipline lacked. Labov developed this new linguistics through established experimental techniques. This led to his groundbreaking early projects, including his Ph.D. dissertation The Social Stratification of English in New York City, which combined numerous field interviews with quantitative methodology to provide evidence of how the use of English vowels and consonants varied among different socioeconomic groups.

Labov's techniques opened up a wholly new way of doing linguistic research. In 1965 he turned to the study of African American Vernacular English (AAVE), doing fieldwork in Harlem and perfecting his rigorously empirical approach. This work provided the first important evidence that AAVE is a rich and expressive form of English with its own reproducible rules, and not an inferior or imprecise dialect. That revelation had important implications in education, demonstrating that the troubled academic performance of some African American students was due more to curricula that failed to accommodate AAVE, rather than intellectual deficiencies.

Labov is often noted as the "father of sociolinguistics," and though he may downplay the accolade, there's no denying his immense influence on the development of the field into a vibrant and sophisticated discipline. That influence consists of much more than the hundreds of seminal publications he authored, and the legions of students he mentored, many of whom have gone on to make important contributions in their own right. The impact of his work has been felt in education (improving reading instruction and literacy in inner-city schools), sociology (highlighting the increasing disparity among different socioeconomic classes in the United States), computational and cognitive science (developing models of language variation and change applicable to speech recognition and processing), even law (helping to exonerate an innocent man by speech pattern analysis).

Although Labov is noted for his dedication to quantitative analysis, he retains a profoundly humanistic perspective. In all of his fieldwork, he has displayed an intense curiosity in and respect for his subjects as unique individuals, each with their own important stories and viewpoints. This is a major factor in his success in sociolinguistics—which involves more than purely the study of language, but also how society and culture influence how people speak.

Information as of April 2013