William Labov Bibliography For Websites


William Labov, is an American linguist, widely regarded as the founder of the discipline of variationist sociolinguistics. His research issues include: sociolinguistics, language change, and dialectology.

What was he researching?

He looked at the pronunciation of /r/ in the middle, and at the end of words, for example car and heart.

The phonemic representation for a rhotic pronunciation of car is [car]:


Whereas the phonemic representation for a non-rhotic pronunciation of car is [ca:]:





New York City

His method:

Labov believed that the higher the social class of a speaker, the more frequent the occurrence of rhotic /r/ in speech.

Labov’s sample of participants included a variety of social classes. He conducted the study in three department stores: Saks Fifth Ave (the highest social ranking), Macy’s (middle social ranking), and S. Klein (lowest social ranking) to collect his ranging sample.

Labov looked for positions where /r/ could occur in speech and noted each instance of the occurrence of when it was pronounced; as in [car].
He collected data through a variety of methods including, asking participants to read a word list and a passage, and an informal interview; this was to try and collect natural speech in the interview and the carefully considered speech in the reading of lists and passages.

What did he find out?

Labov found a higher use of rhoticity in all social classes when reading the word list as opposed to in an interview. Labov concluded from these findings that rhoticity appears to be related to social status. From a sociolinguistic point of view, this tells us that rhoticity in New York is an important, useful indicator of social status.


Now take a look at how sociolinguistics is studied



Thomas, L. et al., (2004). Language, Society and Power: An Introduction. London: Routledge.
Labov, W., (1966). The Social Stratification of English in New York City. Washington: Center for Applied Linguistics.

Picture Credits

Saks Fifith Ave. New York. Dave (2012) http://www.flickr.com/photos/7339565@N08/5558042236/. Used with permission.



Office address:

Department of Linguistics
University of Pennsylvania 
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Professor of Linguistics

University of Pennsylvania

2048 Rittenhouse Square 
Philadelphia, PA 19103


Linguistics Laboratory 
3600 Market Street, #800 
Philadelphia, PA 19104


(215) 898-4912


(215) 573-2427



Office Hours:

Tuesday 1:00 - 3:00 PM 
or by appointment

Curriculum Vitae

PowerPoints of recent presentations

Principles of Linguistic Change, Volume 3: Cognitive and Cultural Factors

First drafts of Chapters 1-16

The Reading Road is the tutorial reading program developed at the Linguistics Laboratory. The latest edition is available on the home page of the Penn Reading Initiative .

New Plotnik 09.2


The latest revision of Plotnik, Plotnik09.2, has two features that may be of considerable interest to those preparing diagrams for PowerPoint or Word documents. When a label is moved (using Option-drag), it will remain in its new position until the PlotVowels function is called again. Secondly, A new general command (CMD-\) will change labels from words to phonemes. Word labels can be restored with CMD-;. Third. SavePlot now saves and restores connections between nuclei and glides.
Download Plotnik09.2.

Current papers

Language change

Transmission and diffusion. This is the final form of the paper, a .pdf version edited for reading with diagrams in place, as it appeared in print in Language 83:344-387, 2007. The proposals put forward here will be the topic of a conference organized by Ans von Kemanade at Nijmegen on January 17-19, 2008. The paper proposes to integrate the family tree model of language change with the wave model.into a general framework based on changes in language learning ability across the lifespan. The general argument is that the divergence of branches of the family tree is based on the transmission of language structure from adults to children, and the incrementatiaon of changes in progress by children. The diffusion of language contact across branches of the tree is primarily the work of adults who do not preserve structural conditions with the same fidelity, which accounts for the limitations on structural borrowing. The paper studies in detail the diffusion of the NYC short-a system to four other cities, and the diffusion of the Northern Cities Shift to St. Louis along Route I-55.

50 msec with Maciej Baanowski. .2006. Language Variation and Change 18:223-240. A paper initially delivered at NWAVE 33 under the title of "Collision course," concerning an investigation of the overlapping of descending /e/ and fronting /o/ in the course of the Northern Cities Shift. The question is whether or not this overlap in F1/F2 measurements is accompanied by some other feature that disstinguishs them. Duration is the most likely candidate, since /o/ may have acquired phonemic length in its merger with /ah/ in father, spa, etc.  There is only a 50 msec mean difference in the durations of /e/ and /o/ in this area, but experimemtal results show that such a small difference can change category assignment. This is consistent with changes in apparent time, which show a continuing lowering of /e/. especially among women.

Pursuing the cascade model.. A study of the diffusion of linguistic change from the largest city in a region to the progressively next largest cities, using new data from the Atlas of North American English and data on the diffusion of fast food cuisine terms. The diffusion of hoagie from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh is traced with an exact account of the time, place and mechanism. In D. Britain and J. Cheshire (eds). Social Dialectology: In Honor of Peter Trudgill. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Driving forces in linguistic change. In proceedings of the 2002 International Conference on Korean Linguistics. This paper deals with triggering events, driving forces and rising levels in linguistic change, and forms part of the synthesis that will be presented in Volume 3 of Principles of Linguistic Change.


The Atlas of North American English 

W. Labov, S. Ash and C. Boberg, The Atlas of North American English: Phonetics, phonology and sound change. Berlin: Mouton/de Gruyter, 2006. The Atlas is now published and available to libraries and individuals, along with a CD which contains the major functions of the web site. A demonstration copy is available at http://www.mouton-online.com.. If a library has ordered the Atlas, the web site will be available to all those who have access to the library's electronic data-bases, and the complete text of the Atlas can be downloaded in .pdf format. Chapter 11 can be downloaded from theTelsur home page.

