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Review of  Labov

Reviewer: Alyson Sewell
Book Title: Labov
Book Author: Matthew J. Gordon
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing (formerly The Continuum International Publishing Group)
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Issue Number: 24.1491

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This new volume in the ‘Guide for the Perplexed’ series addresses these questions: Who is William Labov?; and What is the significance of his work? For over four decades, Labov has influenced the field of linguistics, changing not only how scholars think about language, but also shaping the perceptions of politicians, policy makers and nonspecialists well beyond the academic community. In nine chapters, Matthew Gordon summarizes and contextualizes the ideas and approaches developed by Labov. This book thus serves as an introduction to Labov’s work for students and readers “who have not yet had the pleasure of studying linguistics” while also highlighting Labov’s contributions and legacy for scholars and linguists who may be more familiar with his work but desire a kind of “Best of Labov” collection (4).

Chapter 1 (“The Challenges of Labov”) introduces the reader to William Labov and provides an overview of “how sociolinguistics differs from linguistics in general, and how the variationist approach differs from others in sociolinguistics” (6-7). Gordon first sets up the rational for this guide by discussing how Labov’s work may be challenging to readers outside sociolinguistics and linguistics altogether due to his emphasis on the social dimensions of language, his vast body of publications in a variety of subfields, and his use of technical jargon and mathematical formulas. A short biography of Labov follows, which chronicles his birth in 1927 through his experiences as an undergraduate student, industrial chemist, and academic. Gordon describes how Labov can be labeled a linguist, sociolinguist, and variationist, and he juxtaposes Labov’s methods and insistence on the study of language in social context with the practices of dialect geographers and the dominant thinking in linguistics in the 1960s (as exemplified by the positions of Noam Chomsky). Then, the author sketches a history of the study of variation and the field of sociolinguistics, with an accompanying survey of research on language and society within neighboring disciplines (such as sociology and anthropology). A characterization of ‘Labovian sociolinguistics’ and an overview of the structure of this book end the chapter.

In Chapter 2 (“Linguistics and sociolinguistics before Labov”), Gordon defines key concepts of linguistics and outlines how linguists were approaching the study of variation in theory and practice before Labov entered the field. Sections discussing linguistics as “the science of language” (22) and linguists as scientists who describe language and develop theories to account for their observations are intended to give readers new to the field the necessary background information that will allow them to contextualize Labov’s approach and its significance to the field. Phonology, morphology, semantics and syntax are presented as rule-governed components of a larger language system, followed by a more thorough discussion of concepts in phonetics and phonology (which are the main areas Labov has focused on in his research). After first discussing how linguistic variation was typically seen as “a challenge to be overcome rather than a resource to draw on,” (31) Gordon discusses how the field of dialect geography was an exception to that rule, and how Labov differed from dialect geographers in both the questions he pursued and the methods he employed.

Chapter 3 (“How to establish a field as a graduate student”) focuses on the significance of Labov’s Master’s thesis study, which treated an active sound change on Martha’s Vineyard (1963/1972), and his doctoral dissertation on the social stratification of New York City speech (1966/2006). The methods and ideas used and introduced in these two studies, which are ranked among Labov’s most commonly cited works, are described in detail.

A general characterization of Labov’s variationist approach is presented in Chapter 4 (“A variationist approach to language”), with an emphasis on how this approach differs from others. After pointing out that the guiding principles of what came to be known as the variationist approach are outlined in the landmark paper by Uriel Weinreich, Marvin Herzog and Labov, titled “Empirical foundations for a theory of language change” (1968), Gordon centers his discussion around the three key tenets of the “Labovian paradigm”: i. variation is inherent to linguistic structure; ii. socially realistic linguistics offers valuable insights to the study of language; iii. quantitative methods can reveal patterns where casual observation sees only chaos (78). The idea of ‘orderly heterogeneity’ and concepts such as ‘linguistic variable rules’ and ‘speech communities’ are introduced, with examples of how these notions play a role in Labov’s work. This chapter concludes with a focus on methods that Labov used to explore the study of structured linguistic variation in ‘socially realistic’ and quantifiable ways.

