Speaking Volumes: Sociolinguistic Patterns

January 5, 1996

Leslie Milroy on William Labov's Sociolinguistic Patterns .

The single most important influence on my thinking and research plans was without doubt provided in 1973 by the recently published book Sociolinguistic Patterns. Its author, William Labov, is a key figure in the area of linguistics which has come to be known as sociolinguistics, and deals with the systematically different ways in which socially distinctive groups of speakers use everyday language.

Labov noted that in New York City speakers sometimes pronounced the element "r" in a phrase such as "fourth floor", but sometimes did not. While this kind of socially significant variation had been noticed before, as in the stereotypical New York pronunciation of "Thirty Third Street" as "Toity Toid Street", no one had worked out a framework for studying it or thought it worth academic attention.

But Labov developed methods for collecting large bodies of spontaneous speech and analysing patterns of use quantitatively. As a result he was able to discuss language behaviour in terms of a speaker's or a social group's tendency to use a given variable element such as "r" to a greater or lesser extent, rather than absolutely to use it or not to use it. This quantitative paradigm allowed sociolinguists to relate patterns of variation in language to various aspects of a speaker's social identity, and to develop insights into the social forces which made language variation socially functional.

Labov's chief theoretical goal was to use this information to develop insights into how languages change. He had observed that around the end of the second world war high-status New Yorkers had started using "r-ful" pronunciations in such phrases as "fourth floor", abandoning the "r-less" pronunciation still associated with high-status British accents.

When I first encountered Labov's work, I was living in Belfast and working as a lecturer in linguistics at Ulster Polytechnic. I was trying to pick up some knowledge of traditional dialectology, a field which originally developed as a result of the historical interests of 19th-century philologists. Dialectologists were still for the most part mapping out patterns of variation in English within the British Isles by studying conservative, elderly rural speakers. Urban dialects were not studied seriously at all.

Labov opened up the possibility of studying linguistic change by attending to the speech of young men on street corners; of young women working in shops and factories. It was in this unselfconscious speech of daily life, not in the careful standardised speech of the public orator, that the data which helped us understand the patterns of linguistic change was to be found.

The methods for obtaining this data were the product of a liberated imagination. Labov posed as a shopper to elicit the phrase "fourth floor" from a sample of employees in three socially differentiated New York department stores; he knocked on the doors of ordinary citizens and asked questions about the quality of their television reception.

Belfast provided a fascinating laboratory for testing Labov's ideas and procedures. I was fascinated by the vitality of working-class culture and by the dialects which could be traced back to the Scottish and English settlers of the 16th and 17th centuries. Above all, I welcomed an approach which, far from dismissing the everyday language of ordinary people as unimportant to a grander design, actually produced good reasons for studying it. Labov stimulated me and my fellow researchers into listening to what we heard around us, seeing relationships between everyday life and larger theoretical issues which previously had seemed divorced from it.

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