March, 2005.

By Artarxerxes Modesto


William Labov, known as the father of Sociolinguistics and also  Linguistics Professor at University of Pensylvania, talks about his researches and some of the most discussed definitions of Sociolingüistic terms.



LETRA MAGNA -  What has been your line of research lately or to what are you devoting more studies recently?

LABOV - My current research is divided into two parts. I am continuing the study of language change, preparing a third volume on Principles of Linguistic Change: cognitive factors. Much of this will proceed from the findings of the Atlas of North American English, which will appear this year. I am now finishing an article on "The Transmission of Linguistic Structure from Place to Place" which will attempt to fit together the family tree and wave model of change.

The other half of my work is devoted to developing methods of improving the reading of elementary school children in inner city schools, a major problem in the United States. My most recent paper, "What is a reading error?" is available on my home page Further information on both of these directions of research can be found on my home page.
LETRA MAGNA - Tell us something about your experience with foreign languages  studies, in terms of different sources and ways of seeing the same aspects.

LABOV - Much of my work in the past has been within monolingual speech communities, but our reading research has encountered major differences between Latino children and others. The effects of learning to read in Spanish (as opposed to English) have profound results in the child's approach to decoding, reinforcing confidence in the alphabet. For example, Latino children who learned to read in Spanish first apply the soft-c rule in English unhesitatingly, while others simply do not use it to read words like CENT and CERTAINLY.

LETRA MAGNA - Your name is acclaimed everywhere and your serious attitude toward  language has inspired many linguists around the word. What would be  yoursuggestions or counseling to the young linguists arising from  countries in development? Which paths should they follow to deepen  language researches and studies?

LABOV - There are two major directions of linguistic research today. One is to discover the universal properties of the language faculty—the search for Universal Grammar in Chomsky's terms. This is a very important aspect of linguistic study, and I try to draw upon the results of this work as much as I can. The other direction is to examine those aspects of language that are not universal: that can and do change. There are many deep problems associated with such changes, since they often interfere with the primary communicative function of language, and our understanding of human nature will be advanced if we can come to grips with the causes of change. I believe that studies of language change and variation have  demonstrated a cumulative character, which enable us to build upon the works of our predecessors and colleagues. But they cannot be pursued without reference to the more abstract, structural character of language. For those who would like to make a permanent contribution to our knowledge of language, I would suggest it is important to master
both aspects of language study. Many sociolinguistic studies tend to work with isolated elements of language and do not make contact with linguistic theory. The algebra that underlies the surface of language must be incorporated into any studies of linguistic change and variation, in order to arrive at a full understanding of the causes of linguistic change.


LETRA MAGNA - How do you define today the term "Social Identity"?


LABOV - The term "social identity" can refer to a wide range of social attributes, which will vary in importance from one society to another. Social class is more salient in Britain than in the U.S. Race is of overwhelming importance in the U.S. more so than in Brazil. For most
societies and cultures, "local identity" is an important aspect of social life in regulating access to local rights and privileges (housing, hunting and fishing privileges, local variances and permits, etc.) There is a tendency in much sociolinguistic writing to automatically interpret each local feature of speech as a symbol of local identity.
When it is said that the use of a certain linguistic variable is an assertion of local identity, this is often saying no more than "this is how people speak in that locality." If a linguistic feature is to be interpreted as a mark of social identity, it is important to show that
people actually assign that identity when they hear that feature used. Subjective reaction experiments are the best way to do this.  

LETRA MAGNA -  How does discourse (connected stretches of speech or writing)  differ from one group to another ?


LABOV -  This is still an open question. Students of Conversational Analysis tend to argue that discourse patterns, and rules of turn-taking, are general across societies. Those who study speech events in the tradition of Dell Hymes tend to emphasize the aspects that are specific
to a given society. Researchers in pragmatics who examine anaphora and other cross-sentential features are looking for general theory (like Centering Theory) but the phenomena they examine will be specific to the syntax of a given language. In our studies of African American language and culture, we do find particular ways of framing and
constructing narratives that are specific to African Americans.


LETRA MAGNA -How do radio, television, films and popular entertainment affect  language?