Chapter 5 (“Speech styles and discourse”) begins the exploration of Labov’s contributions in a range of areas by first examining his work on stylistic variation and discourse analysis. Since his graduate studies, Labov has been investigating how individual speakers vary in their language use. Types of intra-individual variation are associated with different styles and contexts of use, and Gordon outlines how Labov approached the study of style in his work on New York City and Philadelphia English (Labov 2006). A description follows of the ‘sociolinguistic interview,’ which Labov developed and used to elicit speech produced in a variety of contextual styles. Gordon then lays out insights gained from the study of style shifting, showing how Labov investigated style in conjunction with other types of sociolinguistic variation, resulting in findings that informed theories on language systematicity and how social awareness of language use affects language change. The chapter concludes with critiques and expansions of Labov’s work on style, which are followed up by an examination of Labov’s influential contributions to the study of narratives and interactive talk.

The focus of Chapter 6 (“The ‘socio’ of sociolinguistics”) is on Labov’s explorations of and theories on the role that social factors play in shaping language variation and change. Gordon first sketches a general model of how social parameters contribute to sociolinguistic variation, explaining that different linguistic structures convey different information about the speaker, the setting, and the context in general, such that speakers can use language in order to actively construct their social identities. The remainder of the chapter is organized around the broadly defined social variables of ‘social class,’ ‘gender’ and ‘ethnicity.’ Gordon discusses how each of these social categories is measured and dealt with in Labov’s research. Additionally, some of the insights gained from Labov’s work on correlations between speech and social variables are laid out, such as how studying class- and gender-based variation informs our understanding of language change. While acknowledging the significance of the general patterns Labov uncovered and the general principles he formulated based on the observation of those patterns, Gordon ends by discussing the criticisms of Labov’s approach to the interaction of social and linguistic variables, noting a move away from using predetermined, broad social categories and a “radical reframing of variationist methodology” (158).

Chapter 7 (“Labov as historical linguist”) examines Labov’s contributions to the study of language change. As a topic that’s been central to Labov’s research agenda throughout his career, from his graduate studies to his three-volume “Principles of Linguistic Change” (1994, 2001, 2010), Gordon connects Labov’s interest in historical linguistics with his investigations of language variation, noting that “change is essentially variation projected in the temporal dimension” (161). In addition to highlighting Labov’s methodological innovations and key insights offered to the study of linguistic change, this chapter provides examples of how his approach of “using the present to explain the past” (1994) sheds light on traditional topics and long-standing questions of interest to various types of linguists. In particular, a description of Labov’s work on ‘change in progress’ and how his findings inform our understanding of the mechanisms that drive language change are followed by a discussion of general models and theories Labov has formulated in order to describe and account for how sounds (and potentially other areas of language) change as a result of social and linguistic factors. The chapter concludes by introducing “The Atlas of North American English” (ANAE), with over 120 maps charting the results of a survey (that Labov directed) of sound patterns across the USA and Canada (Labov et al. 2006). Providing an updated picture of the regional dialects of North American English, the ANAE allows for analysis of longer-term diachronic trends and predictions about potential changes in progress, displaying once again how Labov’s innovative theories and methods provide a new perspective to the study of language change.

Labov’s impact beyond linguistics is exemplified in Chapter 8 (“African American English: Lessons learned, lessons taught”). After some preliminary remarks on the features of African American English, Gordon reviews Labov’s engagement with linguistic and social issues related to the language of the African American speech community (192). African American English has been an aspect of Labov’s research since his dissertation and has played a role in shaping the methods and theories that he developed. In addition to generating valuable insights about language by studying African American English, Labov and others worked to challenge negative attitudes toward nonstandard dialects by advocating for the logical and structured nature of nonstandard speech and publically confronting misconceptions about these varieties. A discussion of Labov’s role in two legal cases (in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1977, and in Oakland, California in 1996) is followed by a description of Labov’s research on reading and how it shaped educational policy. Finally, Gordon reports on ways that the study of African American English can inform our understanding of general linguistic issues, such as the distinctness of grammatical systems, the formation of creoles, and changes within contact varieties.

The book ends with an examination of Labov’s revolutionary ideas, methods, and approaches more than fifty years after he first starting researching in the field of linguistics. In Chapter 9 (“The revolution at 50”), Gordon details how researchers continue to use Labov’s approaches and test his theories, methods, and models on data from different populations (Gordon 2001; Baranowski 2007; McCarthy 2011). Additionally, new avenues of research that were directly shaped by Labov’s work, such as sociophonetics and perceptual dialectology, are discussed, followed by a survey of recent trends in the study of the relationship between language and social meaning (cf. Eckert 2012). Gordon concludes with a short summary of Labov’s contributions to the study of language and society, encouraging readers to engage further with Labov’s work and sociolinguistics more broadly.