Research on reading

11/16/06. Spotlight on Reading. This document is designed as an aid to instruction in oral reading. It sums up the results of ten years of research on tutoring in low-income schools by identifying the ten most serious decoding problems that struggling readers encounter. It provides the tutor with the general formulations to use in helping readers understand the general principles of spelling-to-sound relations involved. Asdistributed to a combined meeting of tutors from the West Philadelphia Tutoring Project and America Reads

7/1/06 Unendangered dialects, endangered people. A paper given in March 2006 at the Georgetown Round Table, which focussed on "Endangered and Minority Languages and Language Varieties." It documents the fact that AAVE is not an endangered dialect, but is flourishing and developing as it continues to diverge from other dialects. The paper then shows that the social condition for such divergence is residential segregation, and discusses the social consequences that endanger the lives of speakers of the dialect. The relation of AAVE to reading failure is considered and the relation of reading failure to the cycle of unemployment, crime and family disruption. The paper concludes that if there should be a substantial social shift towards racial integration, AAVe might become an endangered dialect.To appear in the Georgetown Round Table volume for 2006.

9/25/06 Spotlight on reading. A PowerPoint presentation to the Voices of African American Students group of educators in Los Angeles. Shows how research on the language and culture of African American struggling readers can be used to reduce the minority gap in reading achievement.9/22/03.

What is a reading error?  This paper is a recent result of the UMRP research on profiles of reading errors among African American, Euro-American and Latino children throughout the country. It returns to the distinction between differences in pronunciation and mistakes in reading, and shows that it is not possible to decide the status of a given possible error in most cases. A probabilistic solution to the problem is obtaining by studying the semantic shadows cast by possible errors in raising or lowering the frequency  of followiing errors. Results differ for clear errors, pand correct readings, while various types of possible errors tend to behave like one or the other. Striking differences among language/ethnic groups appear which may be linked to varying knowledge of underlying forms. From these results, it is possible to determine which phonological and grammatical patterns most require instruction. .pdf version

 6/15/98 A Graphic-Phonemic Analysis of the Reading Errors of Inner City Children .W. Labov, B. Baker, L. Ross, M. Brown.
Download the paper in pdf format

Work on narrative

Oral narratives of personal experience. An entry to sppear in the Cambridge Encyclopedia of the Language Sciences, summarizing the approach to narrative analysis that began with Labov and Waletzky 1967, and incorporating some of the more recent methods that are developed in the three papers posted in the Narrative section below.

3/12/06. Narrative pre-construction. This short paper appeared in Narrative Inquiry 16.1, a special issue on the state of the art of narrative analysis. It argues that before a narrative can be constructed, it must be pre-constructed by a cognitive process that begins with a decision that a given event is reportable. Pre-construction begins with this most reportable event and proceeds backwards in time to locate events that are linked causally each to the following one, a recursive process that ends with the location of the unreportable event--one that is not reportable in itself and needs no explanation. Comparison of the chain of events with the generated sequence of narrative clauses will give insight into the work a narrator does in transforming and re-organizing events from real time.2/21/02 Ordinary events. A contribution to the proceedings of a conference at Pitzer College, edited by John Fought and Carmen Richardson. It examines a narrative of Ellen Laidlaw recorded by Ron Macaulay in Ayr concerning her father's death, and focuses on the role of very ordinary events in this extraordinary narrative. Download as pdf file.

 9/1/01Uncovering the event structure of narrative.A paper given at the Georgetown Round Table in March of 2001, which examines the possibility of recovering the actual events that underlie a narrative. This is examined first in a story about the first person killed by a car in South Lyons, Michigan, and the confession of a convicted felon in the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission records.

Frequency studies

Listeners' sensitivity to frequency. with Sherry Ash, Maya Rabindranath, Tracey Weldon, Maciej Baranowski and Naomi Nagy. This is a first draft of the first of a series of reports on current research on the role of evaluation in linguistic variation and change. A series of experiments were carried out to determine whether listeners could distinguish between various percentages of apical and velar nasals in the suffix -ing to match the typical range of variation found in production. The experiments exposed listeners in Philadelphia, Columbia SC and Durham NH to various trials of a speaker attempting tho qualify as a news broadcaster, where the only differences were the frequencies of /in/ and /ing/. Listeners' responses fit closely an exponential curve, indicating that the sociolinguistic monitor was sensitive to differences as small as 10%, with a social impact equivalent to the proportional increase in deviations from the expected norm..


Thinking about Charles Ferguson. Number 163 of the International Journal of the Sociology of Language is an issue edited by Kirk Belnap on "Arabic Sociolinguistics as Viewed by Western Arabists", and dedicated to the memory of Charles Ferguson. The three pages I wrote have nothing to say about Arabic, but they are my best effort to express the profound admiration that I have always had for Fergie. The paper has something to say about wisdom, and other things that were on the tip of my tongue. . .

Some observations on the foundations of linguistics. This is a paper that I wrote in 1987 but never published.  It deals with some general issues concerning the opposition between a mentalist (or idealist) approach to linguistics, and the materialist line taken by historical linguists, dialectologists and sociolinguists.  I would welcome any comments before revising it to fit the current situation..

1/2/02 How I got into linguistics, and what I got out of it.. This is a recent revision of the paper I wrote for undergraduates in 1997, to appear shortly in print.

Quantitative analysis

Quantitative reasoning in linguistics. A chapter to appear in Peter Trudgill (ed.), Mouton/De Gruyter Handbook.

Other papers

Courses Fall 2008

L560 The Study of the Speech Community. Tuesday 9-11, Linguistics Lab, 3600 Market St., #800.

L160. Introduction to African-American and Latino English. Monday, Wednesday 12-1 and tutoring hours to be assigned. Linguistics Lab, 3600 Market, #800.

L568. Dialect Geography. Thursday 9-11. Linguistics Lab, 3600 Market, #800.




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