LABOV - Our studies of sound changes in progress indicate that the mass media have almost no effect on the development of every-day language, which is influenced far more by the interaction of peers in every-day life. Passive listening to radio, television, or teachers in school, does not appear to affect the basic machinery of language production. In North
America, regional dialects are becoming more diverse even though the mass media are quite uniform. Actprs on television programs will often reflect changes that have taken place in the community a generation before. The same principle applies to grammatical innovations, like the new English verb of quotation, "be like." Rosa Saladino showed that watching television had no effect on the replacement of dialect words with Italian. (Saladino, Rosa 1990.
Language shift in standard Italian and dialect: A case study Language Variation and Change 2:57-70). The mass media may certainly have a strong influence in the diffusion of vocabulary and phrasal idioms. It is also possible that isolated individuals can learn second languages by long-term exposure to radio and television in that language.  

LETRA MAGNA - How do social networks affect language?

LABOV - Many studies have shown that the density and multiplexity of social networks are important factors in the diffusion of language change, or resistance to the diffusion of change. The work of Leslie Milroy has been important in this area, and Bortoni-Ricardo's work in Brazilian Portuguese has documented the influence of this variable. ( Bortoni-Ricardo, Stella M. 1985. The urbanization of rural dialect speakers: a sociolinguistic study in Brazil Cambridge: University Press.) In my own study of language change and variation in Philadelphia, a chapter on social networks reinforces the view that language change spreads through the two-step process first documented in Katz and Lazarsfeld's study of Personal Influence. New forms are adopted by a small number of influential persons (leaders of linguistic change), and then spread out through their personal networks. (Katz,
Elihu and Paul Lazarsfeld 1955. Personal Influence. Glencoe, Ill: Free Press.)
However, it is important not to overemphasize the importance of social networks in determining language behavior. The social history of a speaker can be far more important. If a person moves into a new area later in life, the effect of the new social networks will be quite small in comparison with the effects of early language learning. African Americans who move from the South into Northern Cities may become full fledged members of the local social networks, but retain many features of their earlier speech patterns (Labov, William and Wendell A. Harris 1986. De facto segregation of black and white vernaculars. In D. Sankoff (ed.), Diversity and Diachrony. Philadelphia: John Benjamins. Pp. 1-24.)
Social networks are best thought of as a means of fine-tuning the linguistic patterns that are determined by larger social forces.

LETRA MAGNA -  How does education affect the features of language that people use?


LABOV - In many studies of social stratification, combined indices are used, incorporating such factors as occupation, education, neighborhood, house values, and income.) In most societies, occupation has the most powerful effects on language, more than education. Yet when only educational data is used, one often finds consistent correlations with sociolinguistic variables and with new linguistic changes. If the linguistic feature is a well recognized stereotype, and discussed directly in the classroom, one might expect to find the strongest effects.
Here the most important study is by Scherre and Naro, who examined the effects of education on subject-verb agreement in Brazil. They found that the effect of education was significant only for single and initial instances in the discourse. But whenever the case of
subject-verb agreement followed others in a string, the effect of serial processing that they had documented in earlier work overwhelmed any effect of educatiton (Scherre, Maria Marta Pereira and Naro, Anthony J. 1992. The serial effect on internal and external variables Language Variation and Change: 4:1-13.)

LETRA MAGNA - How does internet affect the features of language that people use, mostly the youngers?

LABOV -  This is not an area where I have done any work. Many recent papers have been given on the topic. Again, one would expect to find an influence in vocabulary, phrases, and abbreviations, but not in the basic machinery of language. However, the rapid growth of the Internet might lead to unexpected consequences that we cannot now foresee.

LETRA MAGNA - What kind of factors cause listeners to perceive one type of  language as higher in status than another?

LABOV - This is a major topic for those engaged in the study of multilingual societies and language planning, but I have not done any work in this area myself.  

LETRA MAGNA – What is the future of Sociolinguistics?

LABOV - That is largely up to you. But it seems likely that the large and diverse area called Sociolinguistics will continue to separate into several different disciplines, depending on its relation to the field of linguistics. Many important areas of sociolinguistics do not require
any detailed knowledge of language structure, but merely the ability to distinguish one language from another. Many branches of the study of discourse have little connection with linguistics. The particular approach to the field that I have followed is directed at long-standing questions about the structure and evolution of language, and is intimately involved with issues of linguistic theory. In particular, we are interested in knowing more about the causes of linguistic change: the triggering events, the driving forces, and the ultimate resolution of change over time. We would like to know whether the basic unit of sound change is the word or the phoneme; whether deep-seated structures can be transferred from one language to another. It is important to find out why so many of the essential components that signal grammatical categories tend to disappear over time. I would hope that the future directions of linguistics will be more and more influenced by sociolinguistic work of this kind.

LETRA MAGNA – Letra Magna, in the name of all brazilian scholars, thank you for this great interview.