This book is intended to serve as a guide to the work of William Labov for nonspecialists, high school students, undergraduates, and graduate students and scholars working in sociolinguistics, sociophonetics, historical linguistics, sociology, anthropology, theoretical linguistics, phonetics, phonology, and conversation and discourse analysis.

Noteworthy features of this book, which will be extremely helpful for readers who may not be familiar with the field of linguistics, are the discussions of basic concepts in linguistics and how these concepts relate to Labov’s work. Gordon provides detailed yet concise explanations of the technical vocabulary, figures and tables, and studies he references, making excellent use of footnotes in each chapter to provide clarification and recommendations on where the reader can turn for a more thorough discussion of certain topics.

A convenient overview of ideas and approaches developed by Labov over the course of his career, this book has value for readers more experienced with his work. As a fourth-year graduate student who has encountered Labov’s work in courses on historical linguistics, psycholinguistics, and societal bilingualism, I greatly appreciated this synthesis of Labov’s contributions. Gordon’s descriptions of how academia and society have responded to Labov’s findings and views highlight the significance of his methods, theories, conclusions and actions. It became clear to me that Labov has not only researched across a variety of different subfields in linguistics, but that he’s also challenged old traditions and views in each of these fields, taken criticism, gained followers, and greatly influenced the way people think about language and society for over fifty years.

Gordon has created a cohesive chronology in biographical form. Beginning with Labov’s life before linguistics (Chapter 1) and the state of linguistics before he entered the field (Chapter 2), Gordon then discusses Labov’s first academic works (Chapter 3) and then his works in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s (Chapters 4-8), before concluding with remarks on Labov’s legacy in the 2000s and 2010s (Chapter 9). The structure of the whole book therefore helps the reader to conceptualize Labov’s work within the history of linguistics and the relationships between various milestones throughout his career.

Gordon describes how “at the banquet of Linguistics 101, sociolinguistics is not usually served as an entrée but rather as something between a condiment and a tasty side dish” (2). This book, however, emphasizes why every person interested in language should know who William Labov is and understand how his methods and approaches (and those of sociolinguistics in general) shed light on language structure, change, use and perception in society.

In conclusion, this book is a valuable resource for anyone who has ever felt perplexed by the breadth of Labov’s work and the impact of his research on academics and society at large. It provides nonspecialists, beginning researchers, and veterans in the field of linguistics with a new perspective on the methods and approaches of William Labov and will be the book I recommend to my family, friends and students when they ask me what it means to study sociolinguistics and why we do it.


Baranowski, Maciej. 2007. Phonological Variation and Change in the Dialect of Charleston, South Carolina. (Publications of the American Dialect Society 92). Durham: Duke University Press.

Eckert, Penelope. 2012. Three waves of variation study: The emergence of meaning in the study of sociolinguistic variation. Annual Review of Anthropology 41. 87-100.

Gordon, Matthew J. 2001. Small-Town Values and Big-City Vowels: A Study of the Northern Cities Shift in Michigan. (Publications of the American Dialect Society 84). Durham: Duke University Press.

Labov, William. 1963. The social motivation of a sound change. Word 19. 273-309.

Labov, William. 1966/2006. The Social Stratification of English in New York City, 2nd edn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Labov, William. 1972. Sociolinguistic Patterns. Philadelphia University of Pennsylvania Press.

Labov, William. 1994. Principles of Linguistic Change (Vol. 1: Internal Factors). Oxford: Blackwell.

Labov, William. 2001. Principles of Linguistic Change (Vol. 2: Social Factors). Malden: Blackwell.

Labov, William, Sharon Ash & Charles Boberg. 2006. The Atlas of North American English: Phonology and Sound Change. Berlin” Mouton de Gruyter.

Labov, William. 2010. Principles of Linguistic Change (Vol. 3: Cognitive and Cultural Factors). Malden: Wiley-Blackwell.

McCarthy, Corrine. 2011. The Northern Cities Shift in Chicago. Journal of English Linguistics 39. 166-187.

Weinriech, Uriel, William Labov & Marvin Herzog. 1968. Empirical foundations for a theory of language change. In Lehmann, Winfred & Yakov Malkiel (eds.), Directions for Historical Linguistics, 95-188. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Alyson Sewell is a PhD student in the Department of German at the University of Wisconsin - Madison. Her current research interests include heritage language linguistics, with a focus on sociolinguistic variation and narrative strategies in multilingual communities, especially within Wisconsin.

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